Working from the ground up

Case study: Talensi, Ghana

A low-cost, easily replicated land restoration technique has helped smallholders in northern Ghana resist the ravages of climate change

Farmers select pineapple plants to be cultivated on a farm in Ekumfi, Ghana, 2018 Photo: Christina Aldehuela

Although climate change has not received as much discussion as it should have in Ghana, it has taken its toll on the Talensi district in the upper east region of the country. Fortunately for the farmers in the area, a Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) project, sponsored by World Vision Ghana, has helped to alleviate its effects on the people. The project, which has been well received and is showing signs of success thus far, could be replicated across the African continent to increase food and timber production as well as resilience to climate extremes.

The Talensi district forms part of the 15  municipalities and districts in  the upper east region and is one of 260 Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs). About 90% of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture. Production of the main staple food crops, namely cereals and legumes, is done by smallholder farmers using traditional methods, which have made little room for modern scientific advancement. The main crops produced are millet, sorghum, groundnut and beans. These are dependent on annual rain, which has become erratic over the years, leading to poor harvests.

Inusah Baba, a senior research scientist at the Savannah Agriculture Research Institute of Ghana’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), says the Ghanaian authorities have woken up to the fact that climate change is a phenomenon that is not remote to the country. Changing weather conditions have also led to flooding, which has become an annual ritual in all major farming communities on the banks of the White Volta [the headstream of the Volta River, Ghana’s main waterway], Inusah said. As a result, many people’s crops have been washed away by flood waters.

In addition, the erratic rains have reduced yields for most crops grown in northern Ghana. Moreover, in recent years intermittent droughts – which are understood to consist of three or more weeks with no significant rains – have also combined with unusually high temperatures in March through to April, affecting the period between August and September, when most crops are grown under rain- fed conditions. Farmers in the Talensi district, however, say that World Vision’s FMNR has helped to maintain their livelihoods.

Standing in his fields, wearing his fugu – a cotton outfit worn by men – John Anaba, a farmer at Namoalug in the Talensi district, said he was proud of what he had been able to achieve using only hoes and cutlasses. However, changes in the weather had given him good and bad times, he said. He did not understand what climate change was, but the weather had changed in recent years, negatively affecting his crops and those of others in the district. It was “better now”, he added.

“The Talensi FMNR, is a rapid, low-cost, easily replicated land restoration technique to combat poverty and hunger that works with communities and partners to restore degraded lands in the district so as to improve on soil health for healthy agricultural production,” World Vision Ghana’s food security and resilience technical programmes manager, Maxwell Amedi, told Africa in Fact. In practice, FMNR involves the systematic regrowth and management of trees and shrubs from felled tree stumps, which helps to sprout root systems or seeds.

The regrown trees and shrubs, which help restore soil structure and fertility, inhibit erosion and soil moisture evaporation, rehabilitate the water table and increase biodiversity. Some tree species also provide the soil with nutrients. The FMNR approach encourages the use of living tree stumps, which can resprout or produce seeds. When trees are cut down, their root systems often remain alive underground. “In many formerly forested areas this underground forest [may be] vast, with millions of trees waiting to be regenerated. FMNR systematically regenerates this underground forest,” he said.

The project is a tree management practice, involving selection, pruning, protection and maintenance, and also empowers communities, regreening both community mindsets and peoples’ relationship with nature and the landscape. Preparation for the FMNR project started in October 2006, with the support of World Vision Australia (WVA). “WVA’s aim was to improve the socio- economic living conditions of the people in the Talensi area,” Amendi says. “The WVA contributed to this goal through a programme focus approach that tackled deep-rooted issues of poverty, economic empowerment and capacity building in health and nutrition, education, water sanitation and hygiene, environmental sustainability and livelihood empowerment.”

Farmers tapping rubber trees to collect latex at Agona, Ghana, 2019 Photo: Christina Aldehuela

The FMNR did not just take off, Amendi says. “A baseline study was conducted before the implementation of each of the three phases. With each phase, we worked with the communities to reverse land degradation and hunger resulting from poor soils in the district.” In addition to the drought, floods, and erratic rainfall patterns mentioned, the Talensi district is vulnerable to infertile and degraded soils, food insecurity, land scarcity, with occasional disease outbreaks of cerebrospinal meningitis (CSM). To further test the viability of the project before it was fully implemented, a pilot was started in 2009, which aimed to incorporate sound environmental management into the farming practices in the project area.

This led to the first phase, which started in 2009 and ended in 2011, involving nine communities using the FMNR concept. So far, more than 3,000 people have benefited, and the project has helped restore over 400 hectares of degraded lands. “After successfully implementing the first phase, the second phase began in 2012 and ended in 2017,” Amendi says, adding that, “The second phase was implemented in 33 communities with funding support from Computer Share Australia through WVA. It benefited more than 8,000 people and restored over 700 hectares of degraded lands in the district.”

The third phase of the project started in July 2017 and ended  in  June this year, with funding support from the Australian government through WVA. It aimed to benefit 8,000 people and restore another 500 hectares of degraded land. WVA has similar FMNR projects in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Chad, Niger, Mali, Burundi, and Senegal, the organisation’s media manager, Mike Bruce, told Africa in Fact. The outcomes differ slightly from community to community, depending on circumstances.

“I have seen the difference that the project has brought to my people,” farmer John Anaba says. “Before, it was like the soil had quarrelled with us. Our crops refused to show any sign of life. We were just the forgotten people in the country, and food to feed our families became a problem.” So far, the project has seen an improvement in household food security and the resilience of people in the Talensi district, especially the most vulnerable and their families. This has happened through farmer-managed natural regeneration approaches and improved farming systems.

In addition, there has been better environmental management and stewardship, as well as an improvement in household income and savings among the people. Two project evaluations have taken place, both of which have shown that the approach has resulted in an increase in soil fertility and crop yield, as well as improvements in bulk compost and field mulching with crop residue, which has produced more food, Amendi says. Moreover, bush fires, once an annual occurrence, have been reduced by 80%, protecting the soil and allowing grasses and trees to recover, leading to massive reforestation of farms and communal fields.

The district now produces more fodder and nesting for livestock, which means the animals do not need to wander to feed. More fruit is available for home consumption and for sale, and more firewood is available. In total, the project has restored over 2,000 hectares of degraded land, with more than 10,000 farmers using conservation practices such as zero/minimum tillage, the use of stone bund walls, protecting the soil with layers of the residue from harvest crops, and making and using compost to improve soil fertility.

Other people in the district, among them several women, commented that FMNR has had a huge impact on the Talensi district by improving smallholder farmers’ levels of the production and reducing environmental degradation. Overall, the approach has seen an increase in opportunities for livelihoods and incomes for the people in the area.


Francis Kokutse is a journalist based in Accra, Ghana. A former member of the governing board of the state-owned Ghana News Agency (GNA), he is currently a writer for the Associated Press (AP) and a contributor to Science and Development.Net (SciDev.Net) as well as the University World News.

Food from the forest

Agroforestry: nature-based enterprise

Encouraging more sub-Saharan smallholders to farm a mix of food, animals and trees offers an effective way to boost food security and livelihoods

Anne Mburu looks at vegetables that she enriches using slurry that runs off the adjascent flexibag biogas digester installed at her farm in Kiambu, Kenya, 2019 Photo: Tony Karumba / AFP

On a tour of farmlands in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, especially in the rural areas you are likely to see green lands with food crops, trees and shrubs. In some instances, the trees may be planted in contour lines interspersed with crops on a piece of land, while in other cases crops are interspersed with shrubs on the same piece of land. This activity, known as agroforestry, has been proposed by environmentalists  and conservationists a tour of farmlands in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, especially in the rural  areas, as an effective way to prevent soil erosion as well as boost food security and increase farm income.

For farmers practising agroforestry, their farms are a one-stop shop of products for subsistence as well as a source of income. For instance, farmers cultivate tree products such as fruits, fuel wood, and fodder from their farms. Fodder products boost the growth and milk production of dairy animals such as cows and goats. Farmers in West Africa’s semi-arid areas have adopted multipurpose trees on land popularly known as agroforestry parklands.  In  1999,  the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) recognised “their significance as a rich pool of forest genetic diversity” in its report, Agroforestry parklands in sub-Saharan Africa.

But while agroforestry systems promise significant benefits to smallholder farmers, the extent of their socio-economic benefits is still unclear. A study published in the journal World Development in January this year attempted to analyse the downstream socio-economic impacts of agroforestry in Kenya. The study looked at 60 villages practising agroforestry in western Kenya under a Swedish programme, Vi Agroforestry, and 61 villages that were not practising it. Researchers  found that smallholder farmers who practised agroforestry, planting trees and shrubs on their farmlands, increased their revenue by almost $50 per person annually.

The researchers said that “despite evidence of variable programme exposure and agroforestry uptake, we found modest, yet statistically significant, effects of Vi Agroforestry’s programme on intermediate outcomes, such as agroforestry product income, fuel wood access, and milk yields among dairy farmers”. The programme was also found to modestly increase asset holdings, especially among female- headed households. However, the study also revealed that the uptake in agroforestry was not as significant as expected. The $50 revenue increase, the study noted, did not represent “a huge, transformative impact, but it should not be entirely dismissed either”.

The limited uptake of agroforestry might be due to a number of factors, including that “farmers simply do not find such innovations particularly useful and cost-effective.” Farmers were  unlikely  to  adopt  tree species that might not yield high financial returns, according to a 2016 study of Ethiopian farmers by Geremew Worku Kassie in the journal Cogent Food & Agriculture. The Ethiopian farmers preferred to grow eucalyptus trees because of the saleable products they yielded, such as timber. They used the revenue to “purchase improved  farm technologies”, while “the revenue generated from selling tree products could [also] help them to bridge rural financial market failures.”

However, agroforestry is a major method of land use in sub-Saharan Africa, although it is not as widespread as in other regions of the world, such as central America. A study by the World Agroforestry Centre in 2014 mapped the extent of trees on farms in sub-Saharan Africa using satellite imagery and geo- datasets and found that agroforestry amounted to nearly 30% of agricultural land, accommodating 70 million people.

Dina Kapiza, an agro-dealer trained in soil testing, shows the fertiliser in her shop which is most suitable for the soils in Mponela area, Malawi, 2016 Photo: Amos Gumulira / AFP

Priscilla Wainaina, an agricultural economist at the centre, says that this might be “significantly underestimated due to technical limitations in using satellite imagery to identify low-density tree cover common in agroforestry systems” and because agroforestry occurs in areas not officially defined as cropland. However, she notes that the adoption of agroforestry is still relatively limited in low-income countries. Silvopastoral systems – agroforestry that combines trees, fodder and animal grazing in a complementary way – and shade-grown commodity agroforestry systems such as coffee and cocoa – often meet the formal definition of forests, and might not be captured in satellite imagery.

Agroforestry is widespread practice in sub-Saharan Africa, with Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Uganda and Tanzania leading the field, according to Wainaina. Despite this, however, agroforestry’s potential in sub-Saharan Africa also faces challenges. Results of a study conducted in Rwanda by researchers from the Department of Sustainable Development at Yeungnam University in South Korea and published in the Journal of Forest Science and Technology in November 2017, revealed that despite a government programme and deliberate efforts to promote agroforestry as a way to reduce pressure on the country’s forests, many farmers in the rural areas were not adopting it “due to lack of skills and technical know-how, capital and quality seeds”.

Respondents in Nyamagabe district, where the study took place, told researchers that agroforestry would be boosted by subsidies to farmers, regular training and informal education, the  establishment of tree nurseries to improve the production of quality seeds, and by engaging with farmers in decision-making. Effective incentives, says Wainaina, would encourage farmers to widely adopt agroforestry. She proposes a well- defined land tenure system, including the registration of land rights, especially the customary land rights that are common within sub-Saharan Africa agricultural areas. “Recognition of these customary land rights is essential in addressing insecure tenure in most of sub-Saharan Africa,” she says.

“Customary land rights are typically not written into law but are rather rights that are recognised by the local community.” Importantly, she says that customary tenure principles grant all bona fide members of the local community land  as  a  social  right. The introduction of individual, statutorily recognised rights can have the effect of dissolving long-standing customary rights, making poorer community members particularly vulnerable. It is important, therefore, she says, that existing customary rights are extended statutory recognition with a legal status equal to private and state land.

There is also a need to strengthen linkages and collaboration among researchers, extension officers and smallholder farmers. Projects intending to promote agroforestry should make this a prerequisite, says Wainaina. Examples include projects underwritten by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Green Climate Fund, which require all the stakeholders to work together from the conception of the idea, to implementation and completion. This ensures that farmers get up to date information regularly, she says. The growth and adoption of agro- forestry will also be boosted by nature- based enterprises.

This calls for the value-addition  of  tree  products  such as honey, shea butter, gum as well as connecting smallholder farmers to well- defined markets. “This would incentivise farmers to adopt agroforestry practices, since they are more likely to engage when they can derive direct benefits,” says Wainaina. Tree seedling production should also be promoted as an enterprise in itself, which would lead to the provision of high-quality seedlings, as well as jobs. This would require regular training for people producing and distributing seedlings. Cash-based incentives such as the UN’s REDD+ programme, which works at reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, could also help by addressing the liquidity constraints smallholder farmers face.

The programme involves compensating farmers (in cash) in exchange for carbon sequestered by the trees. Projects such as the UN REDD+ programme have been piloted in some agroforestry systems in sub-Saharan Africa, in Tanzania for example. Programmes such as these demonstrate the potential for tree commodities such as cocoa and coffee, which are largely produced within agroforestry systems  in sub-Saharan Africa, specifically in Ethiopia, Ghana and Ivory Coast, says Wainaina.


Gilbert Nakweya is a journalist from Kenya interested in covering scientific issues with a bias towards the developing world. Topics of interest include health, conservation, agriculture, environment, technology, innovation and higher education.

The long path to a green future

Greendustrialisation: now or never

African economies looking for a sustainable industrialisation model find themselves at a crossroads with little time to decide the way forward

Ruth Amoah (right) and her workers at small chocolate producer Moments Chocolate’s workplace remove husks from roasted cocoa beans in Accra, Ghana, 2019
Photo: Cristina Aldehuela / AFP

Lack of industrialisation is often pointed out as the key factor behind Africa’s underdevelopment. Among those supporting the idea are  Mike Morris and Judith Fessehaie, who wrote in their 2014 paper, The Industrialisation Challenge for Africa: “Only a massive industrialisation effort will enable Africa to eradicate poverty and achieve sustainable development”. According to United Nations (UN) statistics from 2019, Africa is home to more than 1.2 billion people or 16% of the world’s population, 85% of whom “are still poor if judged by the standards of upper-middle income countries”.

Yet, the continent accounts for less than 2% of international trade and global manufacturing. Based on the current demographic trend, the UN forecasts that Africa’s population will reach 2.5 billion people by 2050 – a dramatic increment that will put further strain on already scarce jobs and insufficient public services and natural resources. Due to low levels of industrialisation, Africa is by far the continent that produces the least CO2 emissions. UN statistics for 2016 show that Africa emits just 4% of the amount of CO2 going into the atmosphere. According to an early 2020 Oxfam study, “The average Brit will emit more carbon in the first two weeks than the citizens of seven African nations (Rwanda, Malawi, Ethiopia, Uganda, Madagascar, Guinea and Burkina Faso) emit in an entire year”.

Nonetheless, Africa pays the toll for pollution as much as any other part of the world, and available data suggest that the continent is affected by climate change more immediately than other regions. “For sub-Saharan Africa, which has experienced more frequent and more intense climate extremes over the past decades, the ramifications of the world’s warming by more than 1.5°C would be profound,” said the UN’s spokesperson for sustainability issues, Dan Shepard, when summing up the conclusions of the 2019 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“Temperature increases in the region are projected to be higher than the global mean temperature increase,” wrote Shepard on the panel’s conclusions, which predicted a decrease in precipitation in Africa of up to 20% if the projected warming is not corrected. As the developed world pushes forward to move away from a model of industrial production based on burning fossil fuels that is proving unsustainable, African economies find themselves at a crossroads with little time to decide the way forward. Stepping up efforts to boost production through energy sources that are being dropped elsewhere does not seem like a viable option for Africa.

On the one hand, it would be met with reticence from donors and partners much aware of the urgency of greening the economy. Besides, its success would come at a price for a continent whose rich natural environments remain largely unscathed compared to other parts of the world. In these circumstances, both governments and international institutions are, at least from a declarative point of view, decisively opting for what has been called “a green path to industrialisation”, what we will call greendustrialisation.

“The big opportunity for Africa in 2016, as a latecomer to industrialisation, is in adopting alternative economic pathways to industrialisation,” a report by the UN Economic Commission for Africa (2016) noted. Titled Greening Africa’ s Industrialization, the document argues that African countries have the potential to “benefit from their current low-carbon position and leapfrog” a future, without a “high dependence on volatile fossil fuels” and avoiding the complex and costly transition processes required in more industrialised economies.

An example of greendustrialisation given by the report is the Hawassa Eco-Industrial Park in Ethiopia, some 275 km south of the capital. This textile manufacturing plant started operating in 2016 and is the flagship project of the government’s industrial parks programme aimed at creating jobs and boosting exports. The Hawassa park runs on renewable hydroelectric power and employs a Zero Liquid Discharge system (ZLD) that enables it to recycle 90% of the sewerage disposal waters. Its success supports the notion that building green infrastructure from scratch might be easier than greening an existing one.

The Hawassa Park has been built with abundant and diversified foreign investment, especially from Asia. Some 25,000, mostly female, Ethiopians currently work at the plant, which is expected to employ 60,000 people when running at its full capacity. Cheap labour and the good conditions offered to investors by the Addis Ababa government have drawn clothing giants such as Guess, H&M and Levi’s to commission some of the garments they sell to manufacturers working from this park. According to 2016 World Bank data, agriculture employs between 65 and 70% of Africa’s workforce and supports the livelihoods of 90% of the continent’s population.

Thus, the success of industrialising African economies lies to a great extent in the transformation of the sector. Ivory Coast is the world’s top cocoa producer, but most of the volume extracted is processed (in the form of liquor, butter, cake or powder) abroad. The government has repeatedly vowed to spur its cocoa processing capacities in the coming years. At the same time, Ivory Coast aspires to boost the manufacturing in the country of cashews, cotton, rubber and coffee, whose production is mostly exported in raw form. Singapore-based agribusiness giant Olam International is one of the companies already processing cocoa and other commodities in Ivory Coast.

Its factories employ 5,000 people and are mentioned as an example of good environmental practices by the UN Economic Commission for Africa. A major challenge for both cocoa supply and manufacturing in Africa and overseas is the deforestation provoked by logging aimed at making space for planting more cocoa trees to farm. In 2017, the governments of Ivory Coast and Ghana launched, together with 35 global cocoa and chocolate companies, the Cocoa & Forests Initiative. Its main provision is “a commitment to no further conversion of any forest land for cocoa production”. One of the intended measures is investing “in sustainable agricultural intensification in order to grow more cocoa on less land”.

Between 1988 and 2007, the website of the initiative says, 2.3 million hectares of rainforest was cleared for cocoa farms in Ivory Coast and Ghana. In a 2015 speech before the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the then Ethiopian prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, mentioned the development of manufacturing and the transformation of the agricultural sectors as two pivotal points to drive Africa’s industrialisation. Desalegn, who has been commended for championing the greendustrialisation agenda pioneered by his predecessor, Meles Zenawi, also alluded to the procurement of energy as “one of the binding constraints for industrialisation”.

He unequivocally propounded the development of “renewable energy”, which he considered to be “our comparative advantage in Africa”, as the only desirable way forward. In an example of integrated greendustrialisation, Ivory Coast is planning to build a 60 to 70 MW capacity biomass power- generation plant running on waste from cocoa pods. The project is supported by the US and will be up and running in 2023 if the process goes as planned. Ivory Coast aims to develop 424 MW of biomass power generation capacity by 2030, in an effort to increase and diversify its electricity generation sources as power demand has grown due to economic growth.

In December 2019, the Ivorian government and a French consortium led by Electricite de France (EDF) signed a concession contract for the construction of a biomass power plant of an installed capacity of 46 MW. It should be ready by 2023, when it will start generating electricity from oil palm waste. While countries like Malawi, South Africa and Rwanda have made remarkable progress in developing biofuels, wind and solar energy, Kenya is the leading actor in Africa when it comes to energy transition. Between 2010 and 2018 Kenya’s economy expanded at an annual average rate of 5.8%, according to World Bank data.

Between 2010 and 2019, Kenya’s peak demand for electricity almost doubled (from just over 1,000 MW in 2010 to exceed 1,900 last year), official data from the Nairobi government shows. Back in 2008, the Kenyan government launched its Kenya Vision 2030, a plan aimed at industrialising the economy to bring prosperity to citizens within a “clean and secure environment”. To sustain the projected economic expansion, the plan provided for an increase in the country’s power capacity based on the development of renewable energies, particularly hydroelectricity and geothermal energy. In December 2019, Kenya put a new 50 MW solar plant online.

It increased the share of renewable energy in its power mix to a remarkable 93% and took the country closer to the government’s target of being entirely green energy powered by 2020. In a 2019 policy research working paper for the World Bank, Catrina Godinho and Anton Eberhard cite the following facts to explain Kenya’s success. Since 1996, “policy and regulatory functions were separated from commercial activities; generation was unbundled from transmission and distribution; cost-reflective tariffs were introduced; and generation was liberalised.”

In a second phase of the reform that started in 2002 “independent regulation” was strengthened and the national generation company partially privatised to attract foreign investment. As a result of these policies, which continue, Kenya “has … become an investment destination for IPPs” (Independent Power Producers). This has allowed it to triple its generation power capacity since 1990, “with generation capacity expanding more rapidly than peak demand” and having achieved a power surplus (Godinho and Eberhard) – while almost entirely greening the company’s power sourcing.

Kenya ranked fifth in the BloombergNEF’s 2019 Climatescope report, which evaluates the investment conditions in clean energy in 104 emerging countries. “The country is gradually increasing its share of non-large hydro renewables by adding solar, wind and geothermal,” the report read. “In 2018, Kenya recorded its highest ever clean energy investment with $1.4 billion,” it added. However, the eastern   African nation’s vigour in exploiting Africa’s privileged natural resources to propel industrialisation remains unparalleled in a region with huge discrepancies from country to country,  where  economic   growth is still propelled by extraction commodities.

Despite its desperate need to intensify generation and the commitment of its politicians to take the green way to industrialisation, Africa lags far behind all the other continents in renewable energy actual generation and capacity growth (IEA 2019). Half of Africa’s booming population still has no access to electricity, and power cuts affect 80% of the companies operating on the continent. “Despite progress in several countries (e.g. Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana, Senegal, Rwanda), current and planned efforts to provide access to modern energy services barely outpace population growth,” the IEA notes in its 2019 World Energy Outlook. Data for 2019 of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) show that Africa’s renewable generation capacity of 46 GW accounted for 2% of global share.

Some 60% of the total share of electricity generated in sub- Saharan Africa comes from hydropower. Oil comes second with a share of 18%, followed by gas (16%). According to the IEA, Africa’s hopes to face the growing demand, brought about by demographic growth and projected economic development, rely on the development of solar energy, which has the potential to overtake hydropower as the main renewable generation source – coupled with the use of the abundant reserves of natural gas discovered in recent years in the continent.

“The big open question for Africa remains the speed at which solar PV will grow. To date, the continent with the richest solar resources in the world has installed only five gigawatts (GW) of solar PV, less than 1% of the global total,” the IEA concludes.

Marcel Gascón Barberá is a freelance journalist and writes for several Spanish and international publications. He has previously worked as a correspondent for EFE Spanish news agency in Romania, South Africa and Venezuela.

Cameroon: Covid-19 worsens pre-existing vulnerabilities for some

Even before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, persons living with disabilities in Cameroon had a peculiar problem – they lacked adequate social support and service delivery. Then, the coronavirus emerged and compounded pre-existing vulnerabilities for them.

There are about three million people, out of 26.5 million, living with various forms of disabilities in Cameroon, according to the Club for Young Rehabilitated Blind People (Club des Jeunes Aveugles Rehabilités du Cameroun- CJARC). The most common forms of disabilities are orthopaedic problems, infectious diseases and neurological disabilities. A 2017 study found out that the principal causes of disability were trauma due to traffic accidents and inappropriate medical interventions. These could partly be attributed to poor government policies over the years, as well as family neglect.

There are about three million people, out of 26.5 million, living with various forms of disabilities in Cameroon.

Yet given the economic hardship orchestrated by the pandemic, and less-than-adequate government social support for the poor, life has become especially difficult for many persons living with disabilities. There appears to be little or no provision of appropriate information to keep them safe from the deadly virus.

After Cameroon recorded its first confirmed case of the coronavirus on 6 March 2020, the government issued a set of guidelines. It made the wearing of masks in public mandatory, limited the number of people in gatherings to 50, employed physical distancing, reduced the number of people in a bus or taxi per time, and ordered bars, restaurants and other leisure spots to stop operations by 6pm, among other measures. But these regulations aimed at influencing social interactions to limit the spread of the virus have yet to be properly communicated to persons living with disabilities.

There appears to be little or no provision of appropriate information to keep them safe from the deadly virus.

SisterSpeak237, a local civil society organisation which seeks to represent the voices of women and minority groups in Cameroon, has chronicled complaints of neglect experienced by persons with disabilities during this pandemic. Many people around the country are donating Covid-19 care packs, including buckets, soaps, and food items, according to Comfort Mussa, founder and executive director of SisterSpeak237. But in many cases, people donate what they think is needed, and it often seems that what is most important to them is to be seen donating, she says.

Moreover, the resources appropriate to helping people with disabilities are often very limited, says Mussa. The handwashing points established in public places and even in some of government hospitals are not accessible to most people on wheelchairs or to those using crutches. And disabled people often also need exemption from some pandemic-related restrictions, such as the requirement of physical distancing, since they need caregivers.

The handwashing points established in public places and even in some of government hospitals are not accessible to most people on wheelchairs or to those using crutches.

The government, through the various ministerial departments and agencies does send out communications and announcements about intervention and prevention measures.

On 30 April, Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute announced some measures to address the impact of the coronavirus on households. These included: an increase in family allowance from XAF 2,800 to XAF 4,500; a raise of 20% for pensions that did not benefit from a 2016 reform; continued payment of family allowances from May to July to staff of companies which are unable to pay social security contributions or which have placed their staff on technical leave due to the crisis;  spreading citizens’ payments of social security contributions for the second quarter over three instalments; and canceling late fees for payment of social security contributions.

The government has asked citizens to observe physical distancing, mandatorily wear face masks in public and frequently wash or sanitise their hands, amongst other measures to contain the spread of the virus. But these preventive measures have largely been ignored, as there is a lack of public trust in the state. It is also often difficult for people to respect these restrictive measures when their priority is simply survival.

Preventive measures have largely been ignored, as there is a lack of public trust in the state.

But these communications do not reach everybody, Mussa told Africa in Fact. Most of the materials are in print format, excluding blind people who can only read braille. “There are also major announcements on TV, but often with no sign language. This excludes people with hearing and speech challenges,” Mussa said. Sign language interpretation is provided on national TV, but it is only in French, which sidelines English-language speakers. The country is officially bilingual.

“People like us [hearing- or speech-impaired] are confused about what is happening. Preventive measures are not communicated to us [using adapted tools],” Njei Nelly Anne told NewsWatch newspaper based in the capital Yaounde, through a sign language interpreter.

The government’s interventions aimed at supporting the economy are limited to the 10% of the population which has employment in the formal sector. The 90% in the informal sector has been left without any relief. Unlike Rwanda and Tunisia, which have offered relief packages to their most vulnerable, Cameroon has yet to do so. However, the government has said it will work out a comprehensive global response plan with additional measures to alleviate the socio-economic impact on affected firms and households. But since April, the said plan is still being awaited.

Most of the materials are in print format, excluding blind people who can only read braille. “There are also major announcements on TV, but often with no sign language. This excludes people with hearing and speech challenges,” Mussa said.

Meanwhile, the three million Cameroonians with disabilities are left without information, or measures to alleviate their plight. The UN points out that persons with disabilities generally have more healthcare needs than others and are therefore more vulnerable to the impacts of low quality or inaccessible healthcare services than others. The world body says this applies to both their “standard needs” and “needs linked to impairments”, which presumably means that they suffer disadvantage both with regard to their ordinary needs, such as access to food, housing and education, and with regard to their special needs, such as special access facilities and appropriate means of communication.

As it is, Cameroon’s response to the social conditions of the general populace has been wanting in significance and impact.

The 90% in the informal sector has been left without any relief.

Since the response was made, the spread of the virus has been consistently on the rise. By 28 July 2020, Cameroon had 17,110 confirmed coronavirus cases, with close to 400 deaths. This accounts for about 2% of cases in Africa, according to a report published on 27 July 2020 by EXX Africa. This trend is likely due to the easing of restrictions, which have given people a false sense of security.

Yet the country’s approach to dealing with the fairly large sector of the population who have special needs has been even worse. The UN has called on governments to ensure the rights of disabled people through a range of measures, including strengthening healthcare policy, providing appropriate access to healthcare facilities for the disabled, improving funding and training healthcare staff. But so far, the government has yet to extend any special social assistance to this special group of people.


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Amindeh Blaise Atabong is a Cameroonian freelance journalist. His interests include gender, human rights, climate change, environment, tech, conflict, peace-building and global development. In 2019, he was a finalist in the inaugural True Story Award, and also won a prestigious Kurt Schork Award in International Journalism.  His works have been published by independent regional and international outlets, including Quartz, Mail & Guardian, Reuters, Jeune Afrique, Epoch Times, African Arguments and Equal Times. 

A long way from home

The ruling ZANU-PF is unlikely to use its majority in parliament to push for a diaspora vote anytime soon

A small group of Zimbabweans protest outside Downing Street 28 July 2006 over the continuing situation in their country. AFP PHOTO/SHAUN CURRY (Photo by SHAUN CURRY / AFP)

According to the United Nations, at least one in three – an estimated 258 million – people are living in a country other than their country of birth. The majority of these people have moved from developing countries to the developed world, but they remain engaged and interested in the politics and economic situation of home. According to a recent World Bank report, remittances have grown from about $2 billion in 1970 to an estimated $554 billion globally (Ratha, Eigen-Zucchi, & Plaza, 2016). To date, net global remittances are almost three times the amount of aid sent to developing countries and continue to play an important role in supporting families back home. Sub-Saharan countries, including Zimbabwe, received a total of $38 billion in 2017. However, most migrants are excluded from home politics and in the majority of countries they are denied the right to vote.

In Africa, the expansion of diaspora rights has been slow with just a handful of countries, including Rwanda, Ghana, Botswana, South Africa and Kenya, allowing a select population of those living abroad the right to vote. Zimbabwe is one of the few remaining countries that deny the majority of their diaspora the right to vote.

Ahead of the 2018 election a record number of Zimbabweans in the diaspora travelled home to vote. However, many more were unable to participate because the cost of travelling back home, in real dollars and time, was high, even for those in nearby South Africa. In 2017 by comparison, the Kenyan government extended the vote to citizens living abroad in Burundi, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda, where the turnout for the first round of diaspora voting was low. Diaspora voting among the Batswana has also been low. But it is unlikely that the Zimbabwe diaspora vote would follow the same path.

The Zimbabwean diaspora has lobbied for the right to vote since the early 2000s, but the government has thus far refused to extend this right to citizens abroad. Zimbabwe does not allow for external voting, with the exception of citizens who hold diplomatic posts abroad. The Constitution in 1980 was ratified to allow Zimbabweans living abroad while in service to the government to vote. The Electoral Act was amended in 2015, limiting voting rights for those abroad and there is no mention of voting at a diplomatic mission: “Eligibility to vote by post is limited to persons ordinarily resident in Zimbabwe who are resident in the constituency (electoral district) in which the election is to take place or were resident in that constituency 12 months preceding polling day and have good reason to believe that they will be absent from the constituency or unable to attend at the polling station by reason of being ‘absent from Zimbabwe in the service of the government of Zimbabwe’ (section 71(1)(b)).”

The electoral authorities have taken great care to ensure that the external voting process for the minority who are granted the right to vote is transparent through the provisions discussed above. In the past decade, Zimbabweans in the diaspora, especially those in the United Kingdom (UK), have been very vocal in their demand for the right to vote. In 2005, a coalition of Zimbabweans resident in the UK lodged a case against the government with the Zimbabwe Supreme Court (Case no. SC 22/05). The Supreme Court dismissed the case, arguing that it did not hold any merit, despite the fact that the Constitution provides suffrage for all Zimbabweans regardless of race, creed or place of residency at the time of an election (Tungwarara, 2005).

Zimbabweans in the diaspora have accused the government of discriminating against some of its citizens for allowing only a small minority holding diplomatic posts the privilege of voting. In response to the court case, the Zimbabwean government, represented by the minister of justice and legal affairs, denied that Zimbabweans living abroad were being discriminated against by the absence of external voting provisions in the Constitution. The minister, who was cited as the first respondent, also argued that the electoral law disqualified voters from the voting process who had been absent from Zimbabwe for 12 months or more prior to the election. When Zimbabweans in the diaspora pointed to the voting rights as documented in the Southern African Development Committee’s (SADC) Declaration of Human Rights Charter, the government argued that the SADC charter is a “guide that SADC countries must follow towards a future democratic idea, (but that) it is not a legal document that is binding on member states”(Tungwarara, 2005).

In 2012, the diaspora vote issue once again came to the forefront of Zimbabwean politics during the constitution-making deliberations. The Constitution Committee (COPAC) sought out a diversity of opinions and feedback on the Constitution, including the opinions of Zimbabweans living abroad. The Zimbabwean diaspora asked for three provisions to be included in the Constitution; dual citizenship, devolution of power, and a diaspora vote.

Dual citizenship is important for Zimbabweans who have established residency abroad but also wish to maintain ties with their homeland. Zimbabweans living abroad argue that they should not be asked to choose between places where they have built homes for their families and their country of birth. Dual citizenship and a provision for diaspora voting would allow Zimbabweans to participate freely in their host countries as well as in the affairs of their homeland. Most Zimbabweans who migrated continue to maintain strong ties with family members who remained in Zimbabwe.

The Constitution is silent regarding the diaspora vote, and the weakened opposition has not offered much support in recent years. Publicly, the opposition has made demands for the vote but privately the MDC has been reserved. Back in September 2012, the MDC’s former national secretary, Abednigo Bhebhe, argued that his party was now tabling the issue of the diaspora vote because they feared rigging of postal votes by  ZANU-PF, especially within Africa. Bhebhe said that while the MDC agrees “in principle” that citizens in the diaspora should be allowed to vote, the governments in the SADC region would rig election outcomes in support for ZANU-PF because of liberation struggle ties (Bulawayo24 NEWS – MDC-T, ZANU-PF Agree to Disallow Diaspora Postal Votes n.d.).

ZANU-PF’s position on the diaspora was always a firm “no”. As ZANU-PF Minister of Justice (2013), Emmerson Mnangangwa spoke on behalf of his party on the diaspora vote issue, arguing that the MDC wanted those in the diaspora to be able to vote because they were the only ones who could address voters in Europe. The party has consistently argued that the sanctions placed on their top leaders barring them from visiting most western countries, including the UK, home to the largest Zimbabwean diaspora population, made a diaspora vote hostile for the ruling party. Mnangangwa repeated the party line that, “Sanctions must go first and if they don’t, those in the diaspora would not be able to vote until they returned home”.

Another ZANU-PF spokesperson and then Minister of Justice Patrick Chinamasa in 2004 gave what he called “101 reasons why those in exile can not vote”, one of which was the argument that the country was not financially equipped to take on such an undertaking. He argued that, given the financial and logistical costs involved, running a successful external vote was beyond the capacity of the Zimbabwean government and logistical costs. Like Mnangangwa, Chinamasa argued that the sanctions undermined the democratic process. Referring to the impact of travel bans on the ZANU-PF elites he said: “Those individuals (referring to sanctioned elites) are senior people in a political party and one of the fundamental elements of democracy is that the voters must be accessible to all those candidates who want to seek office. They must be accessible to all, not only to a few. It must not be a hostage population, only free and accessible only to one of us (Marambanaye, n.d.).”

However, since the ouster of Robert Mugabe in late 2017, the new government led by Mnangagwa has made public statements promising a revisiting of the law. In August 2018, Foreign Minister Sibusiso Moyo went on a mission to sell the government to the world as new and changed. However, it is unlikely that ZANU-PF will use their majority in parliament to push for a diaspora vote anytime soon.

CHIPO DENDERE is a Zimbabwean born scholar of political science. As a Consortium for Diversity – post-doctoral fellow at Amherst College, she teaches political sciences classes on African politics and democratisation in the developing world. She completed her BSc degrees in political science and psychology at Linfield College, Oregon and her PhD in political science at Georgia State University in 2015.