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In Africa, reality TV shows combine engagement and entertainment

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The “Ferme Factory” program in Senegal aims to highlight the agricultural sector.

A desert island on an arm of the Saloum River, in Senegal. Huts distributed around a big fire. And about twenty young women in full dress, immersed in debates on abortion or domestic violence. With a lot of traditional music and aerial shots, the trailer for “Reine d’Afrique” sets the tone for this show. made in Senegal, still being filmed, which claims to want to promote the women of the continent while combining culture and entertainment.

“It’s a reality show that seeks to positively impact people’s lives”explains Khadija Maïmouna Ba, communications manager for the production company Otentik Concept, which is carrying the project and is still looking for broadcasters. On the program, dance competitions between the 20 women in competition (from Senegal, but also from Gabon, Cameroon or Côte d’Ivoire) and ” challenges ” for “promote African values”. But also debates around “subjects that are perhaps considered taboo, such as the voluntary termination of pregnancy or maternal mortality”, lists Khadija Maïmouna Ba. With the key 20 million CFA francs (about 30,500 euros) for the winner.

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The concept contrasts with programs like “Young, Famous & African”, launched by Netflix in early 2022. The show follows the bling-bling daily life, in South Africa, of jet-set personalities from Nigeria, Uganda or from Tanzania. Entertainment is added to the many local adaptations of successful Western programs, such as “The Voice Afrique francophone” or “The Real Housewives of Lagos”. But contrary to these sensationalist shows, some committed reality shows have managed to find a place for themselves on African screens.

A braille library

Among them, “L’Instant Thé”, born in 2017 in Mali. Thought like a show “citizen reality show”the program puts in competition the solidarity projects designed by “grins”, these friendly places in Bamako where the young people of a neighborhood meet and talk over a cup of tea. From the 2012 crisis in Mali, shaken by a coup, a Tuareg rebellion and a jihadist insurrection, “Young people have started to take a real interest in the management of the country”says Mantchini Traoré, the designer of the program broadcast on ORTM (public television) then on the private channel TM1.

At the end of each edition, three solidarity projects are selected and funded. During the first season, the members of the grin from the Garantibougou district, for example, “raised funds, found masons and engineers in their neighborhood” to build latrines for a community health center, recalls Mantchini Traoré. This year, a group of mostly visually impaired young people won the first prize, with a Braille library project.

Funded by the NGO Oxfam, the program “Female Food Heroes”, broadcast in Tanzania for the first time in 2011, puts women farmers in competition through tests where they demonstrate their knowledge of the trade and their practical skills. . Nearly a quarter of the Tanzanian population would have followed the 2015 edition.

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“Reality TV is everywhere. International NGOs have understood that it is necessary to exploit this new phenomenon”deciphers Sean Jacobs, professor of international affairs at the New School in New York, who works in particular on the media in Africa. “These formats are pioneers in the sense that they put African women first, as well as agriculture and sustainable development”adds Leyla Tavernaro-Haidarian, communication researcher at the University of Johannesburg.

She herself participated in the development of a “responsible” reality show : “Shanty Chic”, of which only a pilot version was finally broadcast in 2016 on Africa Channel, followed the renovation of houses in South African townships. With few resources, recycled materials and local speakers, the show was intended to be a model of sobriety.

A farm and a piece of land

The development of the agricultural sector is also the bias of “Farm Factory” in Senegal. Ousmane Faye, the producer of this program which has already had two editions, wanted to offer, on his own scale, a “response to the distress of young people faced with the lack of jobs”. For several months, the selected candidates are subjected to intensive agricultural training: courses on biogas, physical conditioning, milking cows… All under the eye of the cameras of the public channel RTS1 and hundreds of thousands of viewers. The ten winners of the program are offered a farm and a piece of land financed by the National Agency for Integration and Agricultural Development (Anida).

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“Through this vehicle that is reality TV, we had to sell young people a new image of agriculture” rather than “the old image, not at all attractive, linked to poverty”, says Ousmane Faye. The producer says he was marked by the story of certain candidates, such as El Hadji during the second edition, in 2021: after six unsuccessful attempts to cross the Mediterranean from Morocco, the young man returned to Senegal and participated in the show; despite his elimination during the program, his home town donated two hectares of land to him so that he could start his business.

According to Sean Jacobs, the emergence of these programs testifies to the frustration of some in the face of the disengagement of States vis-à-vis their populations. “They wonder how they can do things themselves”, says the academic. These programs, rarely profitable, sometimes benefit from foreign financial support. The European Union thus subsidizes “Farm Factory”, the aim of which is to limit the rural exodus and, above all, to retain candidates for emigration.

Sean Jacobs sees in these reality shows the logical continuation of soap operas with a social scope of previous decades. The South African series “Soul City”, for example, dealt with prevention on public health themes (particularly AIDS) through entertainment. Designed in collaboration with experts and researchers, this show broadcast in prime time from 1994 had become one of the most popular programs in the country.

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