Egbe Francis Etua is currently a volunteer staff member of PFPF. He has a Bachelors degree in Microbiology, is well versed in tropical agriculture and forest conservation, and has a fervent desire to build a future for himself and his country. He is, however, thwarted by many of the circumstances around him – including a problematic government, a disempowering culture, and the good old fashioned evil side of human nature.
This past year, Francis worked 60+ hours a week as a teacher to save enough money to buy a small plot of land where he could do organic, intensive, sustainable farming. He purchased the land a few months ago for 300,000 CFA francs (roughly $700 US dollars). He finished his teaching job and began working for PFPF to build his skills before starting his farm. In April he visited his land to see what initial work needed to be done. To his great surprise and dismay there was already another young man like himself clearing the land and starting to farm. What he discovered was the previous owner had sold the land twice! The owner apparently thought he could double his money and figured Francis and this other fellow would duke it out with machetes for the land. Being a man of higher values, Francis is instead taking the owner to court to hopefully get his $700 back and then start another entrepreneurial venture. Although his troubles won’t stop there.
Francis’ story is not uncommon here in Cameroon. Nearly 50% of Cameroon’s population is under the age of 18, and unemployment is rampant. In the middle of a normal weekday in Bangem, which is a small rural town of about 38,000 people, hoards of young adults – especially men – lounge around playing billiards, drinking beer, riding motorbikes, watching TV, and listening to the constantly blasting Makossa music. There is little work to be had here. Luckily, the area is incredibly fertile so from what I’ve seen and heard almost no one is going hungry. While the atmosphere in town has a positive side – people are generally relaxed, welcoming, friendly and festive – there’s also a pervasive sense of malaise about town. The opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship are lacking.
Another problem feeding this situation is the lack of available loans. I haven’t quite got a grasp of the financial world here, but I’ve been told it’s extremely difficult to get a loan to start a small business here. The banks are apparently untrustworthy and charge exorbitant fees. Many people resort to forming their own mini-financial cooperatives where they can pool a little money. But these cooperatives apparently don’t really fill the gap. Additionally, the government has something of an iron fist on the economy, being notorious for corruption and embezzlement.. What I’ve been told is even you get the capital to start a business, when the government gets a whiff of any success you might be having they tax you to death.
So, what’s the answer? Well, it’s an incredibly complex problem and there is certainly no silver bullet. In my humble opinion, I don’t think imposing top down global free market capitalism nor pumping large amounts of foreign will do the trick. It really seems that some grass roots efforts are what’s needed. Given the difficulty of getting loans, one piece of the solution could be implementation of some microfinance programs. For those of you not familiar, microfinance (when done right) provides small loans to poor people a little or zero interest. The founding institution of microfinance, the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, as had a 98% repayment rate over several decades. I discussed this with Francis and another local farmer, told them about Kiva.org, and they thought micro credit would be a very promising prospect. I plan to do some research to see if there are any micro credit institutions in Cameroon and how one might reach Bangem in the Southwest province. I’ll be posting about whatever I find, but in the meantime send good vibes to Francis so he gets his money back.