Phone farm

What does a poor farmer in Cameroon do when something goes wrong? “The leaves on all my tomato plants are shrivelling,” said one. Or what if a farmer has an idea but it might not work? “I have a fish farm and I’m wondering if it’s OK to feed the fish chicken feed,” said another. Or how can a farmer know what precautions he should be taking? “Is it possible that my pigs have contracted bird flu?” asked yet another.

They don’t have books and libraries or access to the Internet. Knowledge is passed down from generation to generation but that has limits, particularly for an enterprising farmer who wants to modernise his farm and try growing something new.

The solution is to pick up the phone and call ‘Allo Ingenier’ where an agricultural expert is always on call.

“If we can’t answer your question on the spot we get back to you,” said Marie Martine Yobol, the director of the Documentation Centre for Rural Development in Yaoundé which is part of the agricultural non-governmental organisation (NGO) Service d’Appui aux Initiatives Locales de Développement (SAILD).

Sometimes our expert is stumped,” she told IRIN in the Allo Ingenier office, which has wall-to-wall shelves lined with reference books and files on different agricultural subjects. “It is important we give good answers or else we lose our credibility.”

The documentation centre gets approximately 7,000 requests for information a year. “If the expert on call can’t answer the question then he or she calls a specialist on the subject,” Yobol said. “Then if the specialist can’t answer the question we may undertake our own research.”

She says Allo Ingenier not only provides answers for farmers but helps agricultural experts understand the important gaps in their knowledge.

The centre has produced hundreds of papers on subjects addressing farmers’ concerns.


Photo: David Hecht/IRIN
Martine Yobol, the director of the Documentation Centre for Rural
Development which provides the sevice Allo Ingenier’. It is part of the
agricultural NGO Service d’Appui aux Initiatives Locales de
Développement (SAILD).

Farming is a risky business particularly in Africa where rainfall is often unpredictable, Yankam Njomou, advisor to the minister of agriculture, told IRIN. But the main reason Africa does not produce enough food to feed itself, he said, is because “our farmers use techniques that are inefficient”.

For economist Hozier Nana Chimi, associate director of SAILD, the problem is a little more complicated. “Every farmer knows that the more they produce the more money they will make,” he said. “But higher yields require innovation and innovation requires risk,” he said.

And risk requires capital which poor farmers don’t have. “That’s why African farmers tend to be risk-averse and stick to their old ways,” Nana Chimi said.

“If they make one mistake it can ruin them and their family for life,” he said.


Without basic education the risks to farmers multiply. “They can’t read instructions on how to apply fertilisers or pesticides. They can’t study the advantages and disadvantages of different farming techniques,” Yobol, the Allo Ingenier director said.

“This has been a major source of frustration for our farmers,” she said. “The framers know there are easier ways of doing things but they often end up taking short cuts that fail.”

That’s why they call Allo Ingenier. “Many come with the same questions,” she said. “For example we constantly get farmers or their wives calling to check if corn seeds from the July harvest can be sown in August for the next growing season.”

Yobol said she is so glad when farmers call about this. “We tell them they would be wasting their time.” The corn seeds will not sprout because they would not have had enough time to dry.

“Sometimes the farmers call after they made the mistake and it’s too late,” she said. “Then all we can do is tell them is to start again. It’s not what they want to hear.”


Around 90 percent of Cameroonians rely on locally produced food to meet their nutritional needs, according to SAILD, and 60 to 70 percent gain their income from agriculture. Yet according to ministry of agriculture estimates, only 20 percent of the land that is fertile in Cameroon is being used.

“The rest is just going to waste,” said Njomou, the ministry’s advisor

A big part of the problem is that the land is inaccessible. “We know that the government must do more to build roads and infrastructure so that farmers can get their goods to market,” Njomou said.

“But at the same time farmers need to acquire knowledge about how to increase their production and diversify,” he said.

“If they stay on the subsistence level then this country will never get out of poverty.”