‘Hunger games’ with a purpose? Thousands are playing for food in Bangladesh

CNNWell before the sun rises in Chapra, a small village in the northwest of Bangladesh, Mohammad Abdur Rouf is on his feet.

He travels six miles to a neighboring village, where he joins hundreds of other people in line to play a carnival-style game. But instead of throwing darts at a wall of balloons or tossing rings at beer bottles, Abdur, 35, hits a small yellow ball repeatedly with a plastic putter.

Try as he might, he can’t manage to whack the ball with enough precision for it to travel upside down along a track and emerge perfectly between two goal posts. But instead of leaving a sullen loser, the rice farmer beams as he hoists a consolation prize: a modest 8-ounce bottle of vegetable oil.

“Any day, I’d play again! Any day!” he says cheerfully when the game wraps up for the day.

Abdur — the sole breadwinner for a family of nine including his three children, parents and two brothers — is one of thousands of Bangladeshis who have played the SS Food Challenge, a game developed by content creator Omar Sunny Somrat.

The challenges are reminiscent of those on iconic 1980s show Takeshi’s Castle, in which players have to overcome a series of physical obstacles to win.

The players in Bangladesh, many of them living in poverty, aren’t in it for fame, glory or cash. They’re playing to win every day staples like rice, oil, sugar, lentils and other items that soaring inflation has put beyond their reach.

“It’s first come first serve, free registration and everyone walks away a winner,” Somrat told CNN.

After years as a struggling creator, he came up with the concept for the challenge two years ago when commodities prices jumped in Bangladesh following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, sending the cost of wheat, corn and energy into the stratosphere. The World Bank has forecast that prices will stay at “historically high levels” globally through the end of 2024.


The combination of colorful games and the feel-good factor of nobody going home empty-handed has given Somrat a genuine hit. The challenge now boasts more than 1.5 billion combined online views and has about four million subscribers each on YouTube and Facebook and nearly 200,000 followers on TikTok.

Soaring prices

With so many social media followers, Somrat says he makes $35,000 to $45,000 in revenue each month purely from online clicks and other forms of digital monetization.

He has a staff of 25 people and, including the cost of buying all the prizes, takes home between $5,000 to $15,000 a month. He has so far declined to take on sponsors.

The online venture wasn’t an overnight success. Somrat, 32, started making “random videos” in 2017 before setting up an online eating contest that “wasn’t safe” for the contestants.


By 2021, he began organizing contests for village kids competing in games and winning prizes like home appliances. “Though people loved the idea, the prizes weren’t a match,” he said.

A year later, though, he stumbled onto the winning formula when food prices soared and the Bangladeshi currency, the taka, depreciated in value against the US dollar. Over the course of 2022, the taka lost 20% of its value against the greenback, making imports into Bangladesh much more expensive.

“(The) price of edible oil and even onions was through the roof, and that’s when we decided to give these food items as a reward,” Somrat recalled.

The decision resonated with villagers, drawing more of them to participate as they tried to make ends meet. Each one walked away with something while having some fun on the side.

Between 2022 and 2023, food prices in Bangladesh jumped by 9%, the highest average rate in 12 years, according to the country’s Bureau of Statistics.


Ruchir Desai of Asia Frontier Investments said inflation picked up across the board for developed and developing world that year due to pandemic-related supply chain issues, as well as the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

“That was a key factor, basically the turning point, especially for emerging markets like Bangladesh,” he said. “Bangladesh is a net importer of oil and wheat.”

In addition, that year Dhaka had to cut subsidies for oil and other essential commodities in order to secure a multi-billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund, Desai said.

But the road ahead looks better for Bangladesh, with analysts finally predicting cooling prices in 2024, offering relief for people like Asma Khatun, a housewife and a mother of four.

On a recent game day, she returned to her village with her winnings of several pounds each of potatoes, onions, sugar and lentils. Her conquest will sustain her family for days to come.

As for Somrat, the games are now so popular that his biggest concern is often crowd control.