30 minute makeover

A new Kenyan TV series uses the makeover principle to show smallholders how to improve their livelihoods. Louise Tickle reports.

Home makeover programmes, featuring exuberant flights of fancy by interior decorators, may dominate daytime TV schedules in the northern hemisphere, but how would they go down in a front room in Kenya?

Such scenes of design crime may or may not travel well, but the makeover principle could soon become a must-watch 30 minutes for millions of TV viewers across Kenya and possibly other African countries.

The idea behind a new programme, called Shamba Shape-Up!, is to explore some of the typical problems encountered by smallholder families on the outskirts of Kenya’s towns and cities, and then bring in a crack team of experts to sort them out smartish.

It’s been dreamt up by David Campbell, director of the Kenya-based independent production company Mediae. He founded the company in 1996 as a social enterprise dedicated to using broadcast media to explore the difficulties and concerns experienced by local communities.

"The word 'shamba' means 'smallholding', and this programme will look at practical ways for families to tackle problems at home with a sustainable approach," he explains. "Makeover programmes are hugely popular and inspirational.We did a lot of research to find out what were people's priorities, and it kept coming back to water, power and food. So the plan is to look at sustainable agriculture, energy use and issues around water use and supply, and then have a team go in who can demonstrate simple ways for people to address these things."

30 minute makeoverMediae is working with the DFID-funded Research Into Use (RiU) programme to develop content for Shamba Shape-Up!The RiU programme applies results of research to benefit poor people in developing countries. Shamba Shape-Up! uses TV to illustrate how practical improvements, such as clean water supply for cows, can have a positive benefit for poor farming families.

For the pilot programme, the shamba featured was owned by a family who had to walk 3km to get water. Their guttering was fixed and water tanks were installed in which rainwater could be collected; the importance of boiling water and keeping drinking water separate was also discussed. The floor of their cowshed was concreted to make it easier to collect manure which could then be used as fertiliser, and a large compost heap was built to provide the family with even more free material to enrich their subsistence agriculture.

Shamba Shape-up! is only the latest production from Mediae, and aims to build on the audiences which are already hooked into its weekly soap, Makatano Junction.

Again set in the ‘peri-urban’ area of a Kenyan city, this drama has been on air since the autumn of 2005 and has proved, says Campbell, that you can draw in millions of loyal viewers by combining useful messages with compelling drama.

Broadcast on the state channel KBC and sponsored to the tune of $4,000 a episode by Unilever, the soap also has funding from DFID and other NGO partners who provide content and campaigns expertise.

“What’s critical is that the public knows that a service is there and can demand that service,” says Campbell. “For instance, there’s been a big campaign to make mosquito nets available to pregnant women, but that’s only any good if people know about it.”

The Mediae production team – writers, crew, producers and editors are all local and some have been specially trained up by Mediae to work on the soap – works out with its NGO partners how to weave the issues of the day into its storylines.

“We’ve employed the expertise of our partners to deal with some really delicate issues: sexual abuse of children, violence against women,TB and HIV and the complicated link between them, and mental health issues,” says Campbell.

Makatano Junction has been a hit. By the end of series one, 3.75 million people had watched the programme at some point in the previous seven days. By the end of series three, it was 5 million.

The follow-up service which kicks in after every episode is what makes this programme so valuable, believes Abigail Mulhall, who heads up DFID’s communications unit at the Central Research department.

Her remit is to make sure that the research DFID funds gets put to some useful purpose and is made easily accessible to as wide an audience as possible. The fact that the soap’s actors make a direct call to viewers after the credits roll, inviting individuals to get in touch if any of the issues have affected them, means that people aren’t left in limbo, but have a means of finding out more about where to get help.

Since the start of series three, the audience has been given a number to text, and anyone who does so is then sent a leaflet with relevant information from the programme and details of sources of support.

“We were initially getting 1,800 SMS messages within five minutes of the programme ending,” recalls Campbell. “It’s coming down a bit now, but it all depends on the issue.” His team has entered 20,000 people on the database already, and that number builds with each transmission.

“The other thing which is important to us is that they’re engaging with our existing research programmes,” adds Mulhall. “Mediae engage directly with DFID-funded research programmes to get content for episodes of Makatano – providing an innovative outlet for researchers’ valuable information.”

With a whole year’s worth of Makatano Junction now in the can – and advanced plans to distribute the soap in Zambia, Uganda and Ghana – Campbell is on the look out for more partners who can share their campaigning messages and materials.

For Shamba Shape Up!, he hopes to secure funding imminently and – with filming of the first six episodes scheduled to start in March – it will be interesting to see whether improved guttering, concreted cowsheds and composting will prove as popular in Kenya as primped up parlours, frilly headboards and MDF chandeliers have become in the UK.

More Information

Their guttering was fixed and water tanks were installed to collect rainwater.