Sven Torfinn

Mama Shujaa wa Shakula, the Tanzanian reality TV show starring women farmers, is kicking off its fourth season on African television this week. The show, which translates roughly to "Brave Food Mother" in English, features rural women competing for 21 days in farm-related challenges, with the top three winners getting $9,000–$11,000 worth of cash and farming tools. It's like Survivor meets Big Brother, but with the intention of actually doing some good in the world.

The show will broadcast 18 farmers, women 19-62-years-old, working in a village to prove their farming prowess. Viewers in Tanzania and neighboring countries will vote for their favorites across the three weeks.

Women have minimal land rights and a lack of authority in the Tanzania, which the show hopes to challenge. Oxfam, the non-profit running the program with East Africa TV, hopes it will give women a platform to be better respected in their communities.

"It gives them a national platform to speak for themselves and articulate their demands. It’s a shift in how they think…it's something they don't ever expect to happen to them. It becomes empowering," said Eluka Kibona, an organizer with Oxfam in Tanzania.

Contestants from the show's 2012 season talk about what they'll take back to their communities and changes they'd like to see for women farmers in this video (with English subtitles):

Scenes of the show from previous years show women planning how they're going to manage crops, holding council-style meetings to talk about tasks on the show and wider issues for women in Tanzania, and follows them as they go about their farm work. This year's season will also be available on YouTube, and will see the women embedded with families in a village that relies on farming for its livelihood.

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There might be something uncomfortable about what seems like a competition pitting a group of underprivileged women against each other for a cash prize. But Kibona says that the idea is not to create a hostile environment for the women, but to raise all of their profiles in their communities and nationally, whether or not they win the prizes. "I think it is unfortunate that it’s a competition that we can’t make them all winners because we have limited resources, but we try to make sure that no one goes away empty handed," she said.

Edna Kiogwe, a rice farmer, and a contestant on the forthcoming season, says she signed up because believes the show can improve the status of women in agriculture. "If I win, it will change my life. It will give me a chance to be more active in my work and farming. If I win I can help others in my community with the prize, but the program teaches us things that make us better at farming," she said.

Last year the World Bank released a report, "Leveling the Field: Improving Opportunities for Women Farmers in Africa," studying women farmers in six African countries, including Tanzania. The report found that although half of Africa's farmers are women, their farms are less productive than those of their male contemporaries: in Tanzania, farms run by women produced 23 percent less on average than farms run by men, in part because they have fewer resources, but also because they have less control over what they do with their land. Here's the disparity in production between male- and female-run farms in the six countries researchers looked at in that report:

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Oxfam says that in Tanzania, women make up 75 percent of the farming work force, but are not granted loans, and very few own their land. Some of the country's poorest people are farmers in rural areas who rely on their crops for food.

"This inequality is reinforced by negative societal attitudes towards small-holder farmers, particularly women, who are neither acknowledged nor valued for the crucial contribution they make to food production and the fight against poverty in the country," Oxfam says in a statement about the show.

Oxfam organizer Kibona, 28, who has been involved in women's advocacy since her college days a decade ago, says that Tanzania has made some progress on women's rights over that time, but that there are entrenched attitudes that limit how much power and autonomy a woman is allowed to have. She said that like in any other country, there's an over-emphasis on women's roles as sex symbols, even after they prove themselves capable of being political and social leaders. There's a perception that "if someone becomes a political figure or a political leader she probably fucked her way through it," she said.

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"There’s a saying, 'If a child does something wrong its the mother’s child, if the child does something good it’s the father’s child," she said.

Framing women as smart, productive farmers could help to shake off those biases, she says. "It is really difficult to get recognition, and to get recognition based on merit, not to attach any kind of derogatory terms or ideals to it," she said.