The Real Farmers of Tanzania

Oxfam is funding a reality TV show to try to empower women in the country’s anemic agricultural sector. But is it working?

Oxfam's Female Food Hereo program in Kisanga village, Aug. 4, 2015
Oxfam's Female Food Hereo program in Kisanga village, Aug. 4, 2015

Carolina Chelele, a middle-aged farmer and mother of four, is making her way, blindfolded, through a hut in the rural Tanzanian village of Kisanga. In one room, her wrists are tied together with string; in a race against the clock, she uses her teeth to free herself. In another room, she picks an eggplant off the floor and expounds on the vegetable’s value in the maintenance of healthy kidneys. In a third room, tasked with giving a personal testimony on gender-based violence, she recounts the time she fought off a group of would-be rapists on her way home from school. Finally, in the last task, Carolina is presented with a seed and a bag of mortar. Right away, however, she recognizes it is a trick. You can’t plant a seed in bag of mortar, she says, and leaves the room.

It’s on the last challenge that she feels she really distinguished herself, she reflected through a translator a few days later. That was when she knew she would win.

Carolina beat out 14 other women — not to mention the thousands who never made it to the televised finals — to win this year’s edition of Female Food Heroes. Funded by international charity Oxfam and broadcast on East Africa TV, Female Food Heroes, or Mama Shujaa wa Chakula, as it’s known locally, premiered in 2011 and aired its fifth season in daily half-hour segments throughout August. According to Oxfam, this season reached 37 million viewers and radio listeners across Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda.

The 15 contestants from Tanzania spent three weeks performing domestic and agricultural tasks under constant TV surveillance while also learning modern farming techniques and attending workshops on political activism and gender equality. “We’re creating a platform through which women tell their own story, communicate their own ideas,” said Marc Wegerif, who helped develop the initiative while working for Oxfam in East Africa. “The finalists are important ambassadors when they go back to their villages.” By showcasing competent female breadwinners, the producers hope Female Food Heroes can challenge some of the negative stereotypes of women that continue to pervade Tanzania’s patriarchal society. They also hope the show can serve as a much-needed educational tool, broadcasting the utility of modern and efficient farming methods. Most analysts, however, question whether a reality show is a real antidote to the country’s troubled farming sector.

Although agriculture employs the majority of Tanzania’s workforce and provides nearly a quarter of the country’s GDP, farming in this part of the world is hard and getting harder. Since 1960, Tanzania’s population has swelled from about 10 million to more than 50 million today. Put simply, the amount of land available to individual farmers is shrinking. Meanwhile, overproduction has depleted arable soil while infrastructure needed to move the crops remains poor. More recently, the effects of global warming have disrupted long-established planting cycles. Temperatures are rising, and the timing of seasonal rainfall is unpredictable, both of which have hurt crop production. According to a 2015 study, for example, yields of Tanzania’s largest export crop, Arabica coffee, have dropped by 46 percent since 1966 as a result of climate change.

In this increasingly difficult farming environment, women are especially disadvantaged. Today, women make up only 17 percent of college students and 10 percent of government elite but 75 percent of farmers, according to Oxfam. Despite their dominance in the sector, female farmers face unique obstacles. Women struggle to gain access to loans necessary to buy seed and invest in upgrades. They also are often denied equal rights to the land they work. Under the Land Act of 1999, men and women technically have equal rights to land ownership — but customary inheritance laws, which favor men, often take precedence. Land tends to pass from father to son, and even married women can be blocked from leasing land; widows can be evicted from their own property.

Female Food Heroes is an explicit effort to raise awareness about these issues. “We’re saying to the audience and to decision-makers: Look what they can do, and imagine what they could do with more support,” Wegerif said.

This year, the producers, which include some Oxfam personnel, sifted through 3,000 applications from farmers around the country. They were looking for “personality, confidence, ability to speak openly,” said Eluka Kibona, a campaign manager for Oxfam in Tanzania. Chosen contestants include the teenage Regina Kalipi, who lives with her parents and 4-month-old son; 30-year-old Pili Kashinje, from Zanzibar, who farms cassava, watermelon, and sweet potatoes to put her three children through school; and Winnie Mallya, 24, an agriculture student and small farm-owner from the port town of Moshi. (A number of applicants were students hoping the prize money, around $9,400, would cover their tuition.)

A typical episode might include a collaborative project and a lecture on environmentally sustainable practices from an NGO worker. In one challenge, the women use local ingredients to recreate culinary specialties of their hometowns; in another, they cut reeds and gather materials to renovate the village councilman’s office. The women also participate in workshops on public speaking and women’s sexuality.

Since its debut four years ago, Female Food Heroes has garnered enthusiastic coverage from the likes of Reuters, the Economist, and others. “This reality show drama is actually worth watching,” wrote the Huffington Post. “As these amazing women learn skills in the field the audience gets a few lessons, too,” Upworthy raved. It’s been endorsed by Bono’s ONE campaign.

Yet some Tanzania experts are skeptical, arguing that Female Food Heroes does not solve — or even address — the root of what ails small-scale farmers.

“The risk related to weather is so much more fundamentally important than anything we do to improve farmers’ decision-making or provide better training,” said Brian Dillon, an economist at the University of Washington who studies agriculture in East Africa. “The danger in paying too much attention to things like this TV program is that you create the impression that the problem is that the farmers don’t know how to farm.” According to Dillon, even the most cutting-edge farming techniques can only go so far in making up for issues like the shortage of paved roads and the lack of regulation in the crop market.

Others are concerned that programs like Female Food Heroes distract politicians and humanitarian workers from the structural problems confronting Tanzanian agriculturalists of both genders. “In my opinion, the challenges faced by female Tanzanian farmers, and Tanzanian farmers in general, cannot be addressed simply by attempting to change public attitudes through a TV show or by giving cash to a handful of contestants,” said historian Priya Lal, the author of a forthcoming book on socialism in postcolonial Tanzania. “They require sustained structural intervention at the level of the state and in the realm of the economy, not gimmicky pop culture initiatives.”

Then there’s the question of who is actually watching. Oxfam reports that Female Food Heroes reaches tens of millions of viewers each cycle. That number, however, may be an overestimate. In 2008, less than 10 percent of the population owned a television; that rate is much lower in rural areas, where only 3 percent of the population has access to electricity. “The paradox of Female Food Heroes is that the most vulnerable farmers — whom the show is presumably trying to reach — are precisely those who are least likely to watch it,” said Lal. This year, only 14,000 viewers texted or called in to vote for their favorite candidate — an indication that either the audience is disengaged or its size is exaggerated. The show has only 266 followers on Twitter and just over 17,000 fans on Facebook. The episodes are uploaded to YouTube, and many of them have view counts in the double digits.

Some “edutainment” projects, though, have become cultural touchstones for local people around the world. “I think as long as you get the elements right and you have good actors and production values, I don’t think that people say, ‘Oh, this is propaganda,’” said John Riber, a director who has been running the nonprofit Media for Development International in Tanzania for the past 10 years. Riber helps produce Siri ya Mtungi, translated as Secrets of the Gourd, a Tanzanian serial drama that highlights the health risks of unprotected sex. The show just aired its second season with financial backing from USAID and PEPFAR, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief. One storyline revolves around a pregnant woman who contracts HIV and enrolls in a Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission program. Siri ya Mtungi has over 280,000 fans on Facebook; a typical episode racks up 40,000 or 50,000 views on YouTube.

There is evidence that these types of charity-sponsored TV programs can have impact. In 1986, Johns Hopkins partnered with the Nigerian TV Authority to introduce storylines about birth control and small families into a TV show, In a Lighter Mood, which was popular in the city of Enugu. They also embedded advertisements for the local family planning clinic within each episode. By the end of the 14-month broadcast, visits to the clinic had increased by 147 percent, and 60 percent of new adopters of family planning credited In a Lighter Mood with teaching them about it.

Oxfam says it has yet to conduct any formal research on the impact of Female Food Heroes. For at least one farmer, though, the show has been a boon. Ever since a stroke left her husband paralyzed on half his body several years ago, Carolina has been the sole provider for her family. She plans to spend some of her winnings on seeds and a power tiller and to invest some of it in the small tool shop she opened last year. 

“We are all winners,” she said, parroting the show’s credo at the awards ceremony on the final day. “With the prize I have won, I will continue to do the work I was doing in the past — educating fellow farmers and collaborating with my peers, shoulder to shoulder.”

Photo credit courtesy of Oxfam.

Alice Robb is a journalist based in New York City.

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