Many of us are extremely fortunate to never wonder or worry about where our next meal might come from, if it comes at all. Unfortunately, millions of people in nations around the world do not have that luxury. In the African country of Cameroon, some communities face an ongoing struggle for food security that may be developing into a true humanitarian crisis.
In the northern regions of Cameroon, which stretch almost to the Sahara desert, various environmental and socio-economic conditions have traditionally posed challenges for the largely agrarian population. Poor soil, erratic rainfall and periodic drought and flood events often result in low crop production. At harvest time, any excess of the food crops produced (mostly grains) is sold, because famers must meet the other needs of their families. This opens a door for “business men”, who take the opportunity to buy grains at low prices, wait until later in the year when food supplies grow short, and then offer to sell the grains back to villagers at an exorbitant price. These conditions keep many communities in a perpetual cycle of poverty, malnutrition and food insecurity. And if that is not enough, in recent years residents of these regions have seen the addition of a highly volatile human element that threatens the already tenuous conditions under which they live.
While Cameroon enjoys a relatively stable political and social status compared with many other sub-Saharan African nations, the country is not immune to the effects of nearby instability. Cameroon’s northern and eastern neighbors – Nigeria, Chad and Central African Republic (CAR) – have suffered years of internal conflict that has driven tens of thousands of their citizens over the border to seek refuge in Cameroon. Most recently, the insurgency of the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram in Nigeria has not only caused the flight of more Nigerians to Cameroon, but the group itself has infiltrated the northern part of the country.
Beheadings, looting and destruction of cropland and property have terrorized many farmers, interrupted the critical timing of their regular activities (such as planting and harvest) and led them to reduce the size of their cultivation areas or abandon their land entirely. The increased violence, decreased food production activity, and growing pressure to sustain refugees and internally displaced populations, on top of the traditional environmental and socio-economic challenges faced by local farmers, has resulted in a doubling of the number of people facing food insecurity in northern Cameroon in the past year.
With Boko Haram still active in the area, thousands of refugees and displaced local populations to support, and the expectation that climate change will exacerbate the current environmental challenges that farmers face, what is a community – or a country – to do to help its citizens meet their most basic survival needs? In January the government of Cameroon, with various international partners, launched a National Humanitarian Response Plan for 2016 which aims to fight poverty and re-establish security. Meanwhile, other organizations are working directly with farmers and villagers in the northern regions, helping them to create more sustainable food supplies and economic systems for their own communities.
The Cameroon-based organization RELUFA (the Reseau de Lutte contre la Faim/Network Fighting Hunger) has been working in the Far North region of Cameroon for over ten years, implementing their Food Sovereignty program through the development of village grain banking systems. In these systems, community granaries are created with an initial allocation of 60 bags of grain donated by RELUFA to the community. At harvest time, the granaries also purchase and store grains from local farmers. The doors are shut after harvest, and do not reopen until the “lean period” (generally between July and September), when the community’s food supplies run low. At that time, the granary may sell the stored grains to community members at agreed-upon prices, or the grain is given on credit if necessary, with an agreement of reimbursement during the next harvest. Any profit made from selling surplus supplies outside the community goes back to the funds for purchasing the next season’s harvest, thus creating a circular system within the community.
Jaff Bamenjo, the coordinator of RELUFA, says “The establishment of a community grain banking system was identified as the most appropriate strategy to break the cycle of food scarcity, soaring market prices, chronic malnutrition and dependency on food distribution programs. The village granaries will allow for self-governance of food supplies by the villagers and curb the speculation mechanisms that generate poverty”. While projects like this can’t meet every challenge the region currently faces, this kind of community-based problem-solving provides a level of stability, empowerment and autonomy through which communities traditionally plagued by scarcity can create a more sustainable future for themselves.