The sun flits in and out of the clouds, illuminating the hill that surrounds the Bongom village. Their emerald green colour is so resplendent and bright that it almost hurts your eyes. But the village was not as beautiful as it seems now. Just 5 years ago, the agriculture lands of the village were barren and degraded. Farming was not considered as a viable source of income among the communities. But, gradually, things are changing now. The farmers are practicing agriculture which is eco-friendly, harvesting nutritious food and supplementing their household income. The land has once again started feeding its own people.

A woman farmer harvesting organic water melon from Bio demonstration farm

A woman farmer harvesting organic water melon from Bio demonstration farm

Maimo Winfred is a woman farmer of the Bongom village – she says “We used to grow a range of crops in our land and the yield was bountiful quite sufficient to meet our household’s food requirement and the surplus items were sold at the local market for income generation. But, now things have been changing very fast. The soil is no longer fertile. Yield has been irregular and less, not even sufficient to meet our household needs.

Similarly, Lilian Beri another farmer of the village says “Before there was no such major investment in agriculture. We used to utilise locally available resources like indigenous seeds, farm yard manures and organic insecticides, pesticides to protect our crops from pest attack and infestations. But, now we have become dependent on purchasing external farm inputs like chemical fertilisers and insecticides. This has increased the cost of agriculture production and at the same time the harvest is also not regular”. “These were some of the desperate view points shared by the farmers during our initial discourse with the communities”, says Kari Jackson, Executive Director of SURUDEV.

Bongom village is located in the North-West highlands of Bamenda, Cameroon. The village has a population of around 3,000 people who mainly depends on subsistence agriculture for their livelihood. Due to the persistence practice of slash and burn cultivation the agricultural lands over the years have been degraded with increasing soil erosion. The extensive application of chemical fertilisers by the farmers has also contributed to decreasing yield and making the soil much harder than never before. The farmer’s community of the entire region complains about erratic and less yield. All these factors have severely jeopardised the livelihood of the community and aggravated the issues of food and nutritional security.


A woman farmer weeding at her organic home garden

Establishment of Bio-demonstration farm

SURUDEV a NGO based at Bamenda is committed to the sustainable development of the marginalised communities and has been working in the Bongom village for the last 4 years. Jackson says, “We firmly believes that the poor economic condition of the community of Bongom can be improved by organising participatory training programmes on sustainable and integrated agriculture. We felt an urgent need to promote organic household based vegetable gardens to address food and nutrition security. Thanks to the support of The Pollination Project, USA, today, around 30 widows and 10 unemployed youths has been successfully cultivating their organic home vegetable gardens and regularly generating income to sustain their livelihood. Remarkably, the model has become an eye opener for several other farmers and youths of the village and they are seeing a ray of hope in farming as a sustainable livelihood option. One can see the growing importance of organic agriculture among the communities, and the impacts of this are even more visible in the farmlands and the diverse food plates of the community”.


Kari Jackson giving training on organic vegetable gardening and distributing seeds to the farmers

The initial task was to educate and raise awareness in the farming communities on the adverse impacts of shifting cultivation and indiscriminate use of chemical inputs. Jackson continues “We gave much emphasis on promoting the concept of “learning by doing” and therefore SURUDEV has organised numerous field trainings on a common bio-demonstration plot of 4 hectares where the farmers took active participation in learning various methods and techniques of land management, soil conservation, organic manure and insecticides preparation process, inter-cropping and mixed-cropping, ect. More or less, this bio-demonstration farm has become a result demonstration for the farmers and thereby played a critical role in translating the concept into action”.

Theory of change

However, it was not easy to establish food crops on soils whose fertility had been depleted by the years of slash and burn cultivation practiced for generations. Much of the soil in and around Bongom was degraded and depleted of nutrient and biota. The most important strategy for managing this degraded soil and bringing back the soil biota was to build up nutritious top soil using composted chicken manure, plant-derived compost and mulch. SURUDEV encouraged farmers to add lime to the soil, which increased the soil pH and reduced aluminium toxicity, while providing the calcium that plants needed.  Improving the soil was the first step for farmers to bring back the biodiverse farms they had left behind.


A typical organic home vegetable garden of Nfor a progressive farmer

To complement their traditional knowledge in establishing small-scale vegetable gardens and food production systems, several demonstrations were given based on different composting methods and small farm methods on modern scientific principles. These methods included small plot home gardening, micro-gardens, raised beds, agroforestry, and integrated farming with livestock. Broadening local indigenous knowledge on soil management and food production by incorporating scientific knowledge was essential given the physical and chemical properties of the soil in Bongom. Much emphasis was placed on synthesising traditional knowledge and modern science.

Cultivating success

To counter the existing mono-cropping system of agriculture, SURUDEV initiated a vibrant campaign on reviving traditional inter-cropping and mixed-cropping among the farmers. Some of these cropping patterns are; cereal-legume, particularly maize-cowpea, maize-soybean, maize-pigeonpea, maize-groundnuts, maize-beans, sorghum-cowpea, millets-groundnuts, rice-pulses, while intercropping of water melon with beans, okra, carrot, cabbage, cucumber, garlic, onion also yielded bumper harvest.

Take for the instance of cowpea which is extremely drought resistant and adapted to poor soil, making it a useful staple crop for farmers in areas that face increasingly water scarcity and hot temperatures due to rapid climate change. Perhaps for this reason alone, it is understandable that cowpea is the second most widely grown legume in Africa. Mungwa Victor a farmers says “We eat cowpea at different stages throughout its development and forms the basis of our wide variety of meals. The leaves and young pods are eaten like vegetables, and seed are consumed as a side dish or made into sauces or dry grain. Seeds are also ground into flour that can be pressed into puddings, porridges, and soups. During very dry years, when animal feedstocks are low, the stems and leaves of cowpea are used to feed our livestock. The stems and leaves can also be dried and stored for the off-season when fodder for livestock is scarce”.

In addition to being a healthy option for the people who cultivate and eat it, the cowpea is beneficial to the soil in which it grows. The plant deep tap root – the part that makes it so tolerant to dry growing conditions and helps to stabilise the soil, while its shade and dense cover help preserve moisture. Like all legumes, cowpea fixes nitrogen in the soil, making the locations where it grows more hospitable to other vegetable and staple crops. An annual crop, the cowpea bears seeds that remain for several years, and farmers are now intercropping it with maize, cassava, groundnuts, sorghum, or pearl millet.

Farmers are also very delighted to cultivate okra with other crops as intercropping. In African context, okra has been called as “a perfect villager’s vegetable” because of its robust nature, dietary fibres and distinct seed protein balanced in both lysine and tryptophan amino acids. Farmers also used to dry it, make powder, store for long periods (unlike other perishable vegetables) and consume as soup/souse much like a staple food. Half a cup of the cooked pods (fresh) provides about 10 per cent of the recommended levels of vitamin B6, folic acid and vitamins A and C. The seed (usually consumed with pods) protein is distinct from cereals and legumes. On the degraded land, okra has proved to be an important rainfed crop. A common intercropping combination is maize-okra relay cropping followed by watermelon or bush greens and jute mallow or fodder crop sweet potato.


Kari Jackson visiting Nfor’s organic home garden intercropped with okra, maize, banana, tomato, carrots, pumpkin, onion, water melon

The production of water melons in the bio-demonstration farms was outstanding. Farmers have successfully intercropped water melons with maize or sorghum, tomato, cabbage. From the nutritional point of view, the red and sweet watermelon flesh is an important source of carotenoids, including lycopene and β-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. Further, water melon flesh is a rich source of citrulline, which can be metabolised to arginine. This amino acid is substrate for the synthesis of nitric oxide and it plays a role in cardiovascular and immune functions.


Harvesting of water melon from the bio-demonstration farm mixed-cropped and inter-cropped with pulses, cereals, species and vegetables

Similarly, the Bambara bean may have originated in Mali, but it is also popular in Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe. One reason the bean is growing popularity is because it is hardy plant, able to withstand high temperatures and dry conditions. The leguminous plant, in the same family as peanuts, produces seeds that taste partially similar between chickpea and haricot bean. “The seeds are boiled, canned, roasted, or fried, then ground and blended into many traditional dishes. When boiled, they are eaten as a snack, but they can also be added to stews and used to produce flour” shares Kifum Unity, a woman farmer. The Bambara bean is high in protein, particularly methionine, which makes the protein more complete compare to any other beans. In addition, the bean has the highest concentration of soluble fibres, a trait that has been shown to reduce heart disease and certain type of cancer. Jackson says, “Its high protein level makes the Bambara bean not only a low cost and dependable cash crop for subsistence farmers, but also a valuable weapon in the battle against hunger and food crisis across Africa”.

Visible impacts

The initiative taken up in the bio-demonstration plot and individual home vegetable gardeners are completely owned and managed by the farming community, while SURUDEV has only provided the necessary training and facilitation support. The bio-demonstration farm has become a platform for the farmers to learn and share their experience on sustainable farming and many of them have been applying the successful models in their own home vegetable gardens and farmlands. Within a span of just 2 years, the impact of household based organic vegetable gardens has starting showing promising results.

Maimo is very happy with the result. She elatedly says “I have learned the process of making organic manure, insecticides and how and when to use it during the training programmes organised by SURUDEV in the bio-demonstration plot. We have cultivated several vegetables as mixed-cropping and inter-cropping in the bio-demonstration plot and used only organic manures like dried cow dung, and applied residues of previous harvest crops as mulching. The yield was really bumper. All the farmers including me were convinced that this model of agriculture can really work well in our land and we need to replicate the same method and process in our own farmlands. Today you can see in my land, there are several vegetable crops like cabbage, okra, onions, cucumber, carrots, pumpkin huckleberry, green beans, pepper, green pepper, water melons, and green spices.


Tomato Cultivation

“After several crop cycles, we noticed that traditional and science based knowledge, along with human ingenuity, had helped the communities to successfully re-establish biodiverse home gardens. Sustainable practices such as mulching the soil and agroforestry have increased the climate resilience of these small farmers. Today these home gardens have become sustainable food production systems containing mixture of traditional root, crops, fruits and vegetables” overwhelms Jackson.

Cultural and socio-economic factors have profoundly influenced crop diversity. Families engage in food production for subsistence, but these home gardens, multi-functional agro-ecosystems, are also important for social and cultural spaces where knowledge related to agricultural practices is transmitted. A return to home garden modelled on traditional systems hold particular cultural and social significance for the Bongom communities, as they have been able to re-establish the multi-faceted benefits that traditional agro-ecosystems have provided them with for millennia.

The model of bio-demonstrations and home vegetable gardens promoted by SURUDEV are well accepted by the communities because they build on their traditional practices. In addition, these interventions help communities achieve their short term needs of food security in urgent situation, while building a lasting and environmentally favourable solution. Jackson emphasises “We will continue to promote wide participation in sustainable food production and restoration of agrobiodiversity, of farmers and scientist working together. Our outreach and education efforts can be easily replicated in other locations of the West and Central Africa”.

Way forward

However, even though home gardens provide advantages for smallholders, often they are seen as small and complicated for inclusion in development programmes. This requires appraising diverse and often location-specific economic, cultural and environmental conditions in traditional farming systems. Nevertheless, policy makers and advisors need to integrate home gardens into development programmes and provide training and promotion for such initiatives. Finding pragmatic ways to alleviate hunger, malnutrition and poverty does not always depend on new crop varieties that are bred in a laboratory. Instead, reigniting an interest in and a flavour for indigenous foods can significantly help improve nutrition, increase household incomes, reinforce agricultural biodiversity, and safeguard local cultures.


Abhijit Mohanty is an international development professional currently works with SURUDEV as a Development Officer and based in Bamenda, Cameroon. Follow him on twitter @abhijitumohanty


All photos supplied by SURUDEV