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Three Million Trapped by Food Insecurity in Cameroon

FILE - A photo taken on February 23, 2017 shows a woman spreading grain in front of her house in Koza, in the extreme north of Cameroon.

DOUALA — More than three million people in Cameroon are facing acute food insecurity, according to authorities, — up from 2.8 million in 2022. Experts say the figures indicate a continuing trend in recent years — a concerning situation blamed on declining agricultural yields, climate change and internal conflicts engendering massive population displacements.

Miriam Shang fled to Douala from Bamenda in northwestern Cameroon in February after the death of her husband, a thriving poultry farmer.

He was shot dead for failing to contribute financially to the armed struggle by separatists fighting for independence for the English-speaking North West and South West regions from the majority francophone Central African nation.

"It's been three months since I left my place for Douala," she said. "Things have really been tough for my children and I. We go for days without food. I'm pleading to well-wishers to help my family and I. Please, please help us."

The protracted conflict, which erupted in 2016 over perceived marginalization, has so far resulted in an estimated 3,000 killed and over 700,000 forced to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.

Like most of the displaced, Miriam and her two toddlers live in squalid circumstances in Douala, and frequently go hungry for days. They are part of over three million people — about 11% of the population — trapped by food insecurity as revealed by the government in early May.

Economist Jean-Marie Biada said the number will continue surging as the conflict rages on.

"When there's war," he said, "people flee and cannot take along their farms, kitchens or bank accounts. They run away empty-handed to escape death and have no resources and that breeds [potential] famine."

In recent years, food insecurity among Cameroonians has been swelling. Apart from the secessionist conflict and a persistent Boko Haram-fueled insurgency in the north, agricultural yields are dwindling.

Experts blame the problem on the absence of structural reforms, the decimation of vast swathes of farmland by caterpillars and elephants in search of food, recurrent droughts and erratic weather patterns resulting in floods.

Agro-economist Kennedy Tumenta warns it is time to urgently readjust policy to cushion rising food insecurity trends.

"We still see a lot of informal agricultural processes hampering productivity," he said. "We have to increase climate-smart agriculture, because one of the biggest problems is climate change. [That] means making use of modern conservation methods, early-warning systems and weather-related information."

In the meantime, the cost of farm inputs, especially fertilizers, continues to spike since the start of the war in Ukraine, and a decision by the government to hike fuel prices in February has prompted corresponding increases in transportation costs.

Merchants in Doula said that moving food from the farms to the markets has tripled in cost, and that inflation has led customers to cut back on purchasing even basic staples.

In a bid to dampen rising anger among the swelling numbers of hungry Cameroonians, the government is introducing a number of measures. In the short-term, it and partner organizations have launched an appeal for US$400 million to bankroll a 2023 emergency humanitarian response plan to meet the needs of the most vulnerable, including those at risk of severe hunger and potential famine.

In the long-term, the government is preparing vast chunks of farmland and offering incentives to interested investors in large-scale agricultural projects, including one in the country's central plains that covers more than 400,000 hectares.

Agriculture Minister Gabriel Mbairobe said it will be dedicated to the cultivation of rice, maize, soy beans and oil palms.

"The project, “ he said, “ seeks to promote the emergence of medium-to-large scale agricultural exploitation hubs to enable us boost production and productivity."

It is hoped that in the long run, such ventures will help boost food-self sufficiency, and curb the skyrocketing dependence on imports.