Drought-hit Cameroon finds hope in seed farms

The initiative, which provides farmers with stronger seeds, is not only helping Cameroon's farmers grow more to feed their families, but is also increasing crop production enough to support processing and export jobs, agriculture authorities say.

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
A maize plant is seen at a drought-hit field in Hoopstad, a maize-producing district in the Free State province, South Africa, on Jan. 13, 2016. In Cameroon, a country that also suffers from severe droughts, agriculture organizations are creating and distributing stronger seeds built to withstand the harsh environment.

Farmers in Cameroon struggling with the effects of prolonged drought are finding relief through a government-supported initiative to give them access to better crop seeds.

The Southwest Development Authority (SOWEDA), based in Buea, has partnered with local farmer organizations to create seed farms that now supply small-scale farmers in the region with seeds built to stand up to harsher weather.

Since the project began in 2014, SOWEDA has established more than two dozen seed multiplication farms for crops including maize, cassava, beans, yams, and plantain.

Agriculture authorities say the farms are not only helping Cameroon’s farmers grow more to feed their families but also increasing crop production enough to support processing and export jobs.

“For agriculture to be successful, it starts with quality planting material,” Christopher Ekungwe, regional delegate of agriculture and rural development for Cameroon’s Southwest region, said in an interview in Buea.

Officials said the seed multiplication farms now cover all six divisions in the Southwest region, with SOWEDA selling seed to farmers outside the region as well.

Mr. Ekungwe explained that farmers traditionally have saved seeds from their harvests to plant their next crop, but that often such saved seed could not produce yields as large as the more resilient seed varieties offered by SOWEDA.

Some farmers say the project has helped stop their harvests falling as a result of climate change and improved their incomes.

“We now get a regular supply of quality and adapted seeds at affordable prices,” said Divine Nkeng, a maize farmer in Buea.

Mr. Nkeng said SOWEDA’s maize variety matures in 90-100 days, much faster than the seeds he used before, which took 130-150 days. That reduces the chance of drought hurting the crop before it is ready for harvest.

Some farmers say they have almost tripled production.

Adolph Njokwe, a maize farmer in Muyuka, said he harvested 8 tonnes of maize from his 4-acre farm in 2017, up from 3.5 tonnes in 2014, before he used the new seed varieties.

Like Mr. Njokwe, many small-scale farmers in the region say they have suffered from intensifying droughts and unpredictable rainfall, which have hit crop yields, leading to food and seed shortages.

According to Patrick Esapa, president of the South West Farmers Cooperative Union, the region suffered a range of severe droughts between 2012 to 2015, triggering price increases for seeds.

By contrast, under the SOWEDA effort, farmers can get a variety of seeds cheaply if they join a cooperative. The cooperatives club together to share the cost of large-scale packages of seeds, cutting the individual cost substantially, SOWEDA officials said.

So far, 63 farming groups with more than 70,000 members from across the Southwest region have made use of SOWEDA seeds, they said.

“In the past, accessing seeds has been a major hurdle. Sometimes we could get quality seeds from agriculture research centers but at prices three times higher than what we get now,” said Julius Takem, who grows cassava in Buea.

Statistics from SOWEDA show that more than 70,000 tonnes of maize seeds, 20,000 tonnes of bean seeds, and 15,000 yam sets from the multiplication farms were distributed to farmers in the region in 2017.

SOWEDA officials acknowledge that the program has faced some difficulties. The improved seeds are not suitable for all the climatic conditions in the region, for instance, with farmers in cooler areas getting better yields than those in warm areas, they said.

But one of their biggest challenges is ensuring a wider distribution of the seeds. The program is not currently able to get seeds to all the farmers who could benefit from them, SOWEDA officials said.

“If we could have enough seeds to deal with individual smallholder farmers and supply them on time, the results would have been twice what is obtained now,” said Peter Epie Ngalle, SOWEDA’s director of monitoring and evaluation.

The organization says it needs more funds to expand its work, but efforts to win private partners have not yet succeeded.

Convincing some farmers to pay even a token amount for their seeds is another challenge. Traditionally the government has provided seeds and other subsidies to farmers at no cost, and some farmers think SOWEDA should not be different.

“Paying money for seeds to a government structure is like paying taxes twice, and this is cheating [us],” argued Blasius Eku, a maize farmer in Bokwango.

Other farmers prefer to continue sowing seeds from their own harvests, SOWEDA’s Mr. Ngalle said.

“Even when the seeds are given for free, some still stick to recycled traditional seeds. Old habits die hard,” he said.

According to a 2017 World Food Programme report, Cameroon has experienced escalating food shortages and child malnutrition, especially in the North and East regions, in recent years.

The country was largely self-sufficient in food two decades ago but is now a large-scale importer of basic foodstuffs, according to the Association Citoyenne de Défense des Intérêts Collectifs (ACDIC), the country’s largest farming organization.

United Nations officials in Cameroon say that 57 percent of rural people live in poverty and 10 percent are food insecure.

Bernard Njonga, ACDIC’s head, said in an interview in Yaounde that although extreme weather was partly responsible for shortfalls in food production, mismanagement of resources meant to support farmers was largely to blame.

“Corruption is a big calamity in Cameroon. It has continued to stall all efforts to fight against the effects of climate change on food production,” Mr. Njonga said.

A report by his organization in 2011 found that only 10 percent of funds destined to support local farmers actually reached them.

Essimi Menye, the former minister of agriculture and development, was removed from office in 2015 and a warrant for his arrest on charges of complicity in the embezzlement of public funds was issued after he left the country.

Bernard Awasume, coordinator of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development's cocoa and coffee support program, said corruption was a problem but the government was working to address it.

"Corruption exists in most ministries in Cameroon, including that of agriculture," he said. "The government, however, is doing everything to fight the scourge."

"The Ministry of Agriculture now has an anti-corruption unit that monitors malpractices and this has helped to reduce the rate of corruption," he said in a telephone interview.

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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