I’ve followed the work of Noah Samara with Worldspace satellite radio for almost a decade. I’d heard he was a passionate man, but I hadn’t realized how passionate until I had long discussion with him two nights ago – he got down on his knees to make a point to me, a point I’d already happily conceded. He’s one of the most charming and inspiring men I’ve met in recent years.
Samara tells us that he was “born in Africa to African parents in the mid-50s, amidst the decolonization” of the continent. He was six when leaders like
Nyerere, Kaunda, Nkrumah would come to Addis Ababa “to inaugurate a new age for Africa.” There was a palpable hope to the moment – “I was six, I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew it was happening.” Quoting Thabo Mbeki, he says, “It was a good day to be an African.”
This hope, over the past decades, has been “battered by wars, genocides, pandemics.” But there’s a “resiliency of hope” that survives and provides for a better possible future. Samara’s life was changed by reading an article about the impact of AIDS on Africa. He saw the way in which information – simple information about HIV – could play a role in slowing the disease. He was amazed, “how so many people could die from the want of information, information that was so easily accessible,” and wondered why the World Bank and other development agencies.
And so he decided to do it himself, building a network that could broadcast radio to the entire African continent. It was a major technical issue – it required 100 countries to allocate radio frequencies, and to build a geostationary satellite that could talk to radio receivers. “I needed a little bit of cash – hundreds of millions of dollars – and was short a little – hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Remarkably, he was able to raise the funds, and launch the first satellite dedicated specifically to Africa. He notes that it was the first time a new technology debuted in Africa before making it to the US. Worldspace now covers five billion people with two satellites, broadcasting exclusively to the developing world.
In founding the company, he also established a foundation, “First Voice International”, which focuses on creating programming that uses information for social change. This includes early-warning weather systems, information on HIV, soap operas on reproductive health and child trafficking in indigenous languages. This programming is rebroadcast by community radio stations, reaching a much wider audience. Remarkably, 90% of the information comes out of Africa. “It’s locked in citadels of learning” – First Voice tries to take this information and spread it around.
15 million teachers in Africa require remedial training to meet basic international standards, and 45 million students don’t see school at all. Can we do something about it? All William from Malawi needed to build a windmill was a book to show him how. We can put information, language libraries, remedial information into schools today, providing area-specific information. Samara sees his work as an infrastructure that allows us to continue spreading information that’s worth spreading, that can transform countries and lives.