Okon Archibong Ukeme is passionate about food security and sustainable agriculture. This led him and project partner Nadia Ndum Foy to win the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition (BCFN) Young Earth Solutions (YES!) Research Grant Competition in 2015. Their project, Eco-Sustainable Gardens: Empowering Minority Women, addresses food insecurity among Mbororo women in Cameroon. The project works with minority women to establish gardens for household consumption and income generation, while encouraging gardening practices with a low ecological footprint.
Food Tank had the opportunity to talk with Ukeme and discuss his Eco-Sustainable Gardens project and his thoughts on minority group access to food, maintaining healthy soils, and climate-smart agriculture.
Food Tank (FT): Congratulations on your project Eco-Sustainable Gardens: Empowering Minority Women winning the BCFN YES! Competition in 2015. Could you tell us about the project?
Okon Archibong Ukeme (OAU): Ebile Pride, a member of PROTUS e.V. (Association for the Promotion of Teaching and Research for the Tropics and Subtropics at the University of Hohenheim e.V.), came up with the idea for the Eco-Sustainable Gardens project. The project’s goal is to improve food security and nutrition in Mbororo households in Cameroon’s northeastern region. It was designed to improve physical and economic access to nutritious food through gardening and facilitating access to markets.
The Mbororo are traditionally a cattle breeding tribe. The people benefiting from the project are Mbororo women who experience economic difficulties and possible food shortages during periods of transhumance; a time when the Mbororo men migrate with their cattle to areas with better access to pasture. Mbororo women depend on their husbands economically; a situation made worse by the fact that they are not traditionally involved in crop production and do not have self-produced stock to fall back on.
To address this issue, the project set up personal or community gardens in Mbororo communities. The gardens host cash crops for income generation, as well as other crops for household consumption. The crops for household consumption are nutrient-dense, mostly traditional vegetable crops, aiming to tackle micronutrient deficiencies.
The central selling point of these gardens is their ecological sustainability; they act as a tool for recycling and utilizing otherwise wasted resources. As cattle breeding is a traditional Mbororo occupation, the communities have access to cattle manure. The manure is an important input for the gardens, leading to improved soil organic matter content and, as a result, healthy physical, chemical, and biological soil conditions. In some communities, the project introduced mini biogas plants whose waste was applied to the gardens as a source of plant nutrients. In hilly areas, measures such as grass strips and cover crops have been put in place to reduce the splash effect of raindrops as well as the force of flowing water, reducing erosion. The project also encourages gardening practices that minimize soil disturbance, preserving the soil from degradation.
Another major component of the project is strengthening the Mbororo women’s capacity for collective action. Women in the communities are encouraged to form cooperatives to improve their bargaining power, which is critical for marketing their produce. These cooperatives are also an important social support/self-help system, allowing the women to implement savings and loan schemes. Finally, this type of organization makes it easier for women to access government services such as agricultural extension and provides a platform for the women to exchange experiences with their gardens and other issues.
FT: What are some of the most important factors that impact minority groups’ access to food?
OAU: I am not an expert on sociological issues; however, off the top of my head, I can say that minority groups’ access to food and other provisions and privileges of the social system is a consequence of poor political representation and a lack of integration into society. This results in limited access to resources and consequently a weak asset base on which to build sustainable livelihoods.
FT: Why are women in minority groups particularly vulnerable to food insecurity?
OAU: Women may be particularly vulnerable in societies where they have fewer rights than men. Land ownership is an example: in some societies, women are not able to own land. Consequently, a woman without a husband or a son is denied access to resources to build a sustainable livelihood and is more likely to be poor and vulnerable to food insecurity. The same can be said for access to other critical assets for building a sustainable livelihood, such as financial, or even social capital.
FT: You also work in soil science and climate-smart agriculture. What are some of the locally adapted solutions to building healthy soil that you have been involved with?
OAU: Simple measures that consider natural processes and ecosystem services are key to maintaining soils in a healthy physical, biological, and chemical condition. I have been involved in building healthy soil systems through two projects and on a personal level. For the eco-sustainable gardens project, I was involved in the design and implementation of a minimal soil disturbance/no-till system, as well as the management of organic matter/recycling of organic resources. I have also been involved in planning and managing soil conservation measures including mulching and cover cropping, which protect soils from degradation due to erosion. These measures are also effective in preventing moisture loss from the soil due to evaporation. Cover cropping, if properly managed, can provide services such as nitrogen fixation and/or the possibility of secondary products for farmers.
Regarding nitrogen fixation, I participated in research on measures to improve yields in smallholder farming systems in Ghana and we considered the possibility of inoculating soybeans with rhizobacteria to boost nitrogen fixation, a measure that could improve soil fertility. In my home garden, I manage my soil by composting, appropriate crop rotation, and carefully managed companion crops.
FT: What are the key considerations in building climate-smart agricultural solutions for the food system?
OAU: A climate-smart agri-food system cannot be separated from prevalent consumption and lifestyle patterns in societies. The problems existing in today’s agri-food system are systemic in nature and can only be solved with a holistic approach. The first step in building climate-smart solutions begins at the consumer level. Industry responds to our consumption patterns and policy-making responds to societal trends; this leaves a lot of room for citizens to influence the system.
With changing consumer preferences and consumption patterns, pressure can be mounted on industry and policymakers, forcing a systemic change which would lead to a revolution in the agri-food system. This would see a transition from the existing resource-intensive agricultural system that is destroying the planet’s capacity to provide crucial ecosystem services to an eco-friendly system built on natural processes.