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Posted on May the 11th
By Melissa Baker


Posted In: Innovation Nation

Student’s Set To Create A Business Broadcasting Public Health Advice To Africa, Following Interest From The BBC

Calls to My Sister conveys health education messages to African audiences via simulated phone calls between Huddersfield graduate Mary Kolu Massaquoi and her sister

RADIO listeners in African countries have enjoyed tuning into lively broadcasts that consist of phone chats between sisters which always include valuable information and advice about health, hygiene and nutrition. But what fans of Calls to My Sister probably don’t know is that the programmes are recorded in Bradford, England, by a former nurse-midwife who has recently studied nutrition and public health at the University of Huddersfield.

Feedback to the broadcasts has shown that their message is getting through and Mary Kolu Massaquoi – creator of Calls to My Sister – has broadened her range of themes to include ebola and how to contain it. Her five programmes on the subject were very widely heard and quite possibly helped to stem the transmission of the disease. They also led to an invitation to participate in a BBC info-drama tackling the topic.

Now, Mary’s goal is to develop her broadcasting format as a social enterprise and is now looking for interested partners to bring her plans to fruition. She is receiving advice and backing from the University of Huddersfield’s Enterprise Team and is making use of facilities in The Duke of York Young Entrepreneur Centre located in the University’s 3M Buckley Innovation Centre.

Health education messages to African audiences

Mary was born in Liberia, but came to the UK in the early 1970s. During her career in nursing and midwifery she worked widely around Britain, but has also had stints in Africa, working as a paediatric nurse in Liberia during its civil war in the 1990s.

When she retired from nursing and had settled in Bradford, she decided to develop her long-standing interest in nutrition and hygiene education and studied at the University of Huddersfield for a degree in the subject. During the work placement year that was part of her course, she renewed her connection with the Christian organisation Radio Worldwide, which had relocated to Leeds and which itself works with a missionary body named Reach Beyond that has connections with several radio stations in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Mary saw an opportunity to convey her health education message to African audiences and devised the concept of doing so via simulated phone calls between herself and her sister. After the initial chit-chat – with sounds of family life in the background – important nuggets of information on aspects of hygiene, nutrition and child-care are slipped into the conversation.

Mary does have a real sister – Gomah – who lives in Liberia. But she records the scripted Calls to My Sister programmes at a studio in Bradford, using friends, including budding child actors who lend authenticity to the background.

Considerable following

After the first series of the two-to-three minute programmes had been broadcast by a number of African stations, Mary began to receive feedback which showed that they had developed a considerable following and succeeded in their educational aim. For example, one large Liberian hospital noted a significant drop in the numbers of visitors purely seeking health advice. It turned out that a programme named Calls to My Sister was dispensing much of the information they needed.

Therefore, after her graduation, Mary began work on a new batch of broadcasts, this time dealing the emergent menace of ebola. She carried out a lot of research, contacting front-line organisations, in order to compile essential advice – including hygiene and the importance of isolating people with symptoms – and her five ebola programmes were heard in many African countries.

They also came to the attention of BBC Media Action – the corporation’s international development arm – which was developing a series of dramatised programmes under the title Kick Ebola from Liberia, featuring a character named Mr Plan-Plan. Mary Kolu Massaquoi’s knowledge of the subject and her Liberian background meant she was an ideal candidate to work on the programmes and she paid visits to studios in London’s Shepherd’s Bush to work on scripts.

Now Mary is determined to develop her broadcasting enterprise, broadening her range of topics and aiming to make use of facilities and potential collaborations at the University of Huddersfield. After a long career in health care she is relishing her new direction.

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