- Emmanuel Eku has successfully restored exhausted soil to boost productivity on a farm in his village in southwestern Cameroon, relying on his agroecological training.
- He was able to invest five years in the project thanks to financial and other support from NGOs, highlighting the main challenge to other farmers who want to transition away from using synthetic fertilizer and other inputs.
- Today, Eku is sharing his experience with other farmers and helping connect them with similar support.
Emmanuel Eku turned to agroecological techniques to revive the exhausted soil on a plot of land in his hometown in southwestern Cameroon. Over five long years, he worked to restore his yields, with the support of an NGO. Today, he devotes his time to finding resources to help other farmers around him make the same transition.
In 2011, Eku lost his job as a supermarket sales manager. He decided to return to his home of Kupe Muanenguba to try and make a living as a farmer. The town is close to three parks: Bakossi National Park, Banyan Mbo Wildlife Sanctuary, and the joint Kupe and Muanenguba ecological reserves. These protected areas and other remaining forests are home to threatened species such as chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes ellioti) and drills (Mandrillus leucophaeus).
In this part of southwestern Cameroon, most people depend on agriculture for their livelihood. They grow cassava, plantain and cocoyam for their own consumption and sell any surplus. ”As we are close to three nature reserves, protected areas where it’s illegal to burn [the vegetation] to plant crops, I decided to look into an alternative approach to farming,” Eku says.
In 2012, Eku obtained a training grant to study agroecology from the African Institute for Economic and Social Development (Inades), an NGO that trains farmers in several African countries. “Thanks to this training, I realized that agroecology was very close to our traditional way of farming, the one we practice in our family, without using chemicals. I continued to practice shifting agriculture, but without burning the land, and I use a wider variety of crops.”
He put his new training to work on an abandoned plot: “It was cultivated for 10 years by the women of the village. At first they grew cassava, plantain and cocoyam naturally, but after a few harvests, productivity dropped, so they started using chemical fertilizers,” Eku says.
The fertilizer increased yields, but wild animals destroyed their crops, leaving the women with no money to pay rent for the land to the local chief. When Eku took over the field, he put up a fence up around it and set about growing a range of crops in line with his agroecology training. “ The soil was no longer accustomed to not receiving chemical fertilizers, it was poor,” he says. “It took me some time to restore nutrients and make it productive again.”
Eku chose his first crops carefully.”Onions are perfect for warding off certain diseases that affect tubers, so we interplant them. Moringa and turmeric are natural insecticides,” he says. “The diversity of crops and the way we arrange them means we can do without chemical inputs and restore our soil.”
To find the range of seeds he needed, he turned to a seed bank operated by ECHO, an NGO that supports farmers across the continent. “They provided me with the first seeds so that I could develop my field. Now I can produce my own and even give them to other farmers,” Eku says.
He struggled at first, but was fortunate to receive support from the organization that trained him. “After the training, I continued to receive Inades funds. My daily expenses were covered, so that enabled me to start growing without worrying about the yield performance. Without this money I wouldn’t have been able to carry on that project,” Eku says.
“Agroecology does not have the same yield as traditional agriculture, and there will be losses during the transition,” says Bertin Mbuya Kilabi, an environmentalist and civil society representative. “Those embarking on this transition need easy access to subsidies and take part in related activities such as livestock breeding and fish farming.”
Mbuya Kilabi spoke to Mongabay on the sidelines of a recent conference organized by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) to promote agroecology. He and Eku were among more than 200 participants who gathered in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to make the case for reorienting food production systems and agricultural policy. They joined other small-scale farmers and fishers, consumers, and civil society groups from across Africa to make the case for agroecology to decision-makers who also attended.
“I come to these types of conferences to raise funds, but also to talk about my situation,” Eku says. “My position is not stable. I rent the land, which means that if the traditional chief wants to reclaim it, he can do so at any time, and I would lose my field. I need to farm my own land.”
In Cameroon, small-scale farmers are the backbone of food production, but they can’t grow enough to meet the country’s demand for food. ” In Cameroon, we depend heavily on imports to feed ourselves,” says Rodrigue Kouang, who lobbies for the Support Service for Local Development Initiatives (SAILD), a Cameroonian NGO promoting agroecological practices.
According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, a quarter of Cameroon’s population suffers from severe food insecurity. This is due to both poor rains in the south in recent years, and a steep increase in the cost of fertilizer, which more than doubled in price between 2021 and 2022.
The rising cost of fertilizer highlights how Cameroon’s food supply is vulnerable to factors beyond the country’s control. “Agroecology can really change that, but we need to raise awareness among farmers and politicians alike, but we’re not there yet,” Kouang says. “Government provides funding for agroindustry and monoculture, but not for agroecology projects. In fact, for them the concept of agroecology is still a bit vague, and they find it hard to see how this system can feed the whole of Africa, so there are no incentives in place.”
Eku, for his part, is trying to raise awareness among farmers in Kupe Muanenguba. His agroecological plot has become a reference field for the U.S. State Department’s Communicating for Agriculture Exchange Program (CAEP), and he has since set up a farmers’ network of some 150 local farmers with whom he shares his experiences as well as funds he receives from various organizations, including the Agroecology Fund and the Global Greengrants fund.
“I’m trying to convince other farmers to go back to natural farming so as not to clear the forest and pollute the soil, but without funds we can’t d o anything,” he says. “It took me five years for my field to become profitable; how would I have made a living in the meantime? We don’t receive government funding. So yes, I raise awareness, but I also share funds.”
Eku’s experience shows both the promise of agroecology and the kind of support it would need if small-scale farmers are to adopt it successfully. Mbuya Kilabi faced similar challenges when he set up aquaculture projects. “We need funding and visibility to transition the food system toward something more sustainable,” he says.
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