The Secrets of MTV Shuga’s Success

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.

Season four launched in the fall of 2015. The season premiered at various global health events around the world, including the Clinton Global Initiative, just prior to the beginning of the United Nations General Assembly—a meeting at which UN member states adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a series of goals designed to improve the health, stability and sustainability of the world. The juxtaposition of the premiere of Shuga’s new season with the world’s decision to embrace the SDGs—several of which aim to address the issues covered in Shuga’s plotlines—show that Shuga has been ahead of its time. The issues raised by Shuga are finally being recognized as essential to a better and healthier world.

As Shuga’s audience continues to grow, its impact on its viewers continues to reflect the persuasive power of its content. With Shuga, the MTV Staying Alive Foundation has successfully embedded health messages in a pop culture show that rings so true for its audience. It not only changes their minds about difficult-to-discuss subjects like sex and pregnancy; it also positively influences their choices and behavior so they stay healthy and safe. The show’s creators and producers have developed a powerful tool for delivering life-saving messages to young people—messages they are not getting elsewhere. Shuga’s characters are relatable, fictional role models that help protect actual lives.

Together for Girls caught up with Georgia Arnold, senior vice president of social responsibility for MTV Networks International and founder and executive director of the MTV Staying Alive Foundation as well as Dorcas Shola Fapson, who plays Sophie in the Nigerian version of Shuga.

Together for Girls: Georgia, where did the idea of delivering health messages through popular culture come from at the Foundation?

GEORGIA ARNOLD: When the MTV Staying Alive Foundation (now the world’s leading media response to HIV) started in 1998, I made a documentary, and it was good and people said, “Can you do that again next year?” I was working very closely with UNAIDS, who had really just stepped up at the time, and UNICEF. We came to realize that with MTV, we had access to young people all around the world—and because MTV’s audience trusts the brand, we could shape their thinking. We had an opportunity to be able to really create powerful messages of behavioral change and ensure that young people didn’t merely talk about what they had seen, they also took action. As we understood the power of what we potentially could do, we started to create Shuga.

TfG: Georgia, according to a John Hopkins research study, 80 percent of people who saw Shuga believed in the messages and took action.

ARNOLD: The Johns Hopkins study showed us that we were able to change attitudes and create an intention in viewers to change their behavior. I’m awaiting results from a big World Bank evaluation that is ongoing; my hope is it goes beyond the Johns Hopkins study to actually capture evidence that people’s intention to adjust their behavior led to real action, and follow-up. The show doesn’t exist in a bubble; it is used as an educational tool in the real world. Working with UNICEF, we trained 160 young Nigerians as peer HIV educators, testers, and counselors. They would screen Shuga, then they would facilitate conversations with the audience and, at the end, ask, “Who wants to get tested?” Those who did were tested. In four months, about 47,642 young Nigerians in five states were tested for HIV. We are so proud of that effort which shows young people are taking action because of Shuga.

TfG: Georgia, how did you all make a show that is real and edgy that can be supported by various government entities?

ARNOLD: Wherever we work, we make sure that we have a really good, strong relationship with the government. You can’t walk into a country and say, “This is what we’re doing, everyone line up behind us.” We said, “This is what we’d like to do, we want to work with you and we want to make sure that the messaging that we’re focusing on corresponds with your own priorities.” Working hand-in-hand with governments is key to having them back the show.

The second critical thing we do is work with a local team. Although the executive team is based in London, the bulk of the team, from the researchers who research the storyline to the writers, from the production crew to the director, are all on location. The third important thing is that the actors are all Nigerian or Kenyan, depending on where we’re working. That’s absolutely crucial. Fourth, while at MTV Staying Alive, we’re experts at creating really good media content that makes a difference, we need to work with experts within a country, especially young people like those who will watch it, to ensure the show has maximum impact. We start each season by figuring out what our priority messaging is, then we bring together a group of young people who will talk to us and tell us their stories. This process is absolutely crucial to making sure we get the story lines right and it’s fascinating to be in the room when it’s happening. I have seen a mixture of kids, some were HIV-positive, some were negative, some worked in HIV, some went out clubbing every night, some were at university—they were all just kids—talk to our producers about the challenges they face and the situations they must navigate. By building our stories on a factual basis, we end up with something that feels real. Everything—from the slang the kids use to the way they dress—is vetted by the young people in the script writing workshops. Even once we’ve got a script written, the actors are able to say, “You know what? I just wouldn’t say these words” and we let them help us shape the dialogue so it reflects reality.

TfG: Dorcas, what was your reaction when you first heard about the show? What made you decide to participate in it?

DORCAS SHOLA FAPSON: [When] I initially heard about the show, I was actually in America. My agent sent me an email about it, telling me what it was about. I watched the first two seasons and said that I would love to be a part of it. For me, what drew me to the show was that it highlighted issues that happened in the real world, and it had great actresses and actors that had amazing delivery. It wasn’t preachy; it was entertaining and educational at the same time. That kind of drew me to the show initially. The fact that it was going to be in Nigeria was key. Obviously, I’m British, but I’m also Nigerian and to be able to do something in my home country was just amazing.

TfG: Georgia, why is a show like Shuga such an effective medium through which to deliver health messages to young people?

ARNOLD: Storytelling acts as a powerful catalyst for social change. What we have found with our audience is that everyone identifies with at least one of the characters or one of the character’s storylines. Kids talk about the show, with their friends online through social media, but also really importantly, with their parents and grandparents. We’ve seen that time and time again. Cross-generational viewings of Shuga allow parents and grandparents to bring up—and open up about—topics like sex and others that are hard issues to raise.

FAPSON: I agree. It’s entertainment that’s educational at the same time. It raises issues not being discussed between young people and adults—issues that people kind of shy away from and causes discussion about them. A lot of people relate deeply to the characters; people might see Sophie in themselves or they might see someone they know in Sophie. It helps to build an essential bridge between fiction and reality when the audience identifies so closely with the characters.

TfG: Dorcas, delivering public health messages through popular media allows Shuga to make an essential bridge between medical facts and how they get applied in reality. Anyone can sit in the doctor’s office or at school and be told what they should and shouldn’t do from a health perspective, but the real world often introduces situations not covered in medical or educational settings. Shuga shows how people navigate their health and safety in the real world. Often that road is bumpy. The storylines in Shuga suggest you can correct your course—you can have a scare and then change your behavior. Your character Sophie evolves over the course of several episodes. What does the audience learn from her journey?

FAPSON: In the beginning of the show, Sophie was very promiscuous… she engaged in a lot of transactional sex and her sugar daddy paid for her hair, etc. That is something that is very common across the world. A lot of women have men support them and have sex with them in return. I don’t think a lot of people think about the risks they’re taking when they do that. Sophie had a HIV scare because she had sex with someone who had HIV. She wasn’t thinking, “Oh, this person might have HIV.” She was just focused on getting materialistic goods from it. I think a lot of people are like that; they’re just very careless and I think that that’s why people identify with her. As she’s grown up, she’s matured and she’s got her head back on straight. The choices she makes this season show that regardless of how you were, you can learn from your mistakes. You don’t have to live that life, you can change. In this season, Sophie’s working; she’s not sneaking around, she’s got her head back on straight. She’s very careful with her sex life because she’s learned from her mistakes. I think that people relate to that a lot.

TfG: Dorcas, as a young person, were you aware of HIV/AIDS growing up? Was it on your radar?

FAPSON: I was definitely aware of it, but I wasn’t educated about it. I knew it was a disease. I didn’t know how it was contracted. I didn’t know how it affected people. I didn’t know how or where it came from actually. I didn’t have a clue until I started working on the show.

TfG: Georgia, much headway has been made against AIDS since the founding of Staying Alive. And yet, much more needs to be done. Of the 36.5 million people estimated to be living with HIV, 15 million have access to lifesaving antiretroviral treatment that doubles as prevention by lowering people’s viral loads to an undetectable level so they are virtually non-infectious. How do you position this moment in the HIV epidemic specifically when you are talking to young people, too many of whom think it’s either not an issue or not a big deal?

ARNOLD: I’m going to stick my neck out here. I think we are at an exceptionally dangerous time in the response to AIDS. I agree that we have made enormous strides over the past 15 years; it’s incredible. What really worries me is this focus on how we can see the end of the epidemic, and it’s all going to be okay. It’s not, and that’s driven by the fact that the most vulnerable parts of society are usually criminalized, and therefore, less likely to present for, or access, testing, treatment and care (let alone stay in care). LGBT people, drug users, sex workers and young people are all especially vulnerable to HIV. There are many places where governments should be putting money in order to stop the epidemic, and they’re not. So I take a much more realistic point of view, and I’m hugely concerned about it.

TfG: Georgia, how does Shuga address the issue of gender-based violence?

ARNOLD: We have had a strong storyline on gender-based violence in each season of Shuga. For the second, third and fourth seasons, we also created a comic book that extended the storyline relating to gender-based violence. We created it with a legal team led by Susan Sterling; they did all of their work pro-bono. We were also supported by a legal charity called Boys Without Borders. We wanted people to understand what steps to take to protect themselves if they ever found themselves in certain positions. In season three, Malaika is raped. The audience knows she goes to the hospital and we know she goes to the police but we don’t actually see either of those things on camera. The comic book expands on the show; it actually show the steps Malaika took at the hospital and with police. There are information boxes in the comic book to highlight specifically whom you should contact in Kenya and Nigeria. In Nigeria, we work with an amazing center for survivors of sexual assault in Lagos called the Mirabel Centre. But I have to say, there are very few, and certainly not enough, places like the Mirabel Centre across Nigeria. That is one of my real frustrations: using media to highlight these issues and to help people understand how to address them, but doing so in places where there are not sufficient resources to help them. But we have to continue doing that and hope that the demand for services will create more supply. We’re up against cultural barriers, too. There’s a very strong attitude in Nigeria that men believe they have a right to hit their wives and girlfriends if they don’t do what they ask them to do—something as simple as not having bought salt for the meat. There’s acceptance by girls and women that that is their place in society. We’re trying to show that that is not acceptable, but we also know that on the ground there is a lot of catching up to do.

FAPSON: The Mirabel Centre is an amazing place. It’s for women in relationships that have been abused physically, emotionally or sexually. It brings people from all different ages together; some are older ladies, 89-year-olds, some are young ladies, some middle-aged people. Hearing their stories made me see that we needed to highlight issues that people otherwise shy away from in society to create discussion around them so they will stop.

TfG: What advice would you give to a young woman who was in a relationship dependent on a man and it’s a relationship that’s not working for them or she feels threatened. What would you tell her?

FAPSON: Definitely get help. There’s so much help out there. So many people who will help you and even shelter you if you need somewhere to stay. There’s more to life. I mean it might be tough to leave, but you’ll make it. The first step is huge and it will get easier. The hardest step is leaving, but once you do that, then you’re there.

TfG: Dorcas, for your role you spent time in the Nigerian National Health Fund, at the national HIV call center—6222. What was that like?

FAPSON: I went to a HIV center and sat in as a consultant. I watched them give HIV tests to 10 people. I watched them give results, both negative and positive. I heard from people who were getting tested; I listened to their stories. These were real people in a real HIV clinic that were getting tested for real. I met with people who have gone through some really tough situations related to HIV in their relationships. I just kind of adapted that to Sophie.

TfG: Georgia, you worked Dorcas’ experience at 6222 into the show. How did that impact the work of 6222 in the real world?

ARNOLD: In the latest season of Shuga, we embedded Sophie inside the 6222. In season 4, she’s grown up a little bit, she’s still running the nightclub, but she’s also working at 6222 giving advice. I hope the government will see a huge uptake in people using 6222, and in turn, make sure that 6222 is a good resource. Now, you can access 6222 five days a week between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. which is not particularly great if you go out on a Saturday night and you have sex without a condom or you get attacked and call 6222 and there’s no answer. We’ve been working with the government and given them software so 6222 can deliver FAQs via phone 24/7 and you can leave a message and someone can get back to you. At the moment, they can’t afford to have it populated 24/7. But at least were taking it to the next stage.

TfG: Georgia, the show is set in Africa in two different countries, but the show and the characters have universal appeal. Are there plans to roll it out to other nations or air it more broadly?

ARNOLD: One of the things I love about Shuga is that even though it’s currently based in Nigeria, it is relatable all over the world. When we did the season four premiere in London, a young girl in the audience asked when we are going to do Shuga UK. I hear that question in every country in which we screen it. Obviously, we will go where the funding is and where the health needs are greatest. There is a storyline in season four, in which Femi gets a new girlfriend named Shiva and she’s HIV-negative and they come out publically on TV about the fact that he’s positive and she’s negative. Their story is based on Shawn Decker and Gwenn Barringer’s story—Shawn and Gwenn are a fabulous, real all-American couple living in the circumstances of the storyline. I love that Americans could actually inspire this storyline set in Nigeria. There is a universality about the experience of living with HIV and many of the other challenges the characters face.

Do I want to take it to different countries? I do. I love being in Nigeria. Ten percent of all HIV positive adolescents in the world live in Nigeria and there’s a need for us to be there. But I’d like for us to be open to going to other countries as well and one of the reasons is because we can tackle different issues in different countries. In Kenya, we had a very small storyline around male circumcision, which isn’t in the Nigerian show; and if we go to a new country it might be a little easier for us to have gay characters. We don’t have any gay characters in the Nigerian Shuga though we did have a gay Kenyan character in a minor role in the second season. And that was done with the permission of the Kenyan government. I would really love to be able to take that a step further and show a gay character in other countries.

TfG: Dorcas, you have a degree in criminology and you work with young, incarcerated people. What do you teach the kids you council in the real world?

FAPSON: I work with young offenders when they come out of incarceration. I help them get back into society, fix up their CVs, help them apply to higher education. From right after my own graduation, I decided I could help young people. My long-term goal is to work with young people from poor backgrounds and help them stay off the streets by getting them into drama classes and football academies, stuff like that so they’re not out committing crimes.

TfG: Any final words?

FAPSON: I would definitely say we need to come together in society to support and educate our youth. Doing so doesn’t only help our own worth, it makes the world better. I teach young people you shouldn’t act like you need somebody to help you; you can help yourself. You shouldn’t be dependent on any man or woman. Having self-worth is about knowing yourself more, knowing your worth and living in ways that protect yourself.

Secret of Shuga’s Success: Photos provided by MTV Staying Alive Foundation

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