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Treasures of the forest

Collection of NTFPs is undertaken predominantly by women (© Judith van Eijnatten)
Collection of NTFPs is undertaken predominantly by women
© Judith van Eijnatten

In the forests of Cameroon, development activities are heavily focused on timber, a resource managed almost exclusively by men. But intensive extraction has led to many species being over-exploited, putting fragile ecosystems at risk. This in turn threatens many non-timber forest products (NTFPs) - important sources of food and medicine - including leaves, seeds, fruits and barks, mushrooms, snails and insects. NTFPs are also in demand in urban areas, and provide a sustainable source of revenue for forest communities. However, the NTFP value chain is underdeveloped and fragmented, transparency is low and exploitation of collectors is high.

To increase the benefits from NTFPs and develop the local value chain, SNV in collaboration with the federation of community forests, REFOCOD, has been supporting both collectors and traders in the East Region of Cameroon. Collection of NTFPs is undertaken predominantly by women, who often camp in the forest for several days and trek with heavy loads. Processing - opening fruits, extracting seeds, boiling, drying, etc. - is also extremely labour intensive and time consuming. To increase efficiency in collecting and processing, SNV organised women into groups and provided training in improved processing methods, leading to higher quality products. "In the past we used to collect on our own or with our children," says Lydie Adjele, NTFP collector from Kongo village. "Now we work in groups to collect our Njansang or bush mango."

After processing, the women retain what they need for household consumption and pass the remainder to a nominated group storekeeper, who records the type, quantity and quality of product contributed. Once the stockpile is sufficient, the products are sold and the women receive the appropriate remuneration. To improve quality and potential income, training was provided on grading and using standard units of sale, as middlemen commonly use the variability in the sizes of containers to exploit collectors.

Supporting trade and traders

SNV organised women into groups and provided training in improved processing methods (© Judith van Eijnatten)
SNV organised women into groups and provided training in improved processing methods
© Judith van Eijnatten

At the other end of the value chain, SNV has also worked to improve the functioning of traders' organisations, by building capacity in leadership, stock management and negotiation. The latter was necessary as their own customers - national and international traders - frequently use early cash advances to tie local traders into advantageous deals, another form of exploitation. "SNV's support really benefited us: it has given us self-confidence that we are capable of doing business," says Pierre Choudjem a NTFP trader in Ebolowa in the South Region.

At the same time, a public market information system (MIS) was facilitated. Community radio stations broadcasted weekly information provided by both collectors (on the type, quantity and quality of product on sale, plus the sale location, timing of supply and contact details) and traders (on the type, quantity and quality in demand and contact details). Through the MIS, which ensured more equitable access to market information, traders and collectors were better able to link up with each other.

With greater reliability in supply, the collectors have better negotiating power and traders are ready to pay higher prices because they no longer have to travel randomly in search of NTFPs. However, while the MIS has succeeded in creating market transparency and catalysing business, the fact that it was a free service meant that it was unsustainable. In time, as the NTFP market emerges from obscurity and the coverage of mobile networks and internet increases, a transformed and much cheaper MIS should emerge. For now collectors and traders continue to develop their networks on the basis of the contacts established during the pilot operation of the MIS.

Multiple gains

Both collectors and traders have seen benefits. For collectors, household food security has improved: on average eight per cent of NTFPs collected are kept for home consumption and nine per cent of revenue is used to buy extra food. Incomes have also significantly increased, with each of the 308 collectors earning an average of US$300 in the 2012 season. Previously, incomes were as good as negligible.

Collectors earned an average of US$300 in the 2012 season (© Judith van Eijnatten)
Collectors earned an average of US$300 in the 2012 season
© Judith van Eijnatten

For traders, business has flourished, allowing them to better support their families as well as invest in their communities. "I have established small bush mango stores in more than 200 villages," says Abdou Nji, an NTFP trader in Mbalmayo, Centre Region. "Having established all this, I employed people and gave them motorcycles, to collect bush mango, njansang, kola and black pepper - in fact any product that comes out of the forest! With the NTFP profit from 2012, I built modern rooms for rent, which stabilises my capital and helps my community." Direct contact between collectors and traders has also helped to build trust, essential for sustainable commercial relationships.

To further increase food security of forest dwellers and collectors, the next step would be to focus more strongly on nutrition, including nutritional studies of NTFPs, domestication of key species, preservation methods, and development of women-friendly processing technologies and equipment. This would also benefit traders, giving them access to a range of new, improved and nutritious NTFP products, which they could promote to their urban customers.

Written by: Marguerite Belobo Belibiand and Judith van Eijnatten (SNV Netherlands Development Organisation)

Date published: November 2013


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