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Ivory Coast’s ‘watchdog’ for food security

The specter of a food crisis looms. Guro Women are working to change that.

Guro women
Guro women
An increasing number of farmers In Ivory Coast are switching from food crops to cash crops including cocoa and rubber because of more stable incomes, forcing women from the Guro tribe in the southwestern part of Ivory Coast to take the lead in food crops business and ensure food security in the country. But the challenges faced by these women are profound; entrenched traditions and discriminatory customs restrict their access to ownership, occupation and use of land, stifle their chance for real progress and provoke widespread fears about future food (in)security in the country.

Abidjan, Ivory Coast - The key to the Ivory Coast's twenty years of unbroken development success appears to be its emphasis on agriculture, supported by economic incentives, extension services for farmers, and by a major expansion of the transport infrastructure to connect rural areas with the port cities.

The then ‘the granary of West Africa’

While many African countries have been rocked by political unrest and food insecurity in the first two decades after Independence, the Ivorians’ agricultural boom has taken place in an atmosphere of complete political stability.

The West African country, then ruled by late President Felix Houphouet-Boigny was tagged as ‘the granary of West Africa’ and President Houphouet-Boigny himself was portrayed by local press as the ‘‘first peasant of the nation’’; owner of the largest cash crops and food crops plantations in the country.

In 1978, Ivory Coast’s first president donated more than a thousand acres of his plantation to the Ivorian state. At that time, the government allocated 25% of the country’s budget to the agricultural sector with a particular emphasis on the food crops sector. Food security used to be a national agenda in Ivory Coast.

“The government had set up a dynamic agricultural development policy with different agencies that addressed every branch of the agricultural sector. The SODEFEL was the government agency primarily responsible for supporting the development of the food crops sector. The SODEFEL was the cornerstone of the country’s food security,’’ Antoine Gadou, 58, a former agent of the SODEFEL remembers.

Investing 10% of the budget in agriculture: a promise not kept

But the government expenditure and investment in the agricultural sector have been drastically reduced.

On the 10th of July 2003, Ivory Coast joined many other African countries and signed the Maputo Declaration promising to spend at least 10% of their national budget on agriculture by 2008. Ten years later, according to a document published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, only ten African countries have consistently reached their target; Ivory Coast is not part of them. Little has changed in the country.

Mamadou Sangafowa Coulibaly, Ivory Coast Agriculture Minister says ‘‘less than 2% of the country’s budget is now spent in agriculture.’’ Coulibaly speaking recently to an audience of the editorial board declared: ‘‘Ivory Coast is not immune to a major food crisis, with consequences at least as serious as the 2008 ‘hunger riots’, as a result of the low level of government investment in the agricultural sector.

“We still depend on food crops import for more than 50% of our food consumption needs, including staple foods such as rice and vegetables (60%).’’

For as paradoxical as it may seem, the food crops sector is neglected and not often talked about while investments peak in the cocoa and rubber sectors and projects are undertaken to increase these cash crops’ production.

Rubber output will climb to 300,000 tons this year from 230,000 tons in 2012, Albert Konan, Executive Secretary of the Rubber Development Fund said. Cocoa production this season will be 1.60 million tons, compared to 1.45 million tons, a year earlier.

As many sub-Saharan countries, Ivory Coast was hit by the 2008 hunger riots that left one person dead and hundreds injured. Many of the victims were women who took to the streets to protest against the high cost of basic foodstuff and high cost of living.

“The ‘2008 hunger riots’ death toll would have been higher if the ‘Guro women’ were not there to supply urban markets with food crops and other basic food stuffs and help the country stay away from starvation,’’ Dr. Marc Sékongo, a sociologist from the ‘Felix Houphouet-Boigny University’ in Abidjan declares.

Meeting self-taught business women

Females in Ivory Coast and particularly women from the Guro tribe in the southwestern part of the country play a pivotal role in food crops’ cultivation, processing, storage and management, which has crucial implications on food security at a national level. Yet, the women do not have secure tenure to land and access to production resources. This has dire implications to productivity.
Empirical evidence shows that Guro women are efficient on the growing and trading of food crops in Ivory Coast.

In the densely populated district of Adjamé in the heart of Abidjan is the ‘Guro Market’. This is the biggest market for food crops, fresh foods and the serves as the main food outlet for the city. The market which was named after these women can be compared, in many respects, to ‘Rungis’ in France.

A visit at the ‘Guro Market’, an open-air vendor space, gives a sense of how the Guro women help the country avoid a potential food crisis or famine.

The morning sun pierces through the thick white mist hanging over the bustling ‘Guro Market’ while Abidjan is just beginning to come to life.

As they wonder if the trucks hired to carry food crops will arrive on time, Viviane Tra, 30, and Carine Irié, 32, two of the hundreds of Guro women who run the market engage in a conversation. Carine hoists herself onto her ‘’office’’. The old wooden table shakes and cracks under her weight.

Like nearly all of her fellow Guro tribeswomen in the ‘Guro Market’, Carine did not attend school. Her father thought she was only good for the kitchen, she says. Many of Guro women, if they were lucky, attended only primary school. Needless to say most of them cannot read, write or even speak French (the official language) properly. Being born a female can be a huge disadvantage in this southwestern tribe where tradition puts the boy child ahead of girl counterparts. Families still prefer to educate boys over girls.

The most recent national data on literacy show that 51% of the population can’t read or write. The gender disparity in literacy by 2012 figures indicates that two thirds of the illiterate are women. The literacy rate of youth female (% of females ages 15-24) indicates 63% while the literacy rate of youth male (% of females ages 15-24) indicates 77,5%. 89% of illiterate females are in rural zones.

Despite their lack of formal education, Guro women’s self-taught business skills and diligence are making a difference. They set up this market more than two decades ago, without the support of municipal authorities.

Less than two meters from Viviane and Carine, Madelaine Lou, 42, one of the senior female food crops’ traders on the market stands in front of her stall. She explains: ‘‘the market emerged from mere stalls scattered here and there. In the beginning, we used to bring food crops from rural zones once a week.

“We would put money together and hire a truck to carry food to this place. With the growing demand for food, now, several trucks arrive here with food crops every day, from sunrise till sunset.’’

The Guro Market is the largest food crops and fresh fruits market in Abidjan. With some 850 traders here, around 830 are female and the market attracts thousands of customers each day.

A truck loaded with tons of plantains, cassava, eggplants and yams shows up, Viviane, Carine, Madelaine and many other women run towards it. As they help unload the products, their enthusiastic energy and singing fills the air and injects ambiance to a vibrant market place.

Viviane says she wanted to be a nurse but was denied education. ‘‘I am a mother of two, a seven-year old boy, and a girl aged five. Both of them attend school and they are performing well. None of my kids would stay at home, I will send them all to school, they won’t be like me; they will lead a different life,’’ Viviane says.

The food business is something that is helping the women of the “Guro Market” to educate their children as single parents. It is common to hear that husbands desert their families at the weight support.

Viviane and Carine attend ‘evening literacy classes’ in their different neighborhoods. ‘‘It will help us run our business,’’ they declare. But they find it difficult to attend to all expected role. They are often late for classes due to the workload at the ‘Guro market’.

Diehard gender taboos

Their husbands, they say, are not ready to share the workload with them. However, they have to use the income to support their children as well as unemployed partners. Carine and Viviane’s plight in the domestic sphere is common in a country where tradition and culture dictate a woman's role in the family.

In November 2012, President Alassane Ouattara dissolved the entire government over an argument about amending the marriage law, which specified that men were the head of the household and so in charge of assets such as land and property. After Ouattara appointed a new Prime Minister a week later, the bill was passed making women joint heads of the household. But patriarchy still entrenched in habits and this law has yet to changed centuries of masculine cultures, mostly in rural areas.

The trip to crops’ cultivation area

Carine and Viviane earn between 180,000 and 300,000fcfa (far above the minimum wage rate: 60,000fcfa) Yet, they say they have no savings since they spend the whole money to send their kids to school and take care of their husbands.

Many Guro women say meeting their family responsibilities is an obstacle to their financial independence yet family responsibilities is relatively minor compared to traditional land use rights and land tenure which affects women’s plots.

Carine, Viviane and Madelaine explain they have friends in rural areas who are involved in farm work while others are tasked with collecting the crops and storing them in warehouses. Next, they rent trucks to transport the crops to Abidjan and other urban markets. These trips from remote rural areas, from the fields to urban centers come with their fair share of trouble, including mostly road conditions and weather.

The road to Oumé, a town in the southwestern region of Ivory Coast -where most of the food crops come from- is more riddled with potholes. Successive trucks pass in a cloud of dust and sand. In the rainy season, the roads are not traversable, leaving crops to rot in warehouses.

But what women fear most is the land problem.

The reality of customary land tenure

Soro Mahamadou, the Director of the local Rural Development Agency acknowledges the land problem is a serious and continuing one: ‘‘although the law clearly stipulates equal rights of property ownership, on the ground it is another story. Land rights tend to be held by men or kinship groups controlled by men. People still face such diehard traditions’’.

Soro says attempts to interpret land ownership in a tendentious manner, based on traditions fuel conflict over land. ‘‘In our gender-blind societies, women are really discriminated. These traditions have adverse implications to women productivity.’’ The Director adds that about hundreds of hectares were recently forcefully taken from women and sold to a private company to grow rubber trees. ‘‘But, this figure arguably falls short of the reality because it’s common practice in this region. This also explains why food crops production has decreased,’’ Soro adds.

Chief Koffi Diby Guy, the Head of the Yaofla village, in Oumé, says: ‘‘Land does not belong to women. Land belongs to men; it belongs to the head of the family and only a male can be appointed head of the family. He can dispose of this property as he wishes. Women’s access to land resources is frequently mediated through customary law which also depends on men’’. ‘‘Even land rented out by women has lower productivity partly due to insecure land ownership status,’’ acknowledges Soro. ‘‘The situation is more alarming given that a great deal of female farmer cultivate their land through sharecropping arrangements,’’ he adds.

Facing restrictions on inheritance

In Zianfla, the nearest village, Rosalie Ayé, 34, mother of four, has been called to a meeting at the local chief’s house to defend her right to inherit her husband’s property where she cultivates food crops. Her husband passed away two months ago. Her husband’s brothers took the land from her and part of the land has already been sold. Rosalie says she wants to regain the land and be able to continue growing her crops and take care of her children. Rosalie’s story is uncommon in Oumé and in the southwestern rural Ivory Coast where males retain control over traditional territories. Customary law barely protects single-women and widowed women in access to land.

Empowering Guro Women

In Oumé, Adelaïde Tra, a female radio presenter at ‘Téné FM Radio’ (the sole radio station of the town) who is unafraid to break social taboos is working to help empower widows forced to quit their land and other women who grow food crops across in the area.

‘‘When I met the Guro women and discussed with them I understood the many challenges they were going through I said to myself it was time to do something for them, I wanted to help them. How? The quicker way to help them was to speak to all of them at the same time and the power of radio gave me the opportunity to do that,’’ Adelaïde explains.

Her radio show is about women daily life. ‘‘My show is about women’s rights, women’s education, everything that deals with women’s life. Most of the Guro women can’t speak French properly. But as I speak the Guro dialect, the communication is easy. The incoming calls option that goes along with the show also allow these women to voice their concern.’’

Chief Koffi Diby Guy in Oumé said recently he donated 30 hectares to an all-female co-operative to cultivate plantains. Most of the Guro women in the town sees Koffi’s action as a ‘‘hard-fought victory’’ made possible because of Adelaïde’s radio show. But the radio presenter says: ‘‘it’s the Guro women who are the heroines since they work to ensure food security in the country. They need protection’’.

Big talks: little actions

Agriculture accounts for 23% of the country’s GDP. The 2010-2015 National Agricultural Investment Program (PNIA) clearly affirms the will of the government of Ivory Coast to strengthen the capacities of all stakeholders involved in the country’s food security. With a clear timeline and a ‘Framework Policy Actions’, the PNIA program is expected to set up a body which is going to curb the land problem by June 2015.

When she was asked to give her comments on the PNIA, Adelaide declared: ‘‘the PNIA sounds good on paper. The government should avoid big talk without actions to match.’’ She added: ‘‘If the government fails to solve the land tenure problem that affects the Guro women and many other women in the country, the chances that the country spiral down into a cycle of food security will increase. Girls’ drop-out rate will jump up while we will witness a decrease in their enrolment, especially in the southwestern region. In fact, the food crops business is helping many Guro women who did not attend school to educate their children, especially their daughters.’’

This story was written with the support of The African Story Challenge @AfricanMediaInitiative.

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