First Person

6 women farmers and an Olympic gold medalist walk onto a field … and shoot a commercial

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Derartu Tulu, in the yellow dress, grew up on a farm and happily agreed to serve as the 2015 Female Food Hero celebrity ambassador. Here, she helps with some weeding. Photo by Lena Muntemba/Oxfam America

‘What came through for me was their incredible strength in overcoming the many challenges women farmers face—all while taking care of their families and finding the means to send their children to school.’

Lena Muntemba is a campaign coordinator for Oxfam America. While in Ethiopia, she had a chance to work with—and be inspired by—women farmers who grow a great deal of the food that feeds their nation.

How cool is it to have an Olympic gold medalist and national hero visit your farm? Well, I was lucky enough to be part of that experience back in July during a two-month stay in Ethiopia while temporarily covering for a colleague on maternity leave. It was a beautiful sunny day in an unseasonably dry rainy season and after navigating the seemingly endless traffic of Addis Ababa, we were on our way south to the home of Worke Bedada, a small-scale farmer who was graciously letting us feature her and her farm in a commercial. The plan was to work with a production company to shoot a 30-second commercial which would air on national television informing the country about the Female Food Hero competition, an Oxfam-sponsored annual contest that elevates the voice and work of women farmers, and encouraging viewers to nominate women farmers who they felt were role models in their community to be honored with this award.

Bedada’s house is on a main road busy with large trucks speeding to and from the ports of Djibouti. Though her farm was not visible from the road, as soon as I walked through the fence, I immediately felt removed from the bustling city and busy roads. Bedada and five women who were helping her weed her fields greeted us warmly. While the production crew scouted the field, Bedada started rehearsing her lines. The commercial was shot in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, so unfortunately I could not understand exactly the script but I was able to figure out which of the takes were going to make it onto the blooper reel.

Worke Bedada practices her lines for the Female Food Hero awards commercial which invited viewers to nominate women farmers. The commercial aired for three weeks on national television. Photo by Lena Muntemba/Oxfam America

Soon after the team started shooting, one of Ethiopia’s favorite sports heroes joined us: Derartu Tulu.  The first black African woman and first Ethiopian woman to win a gold medal at the Olympics, Tulu, a runner who had grown up on a farm herself, had happily agreed to serve as the 2015 Female Food Hero celebrity ambassador.  Even though she was dressed in fancy attire (she was coming directly from a university graduation where she had received an award) Tulu wasted no time getting onto the field with the other women as they continued weeding. I was very inspired spending time with Tulu: despite her fame and glory, it was clear she felt it was important to bring attention to the role that women farmers play in Ethiopia because of her own background.

I had felt a similar kind of inspiration in previous years when I had met some of the other amazing Female Food Hero winners, including and Birtukan Dagnacew and Susan Godwin, on their visits to the US. As they talked about their work and shared their experiences with American audiences, what came through for me was their incredible strength in overcoming the many challenges women farmers face—all while taking care of their families and finding the means to send their children to school. In many developing countries, women actually grow the majority of the food but often do not have access to resources like fertilizer, high quality seeds, credit, or even their own land.

The Female Food Hero initiative is a way to recognize the important role that women play in agriculture and to kick start discussions that could in turn influence policies in support of women farmers. The initiative also creates a platform for women farmers to speak out for themselves: it is only when we hear from these women directly do we know if the policies intended to support them are effective or are being implemented.

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Derartu Tulu – an Ethiopian sports hero and 2015 Female Food Hero celebrity ambassador – is greeted by Worke Bedada, a farmer. Photo by Lena Muntemba/Oxfam America

After four hours of shooting, it was time to call it a wrap and let the production team work their magic with the editing. The commercial aired on national television for about 3 weeks in August. By the end of the nomination period viewers had submitted more than 5,000 names for consideration. After reviewing the nominations, a jury selected a total of 10 winners, each representing one of the nine regions of Ethiopia plus the city of Dire Dawa. They traveled to Addis Ababa earlier this month for a week-long program of activities that will be capped by an awards ceremony at the end of this week.

Finalists will attend trainings in three areas: life skills, entrepreneurship, and market linkage. I have learned from my interactions with previous winners just how valuable these kinds of training are. While in Addis, the winners will also meet with the Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Women Affairs to share with them some of the challenges that they face as women farmers and give recommendations. The final award ceremony will be aired on national TV.

Although I did not have the opportunity to meet this year’s winners since I am back at my regular job in Boston, I have learned from other Female Food Heroes that these amazing women do not hold back when opportunities arise to express themselves and talk about their experiences: They speak their minds about the challenges they face and their ideas to improve the livelihoods of women in their countries. I am endlessly impressed by their perseverance and innovation: Alongside these powerful role models, I’m inspired to continue to advocate for the rights of women, whether they are small-scale farmers, Oxfam colleagues, or Olympic champions.

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