The journey along the gender road in Cameroon

Date: Thursday, March 7, 2019

Sections of the dirt road between Ntui and Yoko are being widened and prepared for construction and surfacing.
Sections of the dirt road between Ntui and Yoko are being widened and prepared for construction. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

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A 200-kilometre road (124 miles) project stretches between the townships of Batschenga, Ntui and Yoko, in central Cameroon. The road crosses farms, forests, water bodies and pastoral areas that sustain the mostly agrarian economy of nearly 40 villages and three towns.

The road, a basic infrastructure that many countries take for granted, literally shapes the lives and livelihood of the people living along it. It decides whether a small entrepreneur will get her products transported on time, and at what cost, and whether more people will come to a restaurant that another has invested in. It determines what markets a woman farmer can access and how often a working mother can visit her daughter who is studying in the city. The red dirt road, waiting for asphalt, will determine if food, income, job, healthcare, livelihood will come, when, and to whom.

UN Women’s “Gender Road Project”, funded by The Development Bank of Central African States and the Government of Cameroon, is aiming to reach at least 20,000 women by 2020, living in rural communities along this road, to prepare them for a better future and access to bigger markets once the road is built. The project teaches them financial and entrepreneurial skills, improved farming techniques and facilitates their access to public services and land rights.

Batchenga, where the road begins

“I grew up in Batchenga. It used to take us 3-4 hours to travel 48 Km (30 miles) from Batchenga to Yaoundé, the capital, before this part of the road was paved,” says Dorothee Mbogo, 38-year-old single mother and owner-operator of a small business. Like most women in the area, she’s also a farmer.

“Now it takes 45 minutes to an hour. When the rest of the road is finished, we will be able to transport our produce to Yaoundé easier.”

Mbogo grows cassava and watermelon in less than two hectares of rented land. She goes to the farm three days a week, works all day and comes back to open her little “call box” business in the market in the evening. It’s a small, mobile stand where she sells cigarettes, candies, snacks and operates a pay phone.

“Every day, between 10 – 30 people use the call box. When the town has no electricity, more people come to use the pay phone because I have a solar panel and can charge mine using solar energy,” she shares.

Streetside “call box” stands along one of the main intersections in Batchenga. When travelling north from the capital, Yaounde, Batchenga currently represents the end of the paved highway. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
A street-side “call box” stands along one of the main intersections in Batchenga. When travelling north from the capital, Yaoundé, Batchenga represents the end of the paved highway. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Mbogo started the phone call box business in 2018, after participating in a training supported by UN Women on setting up and managing small businesses. “I learned many skills during the training—how to market the products, how to present the business, keep a register of income, expenditure and profits. I fill the register daily.”

Dorothee Mbogo operates a “call box” roadside retail stand in Bachenga. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Dorothee Mbogo (right) operates a “call box” roadside retail stand in Batchenga. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

This isn’t Mbogo’s first attempt at starting a business, but it’s the first time that she’s making a profit. She started the business with an investment of 110,000 CFA franc (USD 190) and today she makes about 50,000 CFA franc (USD 86) daily. Learning to budget and save has been key to her success.

Dorothee Mbogo with her cassava crop which she farms in addition to her retail business. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Dorothee Mbogo working in her farm where she is growing cassava. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Everything that Mbogo does is for her daughter, who is in the first year of high school in Yaoundé. “My parents died when I was barely two and I was raised by my uncle. It was very difficult not having the affection of my mother… so I work very hard to make sure my daughter gets everything that I didn’t,” explains Mbogo.

It helps tremendously to have a paved road so that she can visit her daughter on some weekends, and now it takes only 45 minutes.

The road will bring more business

After passing through Batchenga, the asphalt ceases to exist. The red dirt road snakes across farms and villages, riddled with potholes. The 20 km (12 miles) ride from Batchenga to Ntui takes six hours on a good day. On a bad day, farmers and suppliers alike may come to a standstill when the road is flooded or if there’s a fatal accident. That happens often.

Large trucks temporarily block the road in both directions as the muddy dirt surface is unable to sustain the traffic and heavy loads put upon the only regional roadway. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Large trucks temporarily block the road in both directions as the muddy dirt surface is unable to sustain the traffic and heavy loads. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

In a country where 52 per cent[1] of poor household members are women, and agriculture and small trade are their main sources of income, the condition of the road determines profit, loss and much more.

The Gender Road Project supports women-owned businesses, such as Mereng Bessela’s, located along the road running through Ntui, pictured above, a town of about 3000. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
The Gender Road Project supports women-owned businesses, such as Mereng Bessela’s, located along the road running through Ntui, pictured above. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

In the heart of Ntui, a town of less than 26,000 people, Mereng Bessela’s restaurant sits on the unpaved main road.

“I started the restaurant business three years ago when I heard that the government is building a road between Ntui and Yoko. I knew the road project will bring more people,” says Bessela, an astute business woman. She is a single mother, having divorced her unfaithful husband and is now raising five children by herself.

My dream is to build my own house and for all my children to finish school.”

Mereng Bessela
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Mereng Bessela. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown 

Her restaurant business has taken off, and through the UN Women project, she has also learned about business management skills. What’s more, she is a budding fish farmer and has learned better techniques through the training.

Previously, she was losing money because the fish drained out of poorly built reservoirs and she was using costly fish food.

Mereng Bessela arrives in the early morning to feed her fish in four small adjacent ponds before heading to open her restaurant. She says this is her favorite part of her day. “Sometimes I feel so happy that I forget the time and I stand there watching them for an hour, forgetting that I must start cooking at the restaurant!” Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Mereng Bessela arrives in the early morning to feed her fish in four small adjacent ponds before opening her restaurant. She says this is her favorite part of the day. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

“I have learned how to build the reservoir, how to breed and multiply the fish stock and how to feed the fish using local and natural food that’s organic and less costly,” says Bessela.

Now, she is ready for more clients in her restaurant and more buyers for her fish.

A wedding party walks down the main street of Ntui on a Saturday evening temporarily stopping traffic and sharing their celebration. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
A wedding party walks down the main road of Ntui on a Saturday evening, temporarily stopping traffic. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

The Gender Road Project is about women’s empowerment and more equality between men and women in the region.

“We are in a very poor area; women have no access to land, finance, and then there’s the problem of gender-based violence,” says Emmanuel Marie Ateba, UN Women project coordinator. “When women are independent, they can negotiate sexual relations and more decision-making power within the family and the community. The more we empower women, the entire family benefits and women get more respect within the family.”

Girls can now finish school

When public services are inaccessible, it penalizes the poorest of the poor.

An estimated 3,000 children living in communities along the road project do not have birth certificates. Since many women don’t give birth in hospitals, a child doesn’t get immediately registered at birth. Getting a birth certificate later is a long and expensive process. It can take up to a year and cost 60,000 CFA franc (USD 104) per child, which very few can afford.

Without a birth certificate, children cannot sit for the public examinations, graduate from primary school and join secondary or higher education. They also cannot get national identity cards which are required to access other public services.

Odette Bienel, a community worker with UN Women working on the Gender Road Project, visits a family which she helped obtain birth certificates, allowing their girls to go to school. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Odette Bienel, a community worker with UN Women, visits a family whom she helped obtain birth certificates, allowing their girls to go to school. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

The UN Women project has helped 200 children get their birth certificates within a year, and 155 more are in the process.

Odette Bienel, a community worker with the UN Women project, explains that because they didn’t have birth certificates, most girls didn’t go to school or dropped off at the primary level. “This in turn caused a lot of teenage pregnancy and early marriage. We identified how many children needed birth certificates. Then we did advocacy with the different administrative units responsible for issuing a birth certificate—the hospitals, the council and the courts for example—to simplify the process and to reduce the cost. For instance, when a family cannot attend all the public hearings, we negotiated with the authorities to allow the chief of the village to attend them on behalf of the families.”

Elizabeth, 13, at left, Yeng, 12, at right, and Vivian, Yeng’s mother, center, display the newly acquired birth certificates which open the door for the girls to attend school, sit for national exams and apply for national ID. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Nbdemke Elizabeth, 13, at left, Yeng Chimine, 12, at right, and Vivian, Chimine’s mother, centre, display the newly acquired birth certificates which open the door for the girls to attend school, sit for national exams and apply for national ID. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

The local council has agreed to subsidize the cost of getting a certificate and now each parent has to pay only 3,000 CFA franc (USD 5) per child.

Nbdemke Elizabeth, 13 years old, and Yeng Chimine, 12, are neighbours, and have benefited from this initiative. This year, they will sit for the first public examination. Both want to become doctors when they grow up.

Elizabeth likes mathematics and wants to become a pediatrician, she says, “so that I can treat children and they can grow up to be healthy. Then they can take care of their families.”

Through cooperatives, women are lifting each other up

Seven hours from Ntui, a women’s cooperative is forming in the township of Yoko. It’s called SOCCOMAD and has 42 members, including four men, who joined as allies.

Members of SCOCCOMAD pose for a group photo near a section of their cassava crop. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Members of SCOCCOMAD pose for a group photo near a section of their cassava crop. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Tukuri Marie Chantal, 52 years old, is an active member. “Because of the road project, we decided to start a cooperative and to empower women in our village,” she says.

Members of SOCCOMAD arrive to work on a collective plot of land near a newly-completed section of road. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Members of SOCCOMAD arrive to work on a collective plot of land near a newly-completed section of the road. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Guindong Jaqueline, 60, explains further: “We realized that the road was going to bring workers and the population will increase. Through the cooperative we can grow enough food and we will have a ready market to sell to.”

A small section of the road near the farm is already paved. Once the road is completed, women farmers will have easier access to bigger markets to sell their produce.

  • Scenes from the members of SOCCOMAD working in the cooperative land. Most women come to work on individual plots in the 26-acre cooperative land two days a week. They are growing cassava and potatoes that they want to sell. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
  • Scenes from the members of SOCCOMAD working in the cooperative land. Most women come to work on individual plots in the 26-acre cooperative land two days a week. They are growing cassava and potatoes that they want to sell. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
  • Scenes from the members of SOCCOMAD working in the cooperative land. Most women come to work on individual plots in the 26-acre cooperative land two days a week. They are growing cassava and potatoes that they want to sell. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
  • Scenes from the members of SOCCOMAD working in the cooperative land. Most women come to work on individual plots in the 26-acre cooperative land two days a week. They are growing cassava and potatoes that they want to sell. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
  • Scenes from the members of SOCCOMAD working in the cooperative land. Most women come to work on individual plots in the 26-acre cooperative land two days a week. They are growing cassava and potatoes that they want to sell. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
  • Scenes from the members of SOCCOMAD working in the cooperative land. Most women come to work on individual plots in the 26-acre cooperative land two days a week. They are growing cassava and potatoes that they want to sell. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
  • Scenes from the members of SOCCOMAD working in the cooperative land. Most women come to work on individual plots in the 26-acre cooperative land two days a week. They are growing cassava and potatoes that they want to sell. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

“Before, we were producing food only for our families; now we can grow food and sell in the market,” adds Chantal. “Through the cooperative we can also get partners, access to finance, seeds, and we can commercialize our products. But we need access to many markets, where we can sell the cassava. The cassava crop cannot be left in the ground too long, because it rots.”

The cooperative is not just about income, it’s also about solidarity. In this impoverished area where social protection barely exists, the cooperative has given women a support system that they never had before.

“For me, firstly, [the cooperative] gives me the spirit of solidarity and the sense of belonging to a group,” says Yonah Virginie. “It encourages me to work hard when I see other women working to become independent.”

My call to other women is, come together in groups, because united we are stronger.”

Wamama Agnes
Wamama Agnes, 52, President of the SOCCOMAD Cooperative. Photo:  UN Women/Ryan Brown 

“Personally, I decided to join the cooperative to be united with other women. When I have a problem, I now have sisters who can stand by me,” says Seto Satou.

The cooperative members help each other with a range of issues—from helping each other farm their crops if someone is sick, to talking to couples when there’s a family dispute and helping each other save.

 “When my husband had a heart attack and had to go to the hospital, most of the women came to help me,” adds Tukuri Marie Chantal.

The women of SOCCOMAD are happy and hopeful today. At the end of a hard day’s work, as they pile on a hired van to go back home, they sing their hearts out.

“With the harvest of cassava, we will have money to travel…

With the harvest of cassava, we will buy a car…

We will send our children to school…

We will not be begging from our husbands.”

SOCCOMAD members share a ride back home. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
SOCCOMAD members share a ride back home. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Their message to other women is unequivocally about solidarity: “United, we are stronger. We can do bigger things when we are together.”

Notes

[1] According to Cameroonian Household Surveys, 2014