Grain bank

Description of the cereal bank project in the Far North of Cameroon
Context

The economy of Cameroon’s Far North region is essentially based on the rural sector, and the vast majority of the population lives from agriculture (maize, sorghum, millet, etc.), which accounts for between 75% and 80% of annual agricultural production. On average, the region’s cereal production is sufficient to meet the population’s basic needs for eight months of the year. As a result, the population experiences food shortages during the lean season, which usually lasts from July to September.

Among the natural causes of hunger in Cameroon’s Far North province, we can cite first and foremost the drought linked to the advancing desert, the poor quality of the land, and attacks on crops by predators (defoliator caterpillars, grasshoppers, granivorous birds and pachyderms). But alongside these natural causes of hunger lie more systemic realities, less visible, but far more powerful and rooted in local habits: man-made, through speculation, the weakness of national agricultural policies, the inadequacy of state intervention and the useful but unsustainable distribution policy of international organizations.

  • Speculation

Speculation is widely practiced by wealthy traders, who buy community produce at low prices during the harvest season, and stock up on grain until they can bring it to market during the lean season, when they sell it at very high prices. In 2005, for example, when farmers had very low harvests of maize and sorghum, market prices soared from 7,000-8,000 CFA francs to 32,000 CFA francs. Under these conditions, foodstuffs become completely inaccessible for the majority of the population, 60% of whose basic food consumption is based on maize, millet and sorghum. By 2006, the problem was so acute that provincial authorities were advising groups not to sell their harvests en masse to large traders. At the same time, they were discouraging the sale of large quantities to neighboring countries.

Given the meagre incomes and low purchasing power of the afflicted populations, many households are forced to sell their livestock at very low prices in order to meet their families’ needs during the lean season. Often, men leave their villages for long periods, traveling long distances in search of work to find something to eat for their families.

As a survival strategy during this harsh period, most households reduce their meals to just one a day. Many resort to loan sharks who take advantage of their desperate situation. Others migrate permanently elsewhere.

Program objective

The general objective pursued by this program is twofold :

  • On the one hand, there is an immediate objective, which aims to make food available in the villages at all seasons of the year, and to enable those without the financial means to obtain it anyway ;
  • On the other hand, a more important medium/long-term objective: to federate the various groups, and make them a strong union, able to understand and act on market mechanisms, national and international policies, and to demand fairer agricultural and food policies, and finally to lead its own advocacy for more state investment in agriculture and to support peasant initiatives, in order to respect the right to healthy food as a fundamental human right.

Project strategy and activities.

In response to the recurring problem of hunger in the Far North region of Cameroon, RELUFA has set up a Community Cereal Bank system, designed to meet a food need during the lean season, while at the same time strengthening the beneficiaries so that they can sustain the program over the long term. The operation began in 2006 with 18 villages each receiving 60 100 kg bags of millet, i.e. 6 tonnes per village. In April 2008, 16 more villages joined the program, 7 more in 2009 and 3 more in 2011, bringing the total number of villages to 44. Due to irregularities and problems with the animation in 2008, 5 villages had completely lost their initial stock, but three were able to recover. To date, 46 villages are part of this storage operation.

  • Creation of 46 cereal banks

RELUFA organizes the community into a Groupement d’Initiative Commune (GIC), helps it set up a management committee and then provides the initial capital, i.e. a stock of 60 bags of cereals (red or yellow millet usually) weighing 100 kg each (one bag should feed a family of 6 a month). It is the responsibility of the members of the management committee to manage this stock and make the food available to community members later in the lean season. In each village involved in the operation, the beneficiary group contributes by providing a storage facility.

More specifically, RELUFA’s operation consists of buying farmers’ production at harvest time (breaking the speculation mechanism), and storing it in the villages involved in the storage operation. These bags are stored in granaries or premises donated by the villages as a contribution to the program, and are kept there until the lean season. At this time, the groups decide on the critical moment for opening the granaries, and how to make the stocks available to the starving population. There are two possible options:

  • Either the group decides to sell the bags at the market price, or at a price slightly lower than the market price, but slightly higher than the price during the harvest season. This option is open to group members who have cash to pay.
  • Or, for those without cash, the group can lend them a 100kg sack or a half-sack, which they will repay in kind at the next harvest, with a small interest in kind.

Generally speaking, the vast majority of groups opt for loans in kind during the lean season. Selling is also an option in a few cases, but only to a limited extent.

Each group has sovereignty over the rules governing the management of its granary, and there are many variations in the different rules governing stock management. Some groups, for example, give their millet on credit only to members of the group or village, and sell it for cash to anyone from outside. Others charge interest on a daro (traditional cup) of 16.5 kg, and still others on 12 kg. In most cases, the groups say they only lend to people whose morality and level of indebtedness is known in the village.

In all groups, a management committee of between 5 and 10 people is responsible for running the granary. At least two women sit on each committee.

In addition to training (on the concept of village storage, store maintenance methods, keeping accounting records, holding meetings) given to members of the management committees,  the organizers check the prices of certain foodstuffs at the various weekly markets in the project area. These prices are then communicated to the members of the management committees. This makes it possible to assess the evolution of market prices, enabling beneficiary groups to take decisions at the members’ assembly on the period when the granaries are opened and on the different prices that can be applied.

The fundamental added value of RELUFA’s approach is that villages can ensure that they not only have a new stock of food each year during the lean season, but that their initial stock of food grows to reach a greater number of people, thanks to their own efforts. By the same token, this system allows beneficiaries to retain their dignity and does not keep them in a situation of eternal assistance.

  • Construction of 27 storage facilities

As an integral part of RELUFA’s strategy, most villages have increased their food stocks from year to year, and the space in the premises made available by the villages has become small.

As many of the spaces were built of earth, some were destroyed by the rains, and to prevent the stocks from spoiling, the villages decided to keep them elsewhere, sometimes divided between several families, which could create new management problems.

In many cases, the premises used by the villages were donated by people who had left the village for an indeterminate period of time, with the agreement that the community would return them to the owner when he returned. In such cases, the village needs to find a long-term solution for its grain stock.

A small number of communities have found a storage facility elsewhere, outside their village, but are unable to effectively supervise and control access to stocks for others.

In a number of villages, insects have infected the cereals due to the poor quality of the storage premises.

At the end of 2009, RELUFA built the first two granaries of the program in the two communities that had best managed the operation up to that point, which made the villagers proud.

Considering the significant impact of RELUFA’s food sovereignty operations on the participating communities, RELUFA approached the Japanese embassy with a project to build 25 storage warehouses, which agreed to participate in the project.

Results and Impacts

According to RELUFA’s estimates, this storage operation directly and indirectly affects more than 25,000 people, and the following impacts can be mentioned

  • Availability of food in the villages concerned during the lean season: The stock of food that RELUFA has helped to provide has reduced the impact of hunger in all groups during the lean season. No longer needing to sell valuable personal possessions or livestock to buy food for the family, the storage operation makes food available under more humane conditions that respect people and their dignity. In the past, many group members would travel long distances to fetch food, either because there was no large market in their locality, or in the hope of finding more affordable prices by going further afield. Now, with the storage operation, food is available in the village, at fair prices, and with an advantageous option for group members with no money.
  • Women’s participation in management: Several women are involved in management committees, and in three villages, management committees are made up entirely of women. The active participation of women in this type of program reinforces their status in their communities.
  • Increased access to education and healthcare: In the lean season, farmers used to sell their goods and livestock to buy food for their families. Now, although livestock continues to be sold, it is no longer to buy food, but to provide for other essential needs, including sending children to school or taking care of their health.
  • Human dignity regained: Traditionally in this part of the country, anyone dying of hunger ” has the right ” to go to their neighbors early in the morning to beg, and the tiny quantities received are usually not enough to feed the family for the day. Begging every day ends up inconveniencing the families who do it, and they see stocking up as a way of restoring their dignity. Borrow, even if you have no money, and pay it back at harvest time, rather than beg.
  • Lower recourse to loan sharks: In other groups, during the lean season, some could borrow a bag of millet from relatives, and at harvest time return two bags, i.e. with 100% interest. With the current storage operation, just a few kilograms of interest are enough, and this with the sole aim of fructifying village stocks.
  • Extension of cultivated areas: Before the operation facilitated by RELUFA, in some villages many people would give their labor power in the fields to be paid, and use this payment to buy food for their families. Now, with food available in the villages, the men can concentrate their efforts on their own fields.

Challenges

However, challenges remain, notably the federation of these various groups for advocacy at regional and national level. Indeed, in 2011, 4 unions were created but the functioning to date is not optimal mainly due to the weakness of group dynamics.

[1] Survey on the management of the Ministry of Agriculture in 2004 (summary)

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