Ivory Coast uses failures to devise new `back to the land' plan

Dennis Kwadio, 18, is unemployed and unskilled, and until recently, had no hope of finding a job in his small village. Now, as one of 364 unemployed youths selected for the government's new ``return to the land''' program, he leaves home each morning at 4 a.m. to make the three-hour walk to a field where he is learning to grow Iowa hybrid corn.

Mr. Kwadio won't be paid for his labors until the harvest in July, but he's delighted to be in the program. ``My family is very, very happy that at least now I am busy, and now I have hope of a job in the future.''

Yet in the village of Yabra, only 15 miles away is another piece of land. Of what was once the centerpiece of an earlier ``back to the farm'' program to turn unemployed youths like Kwadio into rice farmers all that remains is a multimillion-dollar irrigation system abandoned in a weed-infested field littered with three vandalized, rusted combines.

Such has been the history of almost all well-meaning programs launched in recent years by African governments to stem the flow of young people from the countryside to overcrowded cities, where unemployment, along with a host of other urban ills, has skyrocketed.

The youth ``come to the cities looking for jobs, but usually don't find any, so they just hang around on street corners. This leads to other problems eventually, like increased drug abuse and robberies,'' said Christophe Toure, director of the Ivory Coast's latest program.

Additionally, African governments want to keep youngsters on the farm because the agriculture population is aging: Ninety-one percent of Ivorian farmers are over the age of 35.

This is a crucial concern here, where for 28 years the government of F'elix Houphou"et-Boigny has put all its economic eggs in the agricultural basket. Soon after independence, Mr. Boigny decided that to succeed, the Ivory Coast - which has no minerals, natural resources, or oil - must rely on agriculture. Until now, that policy has paid off in steady economic growth, making this nation one of Africa's most vibrant.

Yet, previous Ivorian efforts to attract young people to farming have been dismal, costly failures - leaving abandoned farms, rotting equipment, and disillusioned and indebted youths.

Those past programs were too ambitious and poorly planned and carried out, according to a 1987 World Bank report. Youths were often given too much land and not enough training. They received inadequate extension services, and could not afford to keep the machinery running.

In addition, the selection process was not stringent enough: dropout rates were high. Most programs also completely disregarded women farmers, who do most of the planting, tending, and harvesting on family farms here.

Finally, the young farmers-to-be were often given land in villages where they were strangers. The local villagers had no vested interest in seeing the project succeed, and indeed, often resented the government giving their land to an outsider.

``The local folks would just put up a couple of gris-gris [a symbol of an evil spell] at the edge of the field, and the youngster would not step foot on the land for fear he would die if he did,'' said Jean-Paul Chausse, a senior World Bank economist in Abidjan, the capital.

The government's latest program has been designed to avoid many of those past mistakes, insists Mr. Toure, a United States-trained agricultural engineer. ``The key element in our program is training.''

The youths at Yamassoukro are being trained by nine retired US corn farmers, mostly from Iowa. As members of the Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance (VOCA), they work without pay for three months teaching young Ivorians how to grow corn, run and maintain tractors, and establish farm cooperatives.

``These people are really starved for knowledge,'' said volunteer Shelby Baker, a 64-year-old Texas farmer and irrigation specialist.

Once the youths finish their training, the government will give each of them five hectares of land near their own villages to cultivate. That could be increased up to 25 hectares within three years.

The World Bank has serious reservations about the size of the plots, as well as the mechanized nature of the farming they are being taught. The bank has proposed a scaled-down version, that would give carefully screened youths two hectares of land to be tilled with more traditional equipment.

``The government is trying to get farmers to go from the hoe to the tractor, without passing through the transitional phase of using animal traction to power farm equipment,'' said Mr. Chausse. ``Projects that try to do that have never worked before.''

The mechanized corn-growing project in Yamassoukro is a test phase in which 2,000 hectares of land, donated by the President from his personal property, will be planted with hybrid corn seed, developed especially for local conditions by Pioneer Seed Co. of Des Moines, Iowa. The corn will then be sold to a flour mill to be built nearby.

If the corn project is successful, a second pilot project involving soybeans will begin next year. By 1990, the minister of agriculture hopes to have 30,000 hectares (75,000 acres) of land cultivated by young, formerly unemployed youths.

Still unresolved, however, is the question of land tenure, since it is difficult to get a farm loan without owning the land.

Traditionally, all land belonged collectively to the residents of the nearest village and was parceled out by the tribal chief. If the Ivory Coast is to move into modern agriculture, however, said Agriculture Minister M. Denis Bra Kanon, land must be freed up for use by the young.

``This is a real basic problem,'' said Toure. ``The young farmers want to own the land before they'll ... make a long-term commitment of time and money.''

Another problem is how to improve the quality of life in rural towns - provide safe water, electricity, health clinics, and recreational activities - so young people will not be attracted to big cities. And project planners are debating what equipment and supplies the government should provide for the farmer either free or at subsidized rates during the first operating year.

On a recent trip to eight European countries, Minister Bra Kanon asked donor countries to help provide agriculture supplies, including after-sale service on any equipment donated.

To help preserve equipment, the VOCA volunteers are putting a heavy emphasis on teaching preventive maintenance. ``Every morning before we do anything we make sure every moving part of the machinery is greased,'' said one volunteer.

In view of the many difficulties such a program can encounter, it is still uncertain whether the government's latest plan will work. Arthur Fell, West Africa regional director for the US Agency for International Development, says that although AID is financing the VOCA volunteers here, ``the jury is still out,'' on whether or not the program will work.

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