AWAE, Cameroon (AlertNet) - Jullienne Engono has good reason to look pleased with herself. The 49-year-old farmer has won first prize for food processing at an agricultural show in Awae town in southern Cameroon, where she sits at a stall surrounded by her stock of dried vegetables, plantain chips and biscuits, and potato and cassava flour.
But to Engono, adding food processing skills to her green-fingered talents isn't just about winning prizes. Turning crops into processed products is an increasingly important way for small-scale farmers like her to combat the potentially negative impacts of climate change on productivity in this central African nation.
Experts fear that changes in climate patterns, leading to more unpredictable and sometimes excessive rainfall, will worsen poverty levels among subsistence farmers across the region, including in Cameroon, where 70 percent of employment is related to agriculture.
Fritz Ngoe, who works at the Cameroon station of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), explains that processing crops helps farmers avoid post-harvest losses, which can occur when heavy rains turn roads to thick mud, adding to the time and cost of transporting produce to markets in cities where demand is high.
“We hire four-wheel-drive vehicles and consequently pay more for transport because of the bad state of the roads,” says farmer Rachel Engounou from Mvila in Cameroon's South Region. “Most often we spend three to four days getting to Yaounde and Douala with many of our food items, especially perishable ones, getting destroyed.’’
According to Engounou, who is president of Femmes Rurales de Mvila, an initiative group for rural women, farmers have armed themselves with food processing skills in response to climate change.
With training from international non-governmental organisations and the government, many women farmers have set up community development associations or similar groups, and are blazing a trail in converting perishable items such as fruit, plantains, tomatoes, cocoyams, potatoes and cassava into more durable goods.
“I now sell my products both in the original and processed form,” says prize-winner Julienne Engono, who is a member of the Association of Women Farmers in Awae. The proceeds supplement the family income and help support her husband, a cocoa farmer.
“I and my family are faring better because we are sure of our income, no matter how long it takes to sell (the processed goods), without any fear of the effects of climate change,” she adds.
Engono obtained a loan from her local agricultural association in order to buy two manual processing machines from the IITA, at a cost of 250 000 Central African francs (around $515) each.
The IITA’s Engoe says the machines “are easy to use, do not use fuel to avoid additional costs and are easily transported”.
Over the past two years, more than 1,000 women in the country’s South Region have been trained in food processing by the government’s Institute for Research and Development (IRAD), the IITA and international NGOs.
“This has been quite profitable for them as they can now transport their processed items to even (further) markets in the bigger cities of Yaounde, Douala, Bafoussam, Limbe or Bamenda without any fear of (produce) getting damaged in transit,” says Ateba Marie, a regional delegate for the ministry of professional and vocational training, which coordinates the programme.
ADAPTING FARMING PRACTICES
Armand Munken Mandjo, a researcher with IRAD Yaounde, explains that developing farmers’ skills in food processing is part of an effort to harness existing knowledge and technology in response to climate change.
IRAD also works with farmers to help them adapt their methods and planting calendars.
“In many cases, planting has become a financial risk now more than in the past, as the weather becomes less predictable,” Mandjo says.
Tougher farming conditions due to shifting climate patterns are making it harder for smallholders, who make up a large proportion of Cameroon’s farmers, to make a living, according to Mandjo.
“Most often farming patterns that applied yesterday no longer work under the changing climate conditions,” he adds.
Assistance is also on offer from the German government’s development organisation, GIZ. It has established a “Farmer Business School” programme in Cameroon which aims to train 27,000 farmers, according to GIZ consultant Maria Gerster-Bentaya.
The initiative provides instruction on product diversification, marketing, the economics of planting and replanting, and the principles of farming as a business.
“The ultimate goal…is to contribute to improving the livelihood of the farmers, to help them make informed decisions in the agriculture business,” Gerster-Bentaya said at a recent workshop for farming groups.
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an award-winning environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.
This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.