Here’s how a reality TV show can help fight hunger

Edna Kiogwe helps her host family in Kisanga with the morning chores which included getting the fire going and cooking cassava for breakfast. Photo: Coco McCabe / Oxfam America

Called Mama Shujaa wa Chakula, the Tanzanian show elevates the voices of women farmers and highlights the many challenges they face.

Edna Kiogwe has a dream. It’s about the unrealized potential in every mango and orange, guava and passion fruit Tanzanian farmers harvest each year. Fertilized with a little entrepreneurial drive, those fruits could become more than just produce plucked from trees. They could become juices, smartly packaged and sold on the international market—putting much-needed income into the pockets of farmers.

Kiogwe is a Tanzanian farmer. She grew up in a farming family and knows well the hurdles they face, especially women farmers who, in her country, own only a small fraction of the land. In a survey Oxfam carried out a couple of years ago of more than 4,000 women farmers in 18 regions of the country, only 5 percent of respondents owned their land. Yet, across the nation, more than 60 percent of Tanzanian women are engaged in farming.

It’s that inequality—and the lost opportunities buried beneath it—to which Kiogwe and 14 other women farmers helped to bring attention this year as contestants in the fifth season of a highly popular reality TV show shot in Tanzania and aired across East Africa. Called Mama Shujaa wa Chakula , or Female Food Heroes, the Oxfam-sponsored show celebrates the vital contributions women farmers make in feeding the planet, and highlights the challenges many encounter on a daily basis, including limited access to land, credit, and training opportunities.

“We want people to hear our voice about gender inequality,” says Kiogwe, who is the mother of a seven-year-old son. “What we need is gender equality.”

With nearly 800 million people around the world enduring hunger, small-scale farmers everywhere need support in claiming their rights and lifting their families out of poverty. The US Global Food Security Act of 2015 could help do that by preserving President Obama’s innovative Feed the Future program, which is aimed at tackling global hunger and food insecurity. The act would help protect the interests of small-holder farmers by making sure the tools and knowledge necessary to unleash the potential of women farmers are available and accessible.

A farmer’s dream

Edna Kiogwe, left, wraps up an afternoon of activities with other women farmers chosen to be participants on the Mama Shujaa wa Chakula reality TV show. Photo: Coco McCabe / Oxfam America

In the village of Kisanga, where Mama Shujaa wa Chakula was filmed this year, the 15 contestants learned a great deal about the struggles local farmers face in feeding their families. Each of the women stayed with a village family for the duration of the three-week shoot, and daily contests included designing tools that could be useful to Kisanga farmers, interviewing them about their agricultural challenges, and putting together skits to help bring attention to those hurdles.

Straddling a single dusty road, Kisanga is a meandering collection of mud-walled homes linked by a network of paths. Two schools and a medical clinic serve its estimated 3,500 residents, but there is no electricity. At night, Kisanga is dark.

The darkness took a little getting used to, says Kiogwe, who now spends most of her time in Dar es Salaam, a coastal city about a two-and-a-half hour drive away, where she lives and works as a civil servant. But her city life belies her village roots—and her keen interest in farming. Unlike most women in Tanzania, Kiogwe owns her own land, given to her by her forward-thinking father on her wedding day. She harvests corn, cassava, rice, and sugar cane, carefully aligning her 28 days of annual leave from her city job with peak work times on her small farm in the Morogoro region.

But growing produce is just the beginning. As a farmer, she’s also thinking, what next? How can farmers use their hard-won harvests to benefit their families further?

“I want to make agriculture like a business,” says Kiogwe. “I want to provide skills and knowledge to save crops for food and for selling in order to get money.” With a little effort, greater value can be added to the fruits farmers grow, for instance.

“Change it from fruit to juice, we can sell it and we can get money,” Kiogwe says. “We cannot cry that we don’t have money. We can add value to maize—maize flour for porridge—and you can have a good label and good packaging and compete with international businesses. That is my dream.”

A rallying cry

Mama Shujaa wa Chakula participants joined with villagers in Kisanga to prepare a community feast during filming of the reality TV show. Photo: Coco McCabe / Oxfam America

Each morning during the filming of Mama Shujaa wa Chakula, the contestants gathered under the shade of a big tree to learn what the activity would be that day and with whom they would be grouped to tackle the task. One day the women prepared a community feast, another day they charged along Kisanga’s paths looking for clues in a treasure hunt that ended with the planting and fertilizing of trees, and on another they climbed on bikes and stepped into sacks for an afternoon of field races—proving just how physically strong women farmers of all ages are.

But often the farmers started, and finished, each of these challenges with the same rallying cry: “Together, we can.”  In a way, it’s a motto for Kiogwe’s dream—and a sure way to feed the world.

What can you do to help fight hunger and food insecurity? Tell Congress to make Feed the Future permanent and help lift farmers around the world out of poverty.

Sign the petition

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