Five million people are at risk of hunger from food insecurity in northern Cameroon. Local initiatives are attempting to change this.
In Soa, a suburb of Cameroon’s capital city Yaoundé, Gisele Ottou and her children dry mangoes on a solar oven. As the mango season winds down, she wants to preserve them so her children can continue to have their favourite fruit. 10km away in the suburb Nkolfoulou, Mr Talle toils to cope with the demand of his business. The food technologist and engineer established Taless Dry Food in 1992, a company which aims to test and optimise the performance of food dryers it sells to others looking to dry fruit and vegetables. This business is at the forefront of local resistance against food insecurity.
Food insecurity is defined as not having sufficient availability of, access to, and use of food, a formula which may be undermined by weather, volatile prices, or conflict. Threats to food security may seem out of place for a country like Cameroon, with abundant agricultural resources such as cocoa, coffee, bananas, tubers, cereals, fruit and vegetables. However, food insecurity in sub-Saharan African countries with abundant land and resources is common, as these primary commodities are often used to provide revenue through international trade and leaving them to rely chronically on food aid.
Chronic food insecurity
Cameroon is considered a low-income, food-deficit country by the World Food Programme. A food security and vulnerability analysis conducted in 2007 suggested that poor agricultural production, low education and income levels, and inadequate infrastructure are responsible for vulnerability and food insecurity in the northern provinces.
Oxfam reports that more than 18 million people across West and Central Africa are facing a food crisis following erratic patterns of rainfall that have caused poor food harvests and water shortages. Although the bulk of the attention is focusing on the potential for Malian instability to trigger a famine or larger humanitarian crisis, five million people are at risk of a humanitarian crisis in North Cameroon says Ousseynou Ndoye, a regional food security programme coordinator for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). He suggests this is due to crop failures last year, and insists this potential crisis might have been avoided if “people were able to store their food”.
Nevertheless, according to the National Statistics Institute, « Cameroon has great potential in the agricultural sector ». At the moment, however, agricultural losses after harvest are close to 30% of local production because of a lack of conditioning equipment, storage, drying or processing. And despite this, Cameroon exports hundreds of tonnes of food products each year. These resources arrive on the world market raw, almost without transformation, and then return to the Cameroonian market after processing. This is the case with chocolate, fruit juices, tomato paste and corn flour.
Informal initiatives to break the cycle
The FAO suggests that processing food may improve its digestibility and extend its availability, thus stabilising supplies and increasing food security at the household and national level. And although food preservation was something traditionally practised across the African continent, in many areas these practices are dying out as commercially processed foods appear in the market.
However, there are still many local businesses preserving food, although they are doing so under the government’s radar as part of the informal economy. According to National Statistics Institute (INS), there are about 1,000 small family units that preserve and process food for their own consumption and nearly 250 small private informal companies that employ between three and ten people and operate for commercial purposes.
Elie Kamga, from the Ministry of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises, Social Economy and Handicrafts, told Think Africa Press that « private initiatives such as these tend to contribute to food security by making food available all year ». Results have indicated that these local initiatives do help tackle the problems of food insecurity to some extent.
However, the cost of purchasing machinery is high – tens of millions of CFA francs (or several thousand dollars) and this excludes the inevitable maintenance costs that go with it. The inherent disorganisation of the informal sector means results are not as great as they could be – there are no health services that monitor the quality of food stored or processed.
Swapping the informal for the formal
Despite its acknowledged potential by the government and the large portion of the budget received by the Ministry of Agriculture each year, the agricultural sector has struggled. The government says it is working hard to give the sector more stable footing but appears to going about things in the wrong way.
« Valuing the preservation of these products can help create a more substantial value, reduce imports, fight effectively against poverty, contribute to food security by making food products available all year and finally reduce post-harvest losses, » says Elie Kamga.
International organisations like the Food and Agricultural Organisation applauded the Douala Declaration of 2005 which reinforced the government’s commitment to food security and the improvement of food supply and distribution activities by private sector operators. Governmental authorities also aim to better organise the agri-food sector by helping small businesses like Taless leave the informal sector for the formal one.
A five-year programme established in 2010 has allowed the ministry to provide loans to 30 contractors for the purchase of equipment every year. To date, companies that have received these credits work in the extraction of oil palm, the processing of semi-industrial corn, the production of peanut butter and the manufacturing of dietetic flour. But the government’s strategy has not yet had its intended effects.
The support provided has not managed to tackle the problems of food scarcity and distribution as people who have food in abundance tend to still preserve it for their own consumption. Those who received loans prefer to export their products as this makes it easier to repay their own debts – entering the local market is far less lucrative.