Determination. Adaptability. Patience. Love. These are the key virtues you need when you embark on a journey through coffee and cocoa plantations in Cameroon, ready for an epic and folkloric adventure.
Folks, next time that you enjoy your favourite chocolate bar or sip your matinal double expresso, I hope you’ll remember the stories that follow, the story of Joseph, Ella, Beatrice, Simon and many others who, hopefully, you will decide to support after reading this.
Despite being the 5th biggest cocoa producer in the world, the production in Cameroon hasn't been as good in recent years and farmers in Cameroon are abandoning their plantations, in the quest for a better livelihood. The youngest generation escapes in urban areas, the others try out other, more profitable, activities. But why?
After 5 years of piloting an integrated agriculture loan programme, ACEP Cameroun is scaling up this project for smallholder farmers across the country, with the support of Kiva this year. As part of my fellowship with them, I was scoping the role and the impact that microfinance -and Kiva lenders- could play in poverty alleviation in rural areas, as well as the current barriers facing producers.
Usury, a never ending vicious circle
‘Farmers need to buy farming inputs at the beginning of the season to treat and maintain their plantations. Problem is, they’ve never had access to financial services and never had enough money left at the end of the year to have savings’, explains Saturnin, Head of one of the cocoa cooperatives we visited. ‘And so, the deal offered to them by buyers’ intermediaries and other unscrupulous individuals is simple’, he continues: ‘XAF 10,000 -$16- against 1 bag of coffee or cocoa -50-80kg a bag. Except that a bag of coffee or cocoa is usually sold at XAF 45,000/ 50,0000 ($73-$80) on the market.With this system, farmers have to repay 4 to 5 times what they have borrowed at the start of the year, without counting the other usurious loans that they have to take mid-way through the season to pay for their kids ‘school, medical and living expenses. By the time the season ends and the extortionate loans repaid, farmers have very little left to survive on, let alone anything to improve their living conditions. That is one of the many practices used to exploit farmers’ vulnerability and rural isolation. We created a cooperative to get stronger together but we still don’t have access to financial services.’
Feedback from farmers is crystal clear. It works for them. Pretty well.
We visited hundreds of farmers, in many villages often located hours away ‘in the bush’. One by one, village after village, smallholder farmers share their appreciation and feedback. It is clear that ACEP’s initiative has been paying off.
‘I am proud’.
‘We are so thankful’.
‘I saved my plantations’.
‘I paid for my son’s medical expenses’.
With the extra profit generated last year thanks to ACEP, some managed to send kids to school, others put a tin roof on their home or managed to cement the floor of their homes or pay for medical fees upfront.
I remember well one of these visits. Upon our arrival, after 3 hours’ drive on dusty bush roads, 200 farmers gathered around the chefferie, a wooden hut at the heart of the village where important meetings are held. I spent only one day with them, but our team stayed for 4 days straight to review and finalise the 500 micro-credit requests received from the members of this cooperative. You could have sensed the excitement and impatience in the air. Some of them were here to renew their loan after a successful first year, others were impatient to take their first one, encouraged by the success of their neighbours.
'I am usually shy and don't speak much', an ederly says. 'But today' he continues, 'I can't express enough my gratitude, thank you for helping us'. He was speaking wih hope in his eyes and a big smile. He was truly sincere. I was moved.
Microfinance, a catalyst for long lasting change
And so, to the question: ‘is microfinance a game changer here?’ YES, totally.
It is the catalyst to unlock change. We can make an impact to their lives immediately and free the farmers from the hands of usurers by allowing them to access critical capital at a fair interest rate. It is one of the most immediate impacts we can measure.
Farmers win. Usurers lose.
Indeed, some individuals with local vested interest are not accepting ACEP’s loan officers with good grace. Daily threats are hanging above the staff's head like a sword of Damocles. ‘They are trying everything to deny us access to these villages. Some destoyed bridges, others try to intimidate the farmers and threaten us. We had to go to the police station more than once. But never mind, we are here to stay and things are starting to change. Farmers are staring to trust us. They can see we are here to help them and they get more determined to change than ever before’ says Mofet, Head of one of ACEP’s rural agencies.
Today, current and future Kiva lenders can make a huge impact. I’m so happy that today, just before the end of my fellowship with ACEP Cameroun, we have just published their first agriculture loan profile on Kiva, hoping that our community will support them and help these farmers break free from the vicious cycle of usury in which they live.
For the love of chocolate and expresso, $25 is all you need to start investing in farmers like Beatrice, Pierre, Joseph, Benjamin and many others! So little can make such a huge difference!