Edutainment Model Shakes Up—and “Shapes Up”—International Development Communications
Do you watch Shamba Shape Up?
“I actually have an alarm set,” said Evah Kinyua, a farmer in Ngong, Kenya. “We have phone alarms for Saturday and Sunday. And one Sunday [the alarm] goes off in church, and then my husband whispers to me, ‘We have to leave for Shamba Shape Up.’”
Evah and her husband are far from the only Kenyans who plan their weekends around viewing Shamba Shape Up, East Africa’s longest running agricultural television series. The Mediae Company, which produces the popular program, estimates that the show reaches at least 8 million weekly viewers in both English and Kiswahili. Broadcasting on Citizen TV, Kenya’s leading television channel, Shamba Shape Up is a compelling reality “make-over” show — but with an educational bent.
The Shamba Shape Up production team travels to smallholder farms (“shambas”) across Kenya, educating farmers about improved farming methods, including climate adaptation measures and the importance of gender and financial inclusion. The program, which aired its 12th season in 2022, aims to increase viewers’ knowledge about good farming, nutrition, and financial practices, helping farmers improve their yields, incomes and livelihoods. Shamba Shape Up runs throughout the six-month growing season — March through September — and covers topics such as weather forecasting, drought resistant seed, fertilizer, irrigation, intercropping/crop rotation, pest/disease management, cattle rearing, poultry keeping, nutrition and access to finance.
“Mediae looks at the way media is used to support education and development,” said David Campbell, Director of The Mediae Company and Executive Producer of Shamba Shape Up. “It’s an ‘edutainment’ model … If we entertain people and we meet their information needs, we build big audiences. If we can do that — build that big audience — and then run the programming for a long period of time as a series, we can really reach people.”
Evah, who gently chided her husband for suggesting they leave church early to watch Shamba Shape Up live, continued: “And then I tell him we will watch [it] on YouTube! Even when we're traveling, we watch [Shamba Shape Up] on YouTube… because now all our friends watch it every Sunday.”
Evah’s farm was selected to be “made over” by the program not only once, but twice. “Before Shamba Shape Up, my shamba was just a common shamba,” Evah said. “Like any other farm in Masai land… This place really gets dry. When you don't have a source for water it’s stressing, really stressing,” she said. Shamba Shape Up first came to Evah’s farm in 2018 to introduce a drip irrigation system and outline the system’s costs and benefits.
“With Shamba Shape Up, when it’s off-season, off the rains, we still have some [crops] in the shamba, which has been keeping us going,” explained Evah. “They taught us how to harvest our water, how to utilize our water from the water pump. And it's really been helpful to learn how to manage the water using drips so that we don't waste a lot of it,” she said.
Last year, the Shamba Shape Up team visited Evah’s farm again — this time to help Evah and her family learn more about access to loans and financing. This was made possible through a grant from the WomenConnect Challenge (WCC), a global call from USAID for solutions to improve women’s participation in everyday life by meaningfully changing the ways women access and use technology. The grant enabled Mediae to integrate more gender, financial, and digital inclusion content into their edutainment programs. Shamba Shape Up worked with two content partners under the WCC grant to help craft more inclusive content: Nutrition International and Kenya Women’s Financial Trust (KWFT).
Because Shamba Shape Up helped Evah with water management, new crops and sources of income have become realistic possibilities for her. The television program also continues to be a valuable source of education for Evah, especially through iShamba, Mediae’s mobile-based farmer information service that is also partially funded and expanded by the WCC grant.
“In all of these productions, we must find a way to connect to our audience and try to find them a platform where they can always get information. For this, we have iShamba,” said Martin Aketch, iShamba Product Manager. iShamba is Mediae’s mobile phone service, a custom-built, in-house platform facilitating direct communication with viewers.
“The idea behind iShamba is that after watching Shamba Shape Up, you can text or call in and ask questions. We have a call center that is staffed with agronomists, livestock experts and a resident veterinarian,” elaborated Aketch.
iShamba offers both free and premium subscriptions, providing farmers with information about various commodities (crops or livestock), localized weather forecasts, market prices and climate concerns or anticipated shocks. Under the WCC grant, iShamba is also piloting an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system with pre-recorded dialog and expert advice on-demand; the IVR system will enable Shamba Shape Up viewers with lower literacy levels or less advanced cell phones to access the information.
“Having that center to call for clarification or for someone who needs more information concerning the topic that you have covered is an added advantage,” remarked Cathy Keya, Director of Shamba Shape Up. “Because with most programs, there is no follow-up. We meet with farmers and they’re already aware of iShamba because they get texts from iShamba — weather advice and more information concerning what to plant that season. That is the kind of trust iShamba builds for us.”
Having produced highly popular edutainment programs for nearly 25 years, Mediae has cracked the “edutainment” code, routinely amassing large audiences and kindling large-scale impact and influence across East Africa. While Shamba Shape Up is Mediae’s flagship program, the company also produces a variety of other edutainment content—everything from cooking shows to fast-paced dramas. This is all achieved through an elaborate network of international development donors, research institutions, commercial partners and subject matter experts.
“Right from the beginning, our objective was to try and bring in both commercial and development partners,” explained Campbell. “When things are good and we've had lots of rain and the [agricultural] commercial sector has been selling lots of seed and fertilizer, their marketing department can afford to come on board. But when things are bad, like in COVID [for example], we go to the development sector, and the development sector is prepared to be there and fund the programming,” he said.
“What I like about this model is how diverse it is,” said Davidson Mugume, who directs Mediae’s Mpeke Town and assists with Shamba Shape Up Uganda. “You sit down with a researcher, a radio producer, a scientist, an artist, a donor, a farmer. And they all make one story. It's creating a world, and that’s a beautiful thing,” he said.
Mediae expressed that funding flowing from the development sector is likely to become increasingly important as they integrate themes more pertinent to the public good, such as climate change adaptation, financial literacy, and gender inclusion. “When we get someone like USAID funding these stories, it means that we then have the freedom to go and work with different partners and look through what's good content, what's not good content and we can promote what’s best for the farmer,” expressed Patricia Gichinga, Head of Productions at Mediae.
The more freedom Mediae has to engage their network of expertise, the more precisely they can serve the information needs of viewers across East Africa. One of the challenges for Shamba Shape Up is the balancing act between what commercial and/or development sector funders want to fund and what the viewers — the farmers themselves — actually want to learn.
“If we want sustainability [of Shamba Shape Up], we really have to ask, ‘Is this going to help this family, are they actually willing to adopt to this?’” shared Keya. “When you go to the farm, you have to find out what the farmer is interested in… If someone is passionate about [a topic], and you’re coming with this new information, giving them tips on how to do it better, they’re likely to improve. But if you’re coming with something new that they’re not so interested in, it’s a bit of a gamble,” she said.
With funding that is designed to be responsive and flexible according to viewer needs and interest, especially over multi-year timelines, Mediae and their programs will be able to inform and empower even more people.
“At the end of filming, we have an interview to ask what the farmer learned. When the farmer is able to remember everything, topic by topic, my God, that is the best feeling,” reflected Keya. “And then, when we do a revisit… You know, sometimes you can implement a project and then it dies the moment you leave,” Keya continued. “But when you come back and you find the farmer has even improved upon what Shamba Shape Up left them with, it’s just a joy. It’s amazing.”
By Kendra Poole, Senior Communications Specialist, DAI