Cameroon is generally considered a potential breadbasket in Central Africa. But farmers are cultivating less than 20 percent of the country’s arable land and are complaining of the low market prices for their produce.
In an ongoing effort to improve the value of food crops, the government is introducing a project to help farmers sell their produce on national and sub-regional markets.
The initiative, which began in April, is dubbed the Agricultural Competitiveness Improvement Project. Better known by its French acronym, PACA, the program is being launched in seven of the country’s 10 administrative regions.
PACA is jointly financed by the government of Cameroon and a $ US 82-million loan from the World Bank’s International Development Association.
It’s one of several food security measures conceived by the government following hunger-related protests in February 2008. Among others, it aims to increase the market price of crops by improving productivity, quality and marketing. Its initiators say it should also help the competitiveness of farmers’ cooperatives that produce rice, maize, plantains, palm oil, pork and poultry with high potential for local and regional markets.
The project coordinator in Douala, Jean Blaise Bama, says, “The project will have a [big] impact because we’re going to ameliorate the revenue of farmers by giving them easy access to the market. We’re also going to [work on improving yields]. We will finance some micro-projects.”
Over the next six years, PACA will work to establish trading partnerships between farmers’ groups and buyers within and outside the country, the construction of irrigation systems in arid areas and the reform of complicated and inefficient regulations. Officials say rural people will indirectly benefit from the improvement of usually horrendous farm-to-market roads.
Critics warn that the venture, laudable as it may initially appear, could be corrupted. Two years ago, officials with the Ministry of Agriculture and Development set up phantom farmers’ groups to divert money from a package of subsidies for maize.
The Citizens Association for the Defense of Collective Interests, ACDIC, blew the lid on the scandal two years ago. A member of the group, Jean Christian Akam, says the complexity of the PACA initiative is setting off alarm among some observers:
“We have experience with such projects, and very often these are projects that do not have direct impact neither in terms of productivity nor in terms of competitiveness. So we are just afraid. If you look at this project, you are going to notice clearly that there are a lot of seminars. There is nothing concrete. We have noticed a lot of bureaucracy.”
But project coordinators disagree. They say the World Bank has provided mechanisms to monitor corruption at every level of the project. Toussi, the PACA national coordinator, says corruption is being dealt with:
“In the formulation of this project, we put a big emphasis on the problem of corruption. We will not finance a group supported by only one individual. And more, we’re not financing at the same time all the amount we have decided. We’re financing by steps to ensure that after the evaluation – if it’s positive, we continue. If it’s not positive, we stop and the beneficiary will have to pay back the money.”
In the wake of the 2008 protests over soaring food prices, the government announced a three-year plan to double food production. The US $1.7million program included the creation of a farmers’ bank to grant low-interest loans, subsidies for fertilizer and modern equipment, free seeds, training and the allocation of farmland to the most productive farmers.
Now, two years later, farmers -- who make up 70 percent of Cameroon’s population -- say the plan is sluggish.
But Ministry of Agriculture officials are optimistic. They say PACA and other initiatives will begin paying off over the next few years.