'Extreme Makeover' with chicken coops and compost: Welcome to Kenyan reality TV

With 11 million viewers, a reality TV show in East Africa is helping build prosperity by offering small farmers advice. 

In the US, reality TV is replete with spoiled teenagers, extreme eating challenges, and arguing roommates. Here in Kenya, though, an innovative show is putting aside ratings-grabbing petty squabbling and trying to do good: helping small farmers back from the brink of poverty.

Now in its fourth season, the show, "Shamba Shape Up,” has become hugely popular in East Africa. Think “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” – but with chicken coops and composting.

In each episode, the TV crew visits a different shamba – Swahili for farm – and works to shape it up and improve it. The aim is for viewers to learn a few simple fixes to their own farming problems.

In the latest ratings, 11 million people from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda were found to be watching every episode. To give some perspective: that's more viewers than this fall's final episode of “Breaking Bad.”

Lydia Githue, a widowed mother of three who lives off her small farm in Kenya’s Rift Valley, was the star of the second season’s premiere.

“My beans are not doing well,” Ms. Githue recounts as the episode unfolds. “My chilies are very good and look nice but there is no market for it.  My cow…is not giving me enough milk.”

A "Shamba Shape Up" team is called in, offering suggestions such as how to dry chilies in a solar dehydrator so they’ll keep until she has enough to sell in bulk. 

“Ah, that’s very good!” she says with a smile.

Later in the episode, a construction crew, after determining that bad drainage was partly to blame for a cow’s poor health, takes sledgehammers to a cowshed and builds a new one.

The hosts explain to Githue what healthy, disease-resistant seeds are, and they help her buy some from a nearby store.

The production has campy moments. The hosts wear matching shirts and floppy hats, and they crack of puns about hot chilies. They also address a serious issue: the lack of training among many Africans reliant on small-scale cash cropping.

“There are a lot of people out there desperate for information,” show producer Anne-Marie D’Oiler says. “If you give people access to information and tell them where they can get something, they’ll do it.”

Some 90 percent of farmers who watch “Shamba Shape Up” say they learn something new and almost half change their farming practices as a result, according to follow-up surveys. For example, a typical “shape up,” like a soil test or livestock insurance, costs $30 to $50. Most viewers own less than two acres of land and earn between 10,000 and 15,000 Kenya shillings (about $115 to $172) a month.

Githue now only buys disease-resistant beans, and says she has boosted her income by taking a new entrepreneurial approach and supplying dried chilies to three restaurants.

"They taught me about so many things," she says.

The TV seasons follow the growing season – from planting in March or April through September harvesting. The content is determined by viewer requests submitted by text message. Ms. D’Oiler says that soil, cows, and chickens are always the most popular topics, and at least one of these themes features in every episode.

This form of “edutainment” is hardly new in Kenya.  For ten years, the same company that makes “Shamba Shape Up” has produced “Makutani Junction,” a long-running soap opera that deals with social and health issues.

D’Olier says a reality format works best for agriculture because it emulates the most important source of information already relied on by small agriculturalists: fellow farmers.

Githue watches the show “every Saturday and Sunday at 7:30,” she says, and catches both the English and Swahili versions. Ever since appearing on the show, she says she’s become a bit of a local celebrity despite “never, never” thinking she would be on TV.

“My neighbors come to ask, ‘where can they get these seeds? Where can they get this solar [dehydrator] for drying the chilies? Where can they take them for market?’ ” she says with a laugh.  “I can even train others how to do it.”

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