Produce Business UK talks to a Cameroon non-governmental organisation (NGO) that is looking for British produce-industry partners to help it create better working opportunities for young Cameroonian women through agriculture
“When anyone talks about Cameroon, the force has to be agriculture,” says Elvis Wepngong, who is executive director of the Organisation for Gender, Civic Engagement and Youth Development (OGCEYOD), based in Limbe, in the south west of the country.
At least in terms of the Cameroonian people, he’s right. Officially, agriculture represents only 20.6% of Cameroon’s GDP, but the same measurement index records that as much as 70% of the West-Central African nation’s population work in the sector.
“In the last two decades though, it has died down a little, because middlemen have spoiled the market,” claims Wepngong. They have bought from farmers at very low rates and this has meant those farmers cannot reinvest in their farms.
“That in turn has caused more of the rural population to move into urban areas, because they believe that you can’t make money from agriculture anymore, but there are no jobs in the towns and cities and we want to show women in particular that agriculture can be a good option for them.”
As well as bananas, which are undoubtedly Cameroon’s best known produce export, Wepngong mentions watermelons, citrus, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and pineapples as crops with potential, should investment be found.
“The soils in Cameroon are so rich we don’t need to use a lot of fertilisers,” he says, “but there are very few companies that export in any volume. That’s why we need partners overseas to drive our industry forward.”
The UK has historical links with Cameroon, but he says, negative media coverage of the country in the more recent past has been a hindrance. “In the last decade, the UK has even withdrawn some of its embassy staff from our country because the work they were doing with our government didn’t quite work out. The platform for inward investment disappeared. However, I think if the right people in the UK were to turn their eyes back towards Cameroon, they would be extremely pleased with the range and quality of produce that can be grown here.”
It is cocoa that has long led the way for the country’s agricultural export community though. “Cameroon used to be recognised as being in the top three countries in cocoa exports from Africa,” Wepngong, says. “It was the number one product we were known for, but now we are fifth on the list.”
This still makes Cameroon the sixth-largest cocoa producer in the world (it produced 209,905 tonnes of beans in the 2013/14 season). An economic co-operation and development project funded by the German government (Sustainable Cocoa Business) was set up to reverse the decline and introduce training regimes and new equipment to bring more local smallholders up to the standards required in the international marketplace.
Just last month, the Cameroon government announced plans to double its cocoa processing capacity to about 30% of its total production after only about 32,700 tonnes were processed locally last year.
Wepngong, and his organisation are trying to change perceptions, but it is harder to change the market. “Of course, it is hard to eliminate the middlemen. They have been mainly Cameroonian, selling onto European and US customers, and the farmers have never been set up to work directly with those customers.”
The British High Commission in Cameroon has got involved, helping to introduce the ideals of Fairtrade into the country with a view to cutting out the “abuse by the middlemen” that Wepngong refers to and delivering a consistent, fairer return for Cameroon’s growers.
Wepngong says this is one strand of attempts to create far stronger trade links between Cameroon and the UK. “We had more than 50 Fairtrade representatives training our farmers in 2013 and delivering Fairtrade workshops and the agriculture sector here really embraced the concept and what it could do for them.”
The concept may have been accepted, but pure economics have made it hard to advance past Go. “We have got a little bit stuck financially, as the farmers didn’t have the money required to become certified as Fairtrade, but we have built a platform and if we can move forward, we will find it far easier to convince more people that agriculture is a good career for them,” Wepngong says.
Raising women’s voices
“Women do a lot of the work in the agriculture sector, but are still not being seen in the bigger picture. We want to see them at the forefront, taking the reins in companies and getting the credit for it.”
This is a cultural shift for a country where the role of women in a working environment has not yet been taken seriously. So what do the men who have been used to having default control of business think of this? “Some of the men are happy about what we’re trying to do, but there are plenty who remain reluctant to welcome women into leading positions,” says Wepngong.
The OGCEYOD runs regular workshops in rural areas that have equal participation of men and women and always encourages women to speak during the meetings. “It’s important that they not only get to speak, but that we respect their ideas and discuss what they are saying within the group. More and more, they are getting used to their voices being heard and while it is a gradual process, we can see some really good progress,” he says.
“There are co-operatives that exist now with women at the helm – that wasn’t the case before – and there are some that are made up only of women, who are taking all the decisions and who are unafraid to speak out. It’s amazing the freedom that they feel when they have an environment in which they can talk about what they think about something, and the creativity that can flow when this freedom becomes the norm.
“Once they recognise that their ideas and thoughts will be appreciated, it soon becomes natural for them to speak up.
“Because we are also working hard to show that agriculture does not have to be a sector with no profits, women are also beginning to build the confidence at last that not only can they take the lead, they can take the lead in successful operations that make money.”
Cameroon remains an extremely poor nation and for genuine commercial progress to be made, it has to rely on external assistance to enable internal skills to flourish. “We have decent export markets in Germany, Belgium and France, but right now, the UK is a very small market for us. We would like to attract more inward investment from the UK and it doesn’t have to be on a Fairtrade ticket – the main purpose is always to generate real benefits for the farmers and reduce the influence of the middlemen who take money out of the sector’s pockets and stifle it’s ability to grow.”
The OGCEYOD operates overseas through the umbrella International Falcon Movement, a Belgium based socialist education organisation that co-ordinates activities through member sub-organisations in Europe, Africa, Asia, North and South America.
In the UK, the member is Woodcraft Folk and Cameroon receives many volunteers from the UK, who help to educate children and encourage gender equality from an early age by creating student unions and groups in secondary schools. “It’s all about equal participation,’ says Wepngong. “For young girls or women, that means changing their beliefs and expectations of how their lives could or should be.”
The Organisation for Gender, Civic Engagement and Youth Development was created in July, 2005, by young talented and proactive Cameroonians as Pollution Free Environment (POFEN), with its main objective being combating environmental hazards. It has since modified its name, vision, mission and objectives to meet the most pressing challenges of Cameroonians. This change gave birth to OGCEYOD, with its priority target groups being the youth and women of Cameroon.
The corporate social vision, mission, goal and objectives centre around a desire to mainstream sustainable development through “education, capacity building, advocacy and lobbying, research, exchange visits, recreation, innovation, peace and dialogue”.
Through “gender-sensitive programmes” it hopes to identify, develop and/or implement sustainable development strategies and projects to curb poverty.
Cameroon is bordered by Nigeria to the west; Chad to the northeast; the Central African Republic to the east; and Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and the Republic of the Congo to the south. Cameroon’s coastline lies on the Bight of Bonny, part of the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean.
Click here or an overview of the country.