Friday, March 11, 2011

Why Do Resources ≠ Riches on the African Farm? Pt. I

I split time between working with Togbah, and James and Goma (pictured with our dinner), a wonderful couple who graciously opened their home to me (they had a couple homes, and I stayed in their Boi Town home). By the time I visited James’ primary home in Jaimue, I had already learned how to make and sell charcoal, source homemade alcohol, and watch as Togbah instantly closed my cut with the juice of some random blade of grass he found in the brush. Our meals come from the rice of the fields, and the bitter ball in the garden. I bathed either in a small stream under the expansive stars or just went outside and stripped down when the thunderous rains poured at night. It’s amazing to me how much the land has to offer. Unfortunately it also offers dirty drinking water, which led to a short speed bump in me getting giardia and a complimentary sleepless night/painful day.

I want to digress briefly and explain the generosity of Goma, who in addition to offering her home, ran errands into town for me and routinely brought me dinner, even despite the 45 minute roundtrip walk (not fun after a hard day’s work in the field, I can attest). She first met James during the civil war while they were hiding out in the bush from 1990 – 2003. For 14 years they were on the run, moving occasionally, pounding rice in the swamp so as not to be heard.

Goma and her young son had been abandoned by her husband, and James stepped in. Their two children, Naywa (pictured) and Matu, grew up on the run. In the community, James has been somewhat of a leader, doing things like building a public bridge across a river to many farm plots, and also spearheading construction of a public palm oil “factory”.

Which brings me back to the resources of the land. One staple of West African diet and agriculture I haven’t mentioned is palm oil. ­The first day I visited James and Goma in Jaimue, a village about a 20 minute walk away from Boi Town, we went hunting for fresh fruit bunches of palm kernel.

When I was in Ghana with TechnoServe, I was looking at palm oil from the NGO’s side, doing an oil palm market analysis. Now I’m sweating in the bush with the farmer they are trying to connect with. Full circle, indeed.

It started by James finding a “wreath” in the woods, which was essentially natural ladder. He rigged this 25-foot ladder with a sickle-like hook on the top, and pointed it up in the oil palm tree over one of the branches. Once up among the branches, he’d knock the fresh fruit bunch down, and I would gather it up. Tree after tree we did this, and I’m not ashamed to say that I never volunteered to climb.

From there, back at the farm house, I chopped the bunches apart and manually processed them with Goma to create a sweet oil, a sample of which I was able to take back home. The meal of plain rice and oil is probably the Liberian equivalent of spaghetti and sauce in the States. A guy’s go-to.

I’ve often explained to people the potential for African agriculture. After working on the farm for just a few weeks, that only becomes clearer. It is true that Africa has a more difficult agricultural environment than places like Latin America and infrastructure such as roads is lacking. But it’s also true that there are opportunities in terms of increasing yields and increasing the amount of land that those yields are on. Right now 60% of the world’s uncultivated land is in Africa, and average yields stand at only 1/3 of those of South Asia, according to the World Bank. There’s room to improve, and in the next post I’ll attempt to explain where past failures have come from in as simplified and entertaining manner as possible.

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