There are fears in Cameroon that a combination of problems may lead to slumps in maize production that will bring on the sub-region's worst food crisis yet. Experts say maize is the most important cereal crop in sub-Saharan Africa, which is home to 25 percent of the world's poorest people. Amid rising food costs, many are turning to maize because it's considered the most affordable staple.
Almost every Cameroonian is familiar with fufu corn, a form of couscous obtained from corn flour. It's cooked by steaming and served with various types of meat and vegetable sauce.
The country has an estimated population of 18 million. Experts say over 65 percent of them rely on maize. And amid skyrocketing food prices, more and more Cameroonians are consuming maize.
The cereal is also used in the production of animal feed and to make beer and other fermented drinks. It is the main source of income for more than three million small-scale farmers.
But there are widespread fears that maize production this year could plunge to an all-time low. The worries gripping farmers and consumers are based on findings issued by the NGO the Citizens' Association for the Defense of Collective Interests, ACDIC.
The report warns that Cameroon will face its worst food crisis this year unless maize production is stepped up by 120,000 tons. It says Cameroonians will face a rise in the cost of food and other goods, with a strong probability of more hunger-related unrest. Over the past year, the price of maize at local markets has doubled to about half a US dollar per kilogram.
ACDIC president Bernard Njonga says several factors are to blame for the projected maize production decline and eventual price hikes. He says farmers can no longer meet production costs which are extremely high. He says in a year, the cost of fertilizer has leapfrogged to 25.000 FCFA [about 50 US dollars]; a kilogram of maize seeds now sells at more than one dollar while pesticides and modern equipment are simply beyond the reach of farmers. He says the solution is for the government to urgently provide subsidies to farmers before the planting season begins.
And that's not all. The citizens' association says corruption has compounded the problem. It has been alleged that officials at the Ministry of Agriculture diverted more than one-and-a-half million dollars in subsidies for maize production last year. They allegedly signed the money over to fictitious farmers' groups. Officials at the ministry have denied the charge as investigations continue.
Another problem facing farmers is unpredictable rains. Ngwa Martin is a school teacher and a farmer. Martin says, "The planting season normally starts in Cameroon after the first rains, that is, from March 15. But farmers [were] mislead by early rains [into thinking] it was the start of the planting season. [The seeds that were planted early decayed]."
In February last year, thousands of hungry Cameroonians poured out into the streets in protests triggered in part by rising food prices. The government said 40 people were killed, but human rights watchdogs put the death toll at more than a hundred.
The government reacted by announcing an emergency three-year plan to double agricultural production. It included the creation of farmers' banks to provide loans at cheap rates, subsidies for fertilizer and modern equipment, free seed banks, training and the allocation of land to the most competent farmers. It committed 1.7 million dollars to the program.
Now, over a year later, farmers say the pledges have not been fulfilled. In fact, many say the whole purpose was to calm tempers and divert attention from a plan by President Paul Biya. The president has been in power since 1982 and wants to amend the constitution to abolish term limits so he can hold office for life.
But officials at the Ministry of Agriculture maintain the plan is being fine-tuned and will be enacted in the months ahead.
In the meantime, maize growers are planning to trim production. Poultry farms are shutting down because they cannot afford feed, and the brewers are looking elsewhere for maize supplies.