7 November 2012

Cameroon: Domesticating Okok - Extending the Value Chain for Forest Foods in Cameroon

The okok trade in Cameroon is estimated to top$12m a year and is the third most valuable NTFP in the country, behind only fish and fuel wood.

For villagers in Cameroon's Central region, the forest creeper known as okok is a wonder plant. And it has lately become a valuable addition to Cameroon's forest-based agricultural value chain. High in protein, okok is believed to cure hemorrhoids and hypertension, combat malaria and HIV/Aids - and even frighten off snakes.

"When you are tired, it rejuvenates - even old ladies like myself," says Calixte Mbilong, the head of the local okok cooperative in Minwoho village. "It also makes you more intelligent."

And woe betide the young bride who does not know how to prepare the leaves - she will not be considered a suitable wife by her husband's family.

Gnetum spp., called 'okok' or 'eru' in different parts of Cameroon, is a non-timber forest product (NTFP) of huge significance right across the Congo Basin - in terms of food, as a medicine, and for income generation.

The okok trade in Cameroon is estimated to top$12m a year and is the third most valuable NTFP in the country, behind only fish and fuel wood. The vegetable's soaring popularity has begun to make harvests unsustainable - without benefiting rural people at the start of the value chain.

In response, a program launched a decade ago in the Central region of Cameroon is encouraging villagers to plant their own okok, and it has been so successful that it is now being expanded nationwide.

The brainchild of Abdon Awono, a Cameroonian scientist from the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the program was launched in 2003 after Awono noticed that villagers were having to walk further and further into the forest to find okok.

He encouraged CIFOR to partner with the Cameroonian research organisation Institute of Agricultural Research for Development (IRAD) and a local NGO to develop a trial domestication program in several villages. Nurseries and cooperatives were set up, villagers were trained, and plantations established.

"They could not get the quantity they needed from the wild," Awono says. "So we started convincing them that it was also possible to plant okok as they do with cocoa and other agricultural products."

Calixte Mbilong leads a line of women into the forest beyond the village of Minwoho. Each carries a tiny okok seedling, just a few bright leaves, ready to be pressed into the soil of a new plantation.

They sing and joke as they plant - but this is serious work.

"After the cocoa season is over, okok is what we rely on for our livelihoods," Mbilong says. "It is with this money that we pay our children's school fees, take care of our health, and buy clothing. It allows me to buy all that I need."

A key feature of the program has been to assist villagers to form cooperatives - like the one led by Mbilong - allowing them to organise group sales. The cooperatives help remote villages connect more reliably with buyers in the capital, Yaounde - and negotiate higher prices for their produce.

According to Abdon Awono, they are now able to earn $US 1.50 per kilogram of okok, up from 40 cents when the project started.

"Each family used to earn about 5 to 10 thousand Francs CFA per week, and now they can make up to 20 or 30 thousand," he says.

Calitxe Mbilong now wants to further increase villagers incomes by learning how to 'value-add' to the raw okok product. "I attended some fairs and I saw how a woman made soap, body cream and even whisky from okok - and I got excited," she says.

The success of the pilot okok domestication program in Lekie Division has also caught the attention of the Cameroonian government. Since 2009 it has committed around$500,000 per year to roll out okok cultivation programs across the country - a move that, it is hoped, will improve local livelihoods while ensuring Cameroonians can enjoy okok for years to come.

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