On reality TV in Tanzania women win fame, fortune – and farm tools

The series provides meatier content than the average TV reality show, but it resonates with viewers. The goal is to promote better agricultural practices and give a greater voice to women farmers.

Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters/File
Seaweed farmer Nyafu Juma Uledi ties her crop to string in tidal pools near the village of Bwejuu in Tanzania. Local women have earned a degree of financial independence by farming seaweed, which is exported to Asian markets.

While sex, fights, and confessionals draw viewers to most reality television shows, it's the revolutionary portrayal of women as "heroes" that makes 1 in 2 Tanzanians watch a homegrown series aimed at raising the profile of women farmers.

More than 3,000 women vied to star in the fourth series of Mama Shujaa wa Chakula, or Female Food Heroes in Swahili, which started filming Aug. 1.

The 18 women who are selected live together for three weeks on a specially constructed farm, their every move scrutinized by more than 20 million viewers in the east African country.

The audience will vote for their favorite, who wins 20 million Tanzanian shillings ($9,525), as well as farming and fishing tools.

But the women's real prize is their new clout as local celebrities.

"Their status is elevated at the community level," said Eluka Kibona, Tanzanian advocacy and campaigns manager for Oxfam, which came up with the concept of the show.

For example, Anna Oloshuro, who took part in the 2011 series, was invited to join a men's discussion in her village over who should stand for a local political position.

Such a gesture was something previously unheard of in her Maasai culture, where women are regarded as men's property.

"Their image of who a woman is and what a women can do had been transformed," said Kibona. "Her opinion was valued."

On the model farm, an hour outside Tanzania's largest city, Dar es Salaam, the women compete in farming tasks, a treasure hunt, drawing up a village development plan, and setting up rival political parties to vie for election.

Experts also come to talk to them about issues like domestic violence and finance.

It's much meatier stuff than the average reality show but it resonates with viewers.

"Most of us have that background and most of us can relate to the women," said Kibona.

Oxfam's ultimate goal is to promote new agricultural practices and give greater voice to Tanzania's women farmers.

Women make up 75 percent of Tanzania's farmers but they often live in poverty and their contribution is rarely valued, the charity says.

The World Bank estimates that giving women farmers around the world equal access to resources, such as fertilizer and land, could increase farm yields by up to 30 percent. This would mean up to 150 million fewer people going to bed hungry every day.

After the show, each contestant goes home with equipment and technical support to introduce the new techniques she has learned to her own farm and village, Oxfam said.

• Reporting by Katy Migiro; editing by Katie Nguyen. The original version of this story was published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption, and climate change.

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