How embedding health messages in a popular TV show in Kenya and Nigeria is helping young people stay safe all over the African continent
In November 2009, MTV Shuga, a TV soap opera featuring the lives of young Africans, debuted on MTV Base. Commissioned by MTV Networks Africa in association with the MTV Staying Alive Foundation, PEPFAR (the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), the Partnership for an HIV-Free Generation and the Government of Kenya, the show is part of a multi-medium campaign to spread messages to African youth about responsible sexual behavior and tolerance. Since its launch, the show has become a bonafide hit, winning a Gold award at the 2010 World Media Festival in Germany. It has aired in 40 African nations with 122 broadcasters in 72 countries; it reaches 78 percent of all countries in Africa.
The secret to MTV Shuga’s success? Its authentic depiction of the cultural factors and dynamics faced by young Africans learning to grapple with sexuality, money, power and love.
The first two seasons were set in Kenya. At first, the content—which explored issues like HIV/AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases and sexual orientation—made the Kenyan government nervous. But realizing how the fictional show true to life’s real challenges kept the rapt attention of its ever-expanding audience, and seeing how the show’s messages opened eyes and positively influenced the behavior of African youth, the Kenyan government stood behind it, helping it flourish.
In 2013, the production of the show moved to Nigeria, where seasons three and four were set. The evolved version is known as “Shuga Naija” or “new Nigeria”—referencing the term Nigerian youth use to refer to their nation-in-flux. While the Nigerian Shuga keeps the original Shuga’s focus on HIV/AIDS and safer sex, it also addresses child and maternal health, family planning, gender-based violence and the empowerment of women.