In Eastern Cameroon, refugees and nationals are cultivating the future of their children… in the corn fields
“With the proceeds we got from the maize and groundnuts, we were able to buy school supplies at the beginning of the school year.”
Souley Hamidou looks at dried up maize stalks in a field in Mandjou, a village in the East Region of Cameroon, and feels thankful. The man – one of several thousands who fled fighting in the Central African Republic since 2012 and crossed the border into Cameroon – is also filled with hope when he sees healthy green cassava plants on another part of the farm. The gratefulness and optimism are because for the first time in a while, all his children are in school, a sign that things are much better for him these days.
“I have 10 children,” he says. “Before now, I didn’t have the means to send all of them to school at once. Sometimes there would be three of them in school, other times four, and the rest would stay at home. But this year, I sent all my 10 children to school, because of this farm.”
Hamidou is talking about a parcel of land he was given to farm on this year in Mandjou. On 16 hectares offered by the local community, UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and its partner, Lutheran World Federation, LWF, assisted 10 households to farm on the land at the beginning of the year. Seven of those were refugee households and the remainder from the community.
On the farm, groundnuts, beans and cassava are cultivated in cycles, but it is maize that brings in quick money.
“There is a high demand for maize,” says the programme coordinator for LWF, Sidiki Kanneh. “Because we are moving towards greater autonomy, we decided to orient the refugees towards cultivating maize.”
This year, 23 tonnes of maize were harvested and sold. The proceeds have helped make the farmers more comfortable.
“Before, we had problems making ends meet,” says Hamidou, who adds that things have noticeably improved for those in the project. “All the refugees who had problems with paying rents for their houses, this year, all of them paid their rents without difficulty. It is because of this farm.”
It is a similar story in the village of Guiwa, 74km away. There, a local gave out 16 hectares of his land for refugees to farm on.
“I saw that they were in need and I had this land, so I decided to give it to them. It was the natural thing to do,” says Marcel Abbo, a sub-chief in Guiwa. 50 people benefited from this gesture, 40 of them refugees, 10 of them locals.
Many of the farmers there have found it easier to deal with daily expenditures since the beginning of the year.
“With the proceeds we got from the maize and groundnuts, we were able to buy school supplies at the beginning of the school year,” says Josias, one of the refugees.
In both villages, the hosts and refugees work together, and life is a little better for everyone. It is all part of a strategy that aims to wean them off aid, irrespective of the context in which they find themselves.
“In Cameroon, we encourage the participation of refugees in activities that generate income from agriculture, just like in Mandjou and Guiwa, but that is not all we do,” says UNHCR Cameroon associate livelihood officer, Solange Bindang. “We actually advocate for the inclusion of refugees in existing projects and programmes implemented by national and international actors. This would be in projects that promote the growth of small businesses, vocational training and the development of skills that will make them employable.
“We do this not only for the refugees but also for their hosts communities, to improve their livelihoods and economic inclusion, because then they can meet their needs in a safe, sustainable and dignified manner, while also contributing to the local economy.”
The UNHCR, through LWF programmes alone, has been able to reach nearly 3000 beneficiaries in 2020. There is no doubt this has helped refugees in both villages meet up with their daily needs. However, there is room for more gains.
There is some difficulty getting the harvest from farm to market in Mandjou,. The farmers there want tricycles to facilitate transport. In Guiwa, the farmers are worried about the absence of a safety net, in case of an emergency, like a relative’s illness.
“We have to go elsewhere and do odd jobs that can bring in cash quickly to answer to the immediate need and that means abandoning the farm for a while.”
Meanwhile, there is a lot more land available for agriculture in both Mandjou and Guiwa. It only needs some investment for more refugees and locals to earn a living from it : indeed, without tractors and means to transport their harvest from farms to market, their condition will still remain precarious.
By Helen Ada Ngoh