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How Anna Elliot's Bamyan Media Used Reality TV to Help Entrepreneurs in Afghanistan

Anna Elliot is no fan of mainstream reality TV. And her show, Dream and Achieve, which used the popular entertainment genre as a vehicle for social change, was no Jersey Shore.

For the series that aired across 13 weeks in 2008, 20 contestants from all over Afghanistan—including a fish farmer a hotel manager, and an aspiring tailor—were filmed in real time as they worked with seasoned consultants to build their enterprises. Living in a house together would have been a cultural taboo, so the film crew trailed each contestant in their home village, occasionally shuttling them to Kabul to register their business and apply for loans.

After witnessing streets lined with pharmacies all stocking the same expired drugs in Kabul three years ago, Elliot started Bamyan Media, a hybrid for-profit non-profit organization that airs American Idol-meets-Apprentice style contests in post-conflict states. Elliot hopes to accelerate development and inspire innovation in a country that many have written off as hopeless by highlighting the efforts of local social entrepreneurs to build sustainable businesses in war-torn Afghanistan.

Dream and Achieve cost about $500,000 to make, so Elliot, a 27-year old former coffee shop barista, won grant money from USAID, partnered with a local broadcasting company, and hired a crew of 12 Afghanis to assist with logistics.

She uses a diagram to portray Bamyan Media's development model: an inverted pyramid funneling into the apex of another pyramid. Governments and aid agencies spent a lot of money at the top, but between them and the target population is a narrow bottleneck that they have to squeeze through; as a result, most funding gets wasted on building products and services that aren't useful or sustainable. "Bamyan Media sits in between these two triangles," Elliot tells Fast Company. "We have to pry the pyramids apart so that there are more channels for money and innovation to trickle down."

The project was not without its challenges. "There's no word in Pashto for entrepreneur or creativity," Elliot says. "Only Allah can be the creator, so to presume you can do the same is insulting."

Afghani culture is still largely based on oral communication, so putting an ad in the paper to recruit contestants simply didn't work. "We needed a much more sophisticated, targeted way to find these people." Ultimately, Elliot ended up driving from village to village for in-person meetings with local leaders and trade organizations. In the process, she gained an intimate understanding of the roadblocks to success: How does a carpet weaver navigate the USAID grant process? What questions do bankers ask a leather maker when he's taking out a loan? How does microfinance work?

Dream and Achieve represented a wide range of industries and challenges. One contestant, Haji Ata, was an ex-military commander hoping to run a dairy farm with his combatants. ("He got voted off pretty quickly.") A woman named Maryan Al Ahmadi, who started a jam-and-pickle company that employs widows and refugees, had to move out of her hometown temporarily when the Taliban found out what she was doing. The winner of the show, a man named Faivulhaq Moshkani who put his $20,000 reward towards a plastic recycling plant that would run on renewable energy, had to make 20-hour long drives on dangerous bomb-infested roads to get to Kabul for shoots.

Still, the experiment was a great success. The finale had 7 million viewers, making it the number one show of the season. It also gave Afghanis the rare chance to vote democratically for something they believed in.

Elliot plans on taking the show to Colombia next; she's going there in November to meet with partners, entrepreneurs, and potential donors. She also hopes to share the show's format with other filmmakers so they too can create similar projects in other countries. "TV is a hypercompetitive, saturated space, but our value isn't in perfecting this IP. We want to stick to our mission and open source this and help whoever wants to do the same. It could be the dumbest or most genius thing we've ever done."