By Elias Ntungwe Ngalame
NDOP, Cameroon, Oct 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women farmers in western Cameroon are leading the way in commercial rice production, benefiting from new seeds and marketing opportunities that are helping them cope with climate stresses and provide for their families.
A programme run by the Upper Nun Valley Development Authority (UNVDA), a government agro-industry body, aims to help rice farmers adopt better crop varieties, use water more efficiently and adapt to climate change.
"I have been able to pay school fees for my children and medical bills from the sale of my rice crop, unlike before when the harvest from my vegetable farm was uncertain," said Bridget Ngang, one of over 300 female commercial rice farmers in Ndop.
Her vegetables were often ruined when heavy rains brought floods, she explained.
Cameroon's Institute of Agricultural Research for Development (IRAD), together with international partners, has developed improved rice varieties that are more resistant to climate extremes, as well as farm technologies to increase rice productivity.
In the last 15 years, scientists have released 18 varieties under a line called New Rice for Africa (NERICA), developed by the Africa Rice Center which crossed an African species tolerant to local stresses, including drought and pests, and a high-yielding Asian species.
"These varieties can resist submersion, droughts and high temperatures including pests and diseases," said UNVDA General Manager Chin Richard Wirnkar.
The local development authority is involved in a project led by the Africa Rice Center which has established a "rapid impact" seed programme to distribute new high-yield seed varieties to farmers.
It also promotes post-harvest technologies like rice milling and packaging, processing activities, and stronger links with input dealers and micro-finance institutions.
The project gives households opportunities to raise their income by developing new rice-based products like rice flour and husks for fuel, and exploring the use of rice in fortified foods, including vitamin-rich cereals.
The government acknowledges that achieving its plan to make Cameroon an emerging economy with double-digit growth by 2035, and implementing the new U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty and hunger depend largely on the economic empowerment of women.
"Commercial agriculture will play a key role in achieving the SDGs in Africa and the contribution of women in this area cannot be ignored," said Wirnkar.
With renewed government interest in the rice sector in recent years, Cameroon has the potential to become a rice granary for the Central African region, according to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).
But making this a reality requires strengthening rural infrastructure such as roads, irrigation, and rice milling and rice processing facilities - as well as farmers' ability to market their produce.
Mary Agoh, 52, farms rice on 15 hectares (37 acres) of land in Ndop, in Cameroon's Northwest Region, from which she now comfortably feeds her family, selling her surplus to wholesale buyers to boost her income.
In a country where 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, Agoh is now counted among the wealthy.
She and Ndop's other women rice farmers are helping boost Cameroon's rice production to unprecedented levels.
HUNGRY FOR RICE
In the last few years, Cameroon grew less than 20 percent of the rice it needed. In 2012, the country produced 102,000 tonnes of paddy rice and had to import up to 375,000 tonnes to meet demand, according to figures cited by the IRRI.
But experts say production has been on the rise since women embraced the commercial rice production scheme. The land developed for rice fields under the UNDVA project more than doubled last year to around 3,300 hectares, and it is adding 700 hectares more in northwestern villages.
Thanks to a good harvest in 2014, the UNVDA had to increase its initial FCFA 250 million ($435,868) budget for collecting paddy from farmers by FCFA 50 million.
Things were not the same even five years ago, when tradition prevented women in the area acquiring or inheriting land they could use for large-scale commercial farming.
"We were condemned to produce on small rented plots that limited us to subsistence agriculture with crops like maize and vegetables that are vulnerable to the effects of climate change and food crop loss," said Agoh.
Cameroon's 1996 constitution grants women the same rights as men to access, own and control land, and also allows them to participate in decision-making on land matters, but customary norms have made it hard for women to obtain land.
When UNVDA launched its project in 2012 to support over 13,000 rice farmers nationwide with improved seeds, fertiliser, herbicide, information, training and equipment rental, the women in Ndop did not want to miss out.
With help from the African Women's Network for Community Management of Forests (REFACOF), they held a series of protests, pushing local authorities to allocate them land so they could join men in commercial rice farming.
Ngang and Agoh are just two of millions of African women farmers who have suffered from cultural practices or laws denying them access to land. But their success in overcoming those barriers suggest things may be changing in Cameroon.
Here the government has drafted a new family law that will help enforce women's property rights once adopted by the National Assembly, officials say.
(Reporting by Elias Ntungwe Ngalame; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an award-winning Cameroon-based freelance writer for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.