The Real Housewives Have Nothing On The Ladies Of This Tanzanian Show

Photo: Coco McCabe for Oxfam.
Contestants pose for a photo ahead of a parade.
Carolina Chelele isn’t your typical reality TV star. The 49-year-old mother of four is soft-spoken, practical, and not prone to table-flipping or wine-tossing antics. But if Chelele doesn’t fit the usual reality diva mold, neither does the show she competed on — and won.

Female Food Heroes (Mama Shujaa Wa Chakula, in Swahili) is a Tanzanian reality show that is giving women farmers the training they need to improve their farming techniques, start their own businesses, and be advocates and educators in their communities. In a country where 80% of the population live in rural areas and depend on their farms for food and livelihoods, it's a massive hit.

The show, developed in partnership with humanitarian organization Oxfam, follows a group of 15 women for three weeks as they compete in challenges that mirror their daily lives. Instead of braving group dates or cooking up a storm in a quick-fire challenge, the women tackle tasks like vaccinating livestock, planting trees, and selling produce and pottery by the roadside. Viewer votes and a panel of judges determine who goes home with the big prize: farming equipment, such as tractors and solar panels, and 20 million Tanzanian shillings — the equivalent of about $9,200.

The fifth season reached over 37 million viewers and listeners across five countries — a staggering number given that just 5% of Tanzania's population had access to television in 2010.

Like reality shows around the world, Tanzania’s Female Food Heroes has grown increasingly popular since its debut in 2011. The fifth season, which aired as half-hour episodes and radio recaps last August, reached over 37 million viewers and listeners across five countries, according to Oxfam. That staggering number is especially surprising given that just 5% of the population in Tanzania had access to television as of 2010. Chelele herself hadn’t seen the show before she applied, and her family had to follow it at a neighbor’s house.

The episodes make use of the usual reality TV devices of dramatic music and confessional-style interviews, but they also incorporate visits from local politicians and experts from Oxfam’s partner organizations who share information about issues like gender violence, HIV/AIDS, and bookkeeping, for the benefit of both the contestants and the viewers.

The women’s work is grueling, and the show’s producers at East Africa TV do not offer them much respite. Speaking to Refinery29 from her village of Kikwawila via a translator, Chelele, the winner of season 5, recalled that she and her fellow contestants had to walk over a half-mile to fetch water, carrying it back to the worksite on their heads.

Unlike contestants on some of the more cutthroat reality competitions, the women of Female Food Heroes help one another as they work. In one episode, a group discusses the traditional practice of widow inheritance, in which a woman is taken in by her husband's brother when he dies. They chat while repairing a house, mixing clay for plaster, and shaping stones with machetes.

"Growing up, we were told to always listen to men, as they have the final say," says contestant Neema Hilonga. "Now we are educating people, and widows are refusing to be inherited."
Photo: Coco McCabe for Oxfam.
A local villager works with participants in the Female Food Hero reality TV show to prepare a community feast.
Asked what she gained from participating in the show, Chelele responded that she learned a great deal about new farming methods, growing cloves (a valuable cash crop), processing manure for fertilizer, and building granaries for storage and clay ovens for pottery. She said the most valuable lesson she took away from the show was teamwork.

Female Food Heroes
is filmed an hour west of Tanzania's largest city, in a village called Kisanga — a cluster of squat houses adjacent to small garden plots, little more than furrows hacked into the red earth by hand. These may be a far cry from the sprawling green patchworks of American farmland, but the economic and nutritional sustenance they provide is no less crucial.

Tanzanian farmers' heavy reliance on rainfall makes them extremely vulnerable to the effects of drought and climate change. "More and more cattle are dying, and we have long periods of drought every year," 2011 runner-up, Anna Oloshuro Kalaita, said in an interview with British food blogger Jack Monroe.

Although women make up the majority of the agricultural labor force, a recent World Bank study shows that they produce less than men because they are denied access to markets, loans, and information about new farming techniques. Tanzanian law supports women’s equal right to land ownership, but in rural areas, old customs prevail, and very few women actually control their land.

"Even if you do farming, you produce, you plant, the man is the one who plans the price, where he wants to sell, and when he saves [that] money, he doesn’t share it with you," Eva Daudi, a season 5 contestant who worked as a personal assistant before becoming a farmer, explained in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Empowering more female farmers could make a big difference. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that if women farmers worldwide have the same access to support and resources as men, their farms would produce up to 30% more and could lift as many as 150 million people out of hunger.

Female Food Heroes
has attracted glowing write-ups from western media outlets, but to some critics, like Priya Lal, a historian specializing in East Africa, the show is a misguided, "gimmicky pop culture [initiative]."

"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," Lal told Foreign Policy.

Oxfam has not yet studied the effects of Female Food Heroes, but claims it played a role in persuading the Tanzanian government to curb the size and duration of large-scale land leases in 2012.
Photo: Coco McCabe for Oxfam.
Villagers and participants in the Female Food Hero reality TV show work together to prepare a community feast

The show's biggest potential influence, though, may come from Female Food Heroes’ alumnae; win or lose, the contestants return home as role models and local celebrities.

"You can see directly, their status in the community has increased," Eluka Kibona, Oxfam’s advocacy and campaigns manager, told Refinery29. "They are more sought-after for advice, even the local government is looking at them as leaders.”

Like Tanzania’s first female vice president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, these female food heroes challenge their communities’ views about what women can do.

Anna Oloshuro Kalaita, for example, went from being ostracized for leaving her abusive husband, to being a well-respected member of her Maasai community after participating in the show. "Things are changing," she told Oxfam. "Men cannot call a meeting in my community without consulting me first."

With her winnings, Chelele purchased a seven-acre farm where she now grows corn and cassava, and hosts a local radio show where people call in and ask for her guidance.

"I will continue to educate my family, to collaborate with my peers, and work hand in hand with my fellow contestants," Chelele said.

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