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Ressources vivrières et choix alimentaires dans le bassin du lac Tchad

Christine Raimond
Éric Garine
Olivier Langlois

Origine, histoire, diffusion et dynamique actuelle des plantes alimentaires cultivées thème 2

Enhancing food security through resettlement?

The dynamics of crop choices in the Bénoué region, North Cameroon

Améliorer la sécurité alimentaire par la migration ? La dynamique du choix des cultures dans la région de la Bénoué, Nord-Cameroun

Judith de Wolf


Les deux objectifs principaux du projet Nord-Est Bénoué (NEB) étaient d’améliorer la sécurité alimentaire et de réduire la pression foncière dans la province de l’Extrême Nord du Cameroun. Le résultat en fut le déplacement de plus de 80 000 personnes dans les années soixante-dix et quatre-vingt. Bien que le projet ait cherché à stimuler la production de cultures vivrières comme le maïs et le sorgho, à la fin des années quatre-vingt-dix la sécurité alimentaire demeure une préoccupation pour les paysans de la région. Beaucoup des déplacés produisent juste assez pour subvenir à leurs besoins. La plupart d’entre eux sont impliqués dans la culture du coton dont la production et la commercialisation sont organisés par la Sodecoton (Société de développement du coton).

Cet article cherche à clarifier le dilemme entre la production de rente et la production vivrière. Il montre comment les choix des cultures sont structurés : 1. par l’organisation socioéconomique de la filière cotonnière ; 2. par l’organisation sociale de cette société émergente d’agriculteurs issus d’ethnies différentes. Il est montré qu’afin de pouvoir cultiver du maïs – aliment de base préféré – les agriculteurs doivent produire du coton. Ce ne sont pourtant pas les exigences financières de l’investissement nécessaire à la production du maïs qui rendent la sécurité alimentaire dépendante de la culture de rente, mais plutôt la manière dont est organisé institutionnellement le marché des produits nécessaires à ces cultures. Malgré les différentes orientations socio-culturelles dans cette société de migrants, les agriculteurs de la région de la Bénoué perçoivent la production du coton comme étant la seule manière d’améliorer leur sécurité alimentaire.

Texte intégral

  • 1 The MEAVSB (Mission d’études d’aménagement de la vallée superieure de la Bénoué) executed the NEB-p (...)

1Enhancing food security through the development of the agricultural potential of the Bénoué region and at the same time redistribu-ting the population of the Mandara Mountains – to reduce the assumed population pressure – were the two main policy objectives of the Nord-Est Bénoué Project (NEB)1. With these ambitions, the NEB-project started in 1974 with the recruitment, transportation and settlement of farmers from the Far North province in the Bénoué river valley, southeast of Garoua in the North Province.

  • 2 This latter group was never counted and it is only through population figures that an estimation mi (...)

2Officially some 80,000 people were transported and resettled. Another 40,000 were assisted in settling after they had migrated by themselves. Besides this regulated resettlement, numerous people have migrated into the Bénoué region without officiai interference since the end of the 1970s. Often, newcomers joined earlier migrated family members and stayed with them for some time before set-ting up their own household2 Although the NEB-project stopped transporting migrants in 1986, people continued to migrate ; not only from the Far North to the North Province but also from the original project area to under-exploited areas further south (figure 1). Rather than resettlement, chain migrations and ongoing migration have thus become the prevailing features of the Bénoué region.

Figure 1. Map of Northern Cameroon. Arrows indicating the migratory movements.

3The inhabitants of the Bénoué river valley are generally poor pea-sant farmers. If they manage to generate a small surplus, this is sold to generate the cash needed for clothes, school fees, cattle, a bicycle, assistance to family in the Far North, etc. Although on ave-rage higher than in the Far North Province where most migrants originate from, erratic and insufficient rainfall is a recurrent feature of agricultural life in the Bénoué region. The most cultivated crops are maize, millets, sorghums, groundnuts, and cotton. The vast majority of farmers cultivates this export crop. This paper will show that the involvement in cotton production is not merely a way to satisfy cash needs after having secured food requirements. Focusing upon two villages in the region – Riao and Bamé (figure 1) – it is shown that involvement in cotton production can not be reduced to simple economic calculation by farmers. Rather, it is the specific socio-institutional arrangement of agricultural (input) markets -dominated by Sodecoton – which forces farmers to engage in cotton cultivation. Thus they gain access to fertilizer needed for the cultivation of hybrid maize, their preferred staple food, but also to numerous other important farming inputs. One may therefore question whether sustainable food production is possible without the cultivation of cotton – food security in the Bénoué region depends on cash crop production.

4A major problem in farming is cash to buy fertilizer as well as its availability. The great majority of people is unable to mobilise enough capital at the beginning of the rainy season to buy fertilizer. Additionally, the supply of fertilizer is practically monopolised by the parastatal Sodecoton, which also delivers all inputs for cotton cultivation. The little fertilizer originating from neighbouring Nigeria is – like other products from that country – considered to be of inferior quality. The inputs for maize cultivation are provided by Sodecoton, and on credit, but conditionally. The few farmers who do have cash, may buy fertilizer from a cultivator who received it on credit from Sodecoton, but who is in immediate need of cash.

5In order to understand how cotton production has come to dominate agricultural life in the Bénoué region, it is first necessary to elaborate briefly on the history of market-regulating institutions like Sodecoton. Thereafter, this paper will discuss the ways in which Sodecoton has arranged the supply of inputs on credit and marketing by organizing farmers in production groups (cercles) – a water-tight System to secure Sodecoton of repayment of these credits. Thus it will become clear how farmers’ crop choices are limited, and always involve cotton, even if this endangers their food crop production and hence, food security.

A brief organizational history of cotton production in Cameroon : Sodecoton and its predecessors

6Although cotton cultivation in the north of Cameroon dates back to pre-colonial times, commercial production on any significant scale came about rather late. The German colonisers considered agriculture as a major source of economic gain from their colony and expe-rimented with cotton, but they never actively stimulated its cultivation (Roupsard, 1984 :614 ; see also Rudin, 1938 :269-271).

  • 3 For more details, see also Roupsard, 1987 :322-6.

7Also the French colonial administration did not promote cotton since groundnuts were giving good enough results to enable the population to pay their taxes. In 1927 however, the Société cotonnière du Nord-Cameroun et du Tchad (SCNCT) was establi-shed but this private company was not very successful. The SCNCT operated in two domains. First, it owned plantations – which gene-rally failed to produce significantly – and second, cotton was bought from local farmers. Later on the SCNCT handed out free seeds to increase local production. Although production increased, mainly in what is now the Far North Province (between 100 and 250 tonnes), most of the produce entered into the local trade because of the higher prices that were paid, leaving the SCNCT with the unsold leftovers3. By the 1940s, when the SCNCT closed, commercial cotton cultivation was still a rather marginal activity (Roupsard, 1987 :324-5).

  • 4 According to Levrat (1984 :38) only 10 % of the total produce came from the Bénoué region. See also (...)

8In 1950 the Compagnie française pour le développement des fibres textiles (CFDT) was set up by the French colonial government. The CFDT turned out to be more successful than its private predecessor. Causes included higher producer prices, a premium paid just at the time of possible pre-harvest hunger, and the low price of groundnuts (Roupsard, 1987 :329). After two decades the annual production was just over 90 thousand tonnes, principally produced on the plains of the Far North Province. The Bénoué region was, at that time, sparsely populated. It held only a quar-ter of the total surface under cotton and contributed one fifth to the total output of cotton (Roupsard, 1987 :330, Lele et al., 1989 :9)4.

9In 1974, the Société de développement du coton (Sodecoton) was established by the Cameroonian state and the French CFDT5. It dif-fered from its predecessors in its explicit developmental goal. Its mission was – and still is – promoting cotton production, commer-cialising cotton and its by-products (oil, oil cake), and developing the cotton growing zones as well as modernising agriculture6.

10In view of this developmental goal, it is understandable that when the NEB-project started, it sought to cooperate with Sodecoton. Thus, Sodecoton became responsible for agricultural extension in the project’s resettlement areas, the so-called encadrement. Yet, as Sodecoton pushed farmers into cotton production, a conflict with NEB-project staff emerged in the 1980s since the NEB wanted resettled farmers to concentrate on food crops, at least in the first years. As the only source of agricultural inputs provided on credit, Sodecoton has established a firm control over Cameroon’s cotton growing areas, including the Bénoué region, holding also a monopoly on the marketing of cotton.

  • 7 Another example of Sodecoton’s control over farmers is the imposition of block-cultivation. Thus su (...)

11An example of this tightening control over farming is Sodecoton’s campaign to intensify cotton cultivation. Fertilizers, treated seeds, pesticides and insecticides were introduced to the farmers. Officially, farmers had the choice whether to apply these intensive techniques or not. Non-adopting farmers were denied Sodecoton’s extension workers’ attention and, gradually, also seeds. Thus the new intensive cultivation techniques were imposed upon farmers or forced them to abandon the cultivation of cotton altogether (Levrat, 1987 :40)7.

12Despite Sodecoton’s developmental mission, its operations came to resemble that of a commercial company with monopoly power, long before its actual privatization in 2000.

The organisation of cotton cultivation : farmers, cercles and AVP/GICs

13To understand how Sodecoton dominates agricultural life in the Bénoué region, one needs to comprehend its functioning. Although Sodecoton has decentralized some of its operations since the late 1980s, for instance by creating farmer associations, its strict control over production and marketing is perpetuated by institutions such as the agents de suivi, moniteurs, cercles and Associations villageoise précooperative (AVP) or Groupes d’initiative commune (GIC).

Agents de suivi and moniteurs

  • 8 Most cotton cultivators are men. Few women are officially registered cotton growers and of these fe (...)

14Before the onset of the rains, individual farmers have to indicate the surface they intend to cultivate with cotton to the agent de suivi, the lowest of functionaries in the Sodecoton hierarchy. If a farmer also wants fertilizer on credit for his maize, he has to cultivate at least three quarters of a hectare with cotton8. This is the officiai rule, yet it is the moniteur of Sodecoton – the immediate superior of the agent de suivi – who ultimately decides whether a farmer is entitled to the farming inputs for cotton and maize. The minimal required surface under cotton is well negotiable in daily practice, but it is almost impossible to obtain fertilizer on credit without cultivating at least some cotton. Sodecoton does not, however, deal with individual farmers. Eight to twenty cotton cultivators are organized in one production group, a cercle, led by the chef du cercle. The cercles are, in turn, organised in an AVP/GIC.

15Sodecoton delivers all inputs to the storehouse of the AVP/GIC. The AVP/GIC employs one or more agent de suivi, the number depends on the number of cotton cultivators – some 100 to 150 cultivators per agent de suivi. The agents de suivi are selected farmers, paid by the AVP/GIC. The agent de suivi supervises the cultivation of cotton by farmers, he checks the application of inputs, etc. The agent de suivi should go and see all cotton fields once or twice a week. He, and the moniteur, control storage and distribution of inputs. Hence, if a farmer comes to the storehouse to ask for a particular product, the agent de suivi should know whether the cotton field of that man is actually ready for that particular product.

16Besides supervising agents de suivi, moniteurs are responsible for the technical assistance of farmers. They are supposed to guide every farmer in cotton cultivation and the food crops in the same rotation schedule (see also Levrat, 1984 :34-36 ; Dounias et al., 2002).

17The workings of an agent de suivi and the problems he may encounter, are well illustrated by the story of Alfred, one of the two agents de suivi of the GIC Bame II. Alfred had given insecticides in beer bottles to people, but this was considered dangerous, since people also do other things with beer bottles and thus they could be poiso-ned. He was sanctioned with the withdrawal of about one third of his monthly salary. A second reprimand befell Alfred when a farmer begged him for fertilizer. Half of the fields of this man were far away and Alfred had not seen these fields. Hence he did not know whether they were actually ready for the fertilizer. Alfred gave the fertilizer anyway, but by incident the chef de zone came across the begging farmer and he knew that the far-away fields were not ready for the fertilizer. As Alfred should not have given the fertilizer he was punished, again by a deduction from his salary.

Chefs du cercle

  • 9 The ultimate escape for a heavily indebted farmer is to move away from the village again. In this r (...)

18Besides the agent de suivi, also the chef du cercle is supposed to supervise and monitor the cultivation practices of his group members. The group as a whole is responsible for the repayment of all credit taken by its individual members. The chef du cercle is paid the total amount due to the collective. If one member has produced insufficient to repay the credit he received, his debt to Sodecoton is subtracted from the groups’ total ; other members pay for the debtor. Thus Sodecoton externalizes the financial risk and the sanctioning of crop failure or deceitful behaviour of individual farmers. In rare occasions it happens that an indebted farmer flees from a group and village, but generally group members work it out amongst themselves. For example, the indebted farmer sells a cow or several bags of his food crop. In some instances another group member will pay for a debtor, for example a brother or a father. In rare occasions debts are repaid in labour9.

  • 10 If a chef does not do such things, eventually people will leave his group. An example is Digil, a c (...)

19If a group’s balance is positive, the chef du cercle receives a premium – a percentage of the total production. It is commonly expec-ted that he shares this premium – at least partly – with his group members by distributing some cash and/or organizing a small beer-party10. Generally people like to be in a group of which the chef du cercle is productive and successful, hoping he will be able to pay potential debts of fellow group members.

AVPs/GICs and the marketing of cotton

20These organizations are led by a committee with a president, secretary, treasurer, and ‘deputies’ to all these positions. Committee members are paid by the AVP/GIC, yet the tasks of committee members depend much on the internai organisation of the AVP/GIC. It is often younger educated men who occupy positions in the AVP/GIC committees, pressed into it by the older men who do not read nor write.

21The AVP/GIC is responsible for organizing the market for cotton. In November, when cotton is picked, its committee members designate an open space as market-place, make a little shed, and then wait for the delivery of an open container of Sodecoton – the orange-colours of which are typical for Northern Cameroon. Sodecoton tends not to deliver a container before producers have brought their cotton to the market-place. Hence, on behalf of Sodecoton, the moniteur and the chef de zone urge farmers to bring their cotton to the market, on the promise a container will arrive shortly (which is not necessarily the case). But as the harvest of cotton may coincide with the harvest of food crops, farmers may decide to harvest their food crops first. Other postponement in farmers’ cotton delivery to the market may be the fear of theft or damage by animais or fire. People feel that it is safer to keep it at home.

  • 11 For example, in 1999, the cotton money only arrived in May in Riao and Bamé.

22Once the container has been delivered and the market starts, an équipe d’achat is formed, consisting of at least some AVP/GIC committee members. Young men are gathered to fill the container ; they are paid based on tonnage handled. Besides the container, Sodecoton delivers a scale to weigh the cotton of individual farmers before it is put into the container. For every bale of cotton weigh-ted, a fee is due to Sodecoton. Every farmer also pays a fixed amount for administration and weighing to the équipe d’achat. When the container is filled, it is covered, and awaits the return of the truck that will take the container to a factory of Sodecoton11. At the factory, the container is weighed again. If the weight at the factory is lower than the total reported by the équipe d’achat, there is a financial penalty for them. In case an AVP/GIC has made so many miscalculations that these are labelled as ‘fraud’, or an équipe d’achat is considered ‘incapable’, one or two moniteurs are assi-gned to assist at the marketing of the cotton.

23After all the cotton is taken from the market, the moniteur has to finalise the calculations, which are checked again in Lagdo and Garoua, where Sodecoton has administrative centres. Payment is made to the president of the AVP/GIC, who distributes it to the chefs du cercle. It may, however, take several months for the money to arrive12. When the money finally arrives, most people have already spent it. For example, they may have accumulated debts on the promise to pay back with the ‘cotton-money’. Money is spent immediately, on the repayment of debts and overdue school fees, new – second-hand – clothes for the family, meat or fish for a change, and – for some – a drinking party with friends. If there is money left, it may be invested in livestock, a bicycle, housing materials or a trip ‘au village’.

Crop choices : hungry for maize, trapped in cotton

24So far, it has been elaborated how Sodecoton controls cotton cultivators, through a particular organization of production and marketing. Through these institutional arrangements relating to cotton, Sodecoton has also extended its dominance into other agricultural markets, notably that of fertilizers for maize, credit, and farm implements (ploughs, etc.). People’s preference for hybrid maize – a capital- and input-demanding crop – as a staple, forces them to engage in cotton cultivation. Cotton is, for the generally cash-strapped farmers in the Bénoué region, the only means to generate a little cash while sustaining food crop production, that is hybrid maize cultivation. Cotton production does not, however, enable an escape from the vicious circle of credit and debts, the migrant farmers of the Bénoué region find themselves in. This raises the question whether there are other options to generate cash. Let us therefore briefly consider alternative crops and occupations.

25In general people barely manage to make ends meet throughout the year as far as the daily needs are concerned. One obvious possibility to make ends meet in this emergent settler society is renting out a part of one’s land. Other possibilities include working for a day or so as a builder, doing agricultural work, brewing and selling beer (women), plaiting straw mats (men), breeding and selling chickens, ducks or small ruminants. Another frequently used way to make a little money is by selling small quantities of one’s food crop. These activities do not, however, generate substantial cash.

26Whereas cotton is commonly seen as a money-earner, food crops are never cultivated with the explicit purpose of making money with it. Although there are other potential options to earn cash money, these are hardly employed. Firstly, one may cultivate significantly more sorghum, millet or groundnuts than necessary to meet family needs and safeguard the surplus to sell profitable later on. However, the main problem here is timing. One needs to be able to hold on to the harvest until prices rise. It will be tempting to sell sooner as to have at least something. Besides – and perhaps more importantly – having a food crop surplus at your home will make you very vulnerable to claims of your family and wider (kinship) network. Moreover, such an individual enterprise may be conside-red more risky than cotton cultivation. Cotton production provides security, as it is not purely one’s individual responsibility.

27A second option to raise capital, is the cultivation of onions. Again timing of the sale of the harvest is the difficult issue ; furthermore, it is a lot of work and requires substantial capital to invest in seeds and the building of special storage. To conclude, not an easy option to escape poverty. An additional problem with the fore mentioned options is transport. For the transportation of their produce, farmers depend on unreliable and erratic bush taxies or traders from town. Villages like Riao and Bamé are accessible throughout the year, but numerous others cannot be reached by car during part of the year.

28A third option to make money is wage labour. However the possibilities are very limited in these rural areas and, moreover, one needs time to work one’s field. Even the agents de suivi work part-time, and also schoolteachers have to produce their own food. One needs quite a salary to be able to buy all the food for the family, and there are hardly any jobs that qualify for this.


  • 12 The Herald Newspaper (07/09/2002) reports that although the prices in the season 2000/2001 had drop (...)

29Cotton cultivation is considered the only viable option to make money. And even though cotton prices keep dropping, theoretically it is still possible to earn a considerable sum of money with the cultivation of cotton12. Despite high expectations of making a lot of money with cotton production, every year the majority of farmers is disappointed with the actual amount they receive from Sodecoton. Thus, the financial benefits of cotton production are not particularly substantial. Furthermore, all farmers complain about Sodecoton, its strict rules, the workload, about the performance of the agent de suivi, the moniteur and the chef de zone, about the prices charged for both inputs and agricultural implements like ploughs, and delays in delivery of inputs and the farmers’ money after the sale of the cotton. There is, nevertheless, a compelling reason for farmers’ engagement in cotton production, it is the only way to get fertilizer necessary to cultivate their favourite food – maize. The provision of inputs on credit by Sodecoton is for many poor farmers the only way to sustain their agriculture and thus safeguard their food security. These findings are at odds with one of the objectives of the NEB resettlement project which was to enhance food security in the north of Cameroon and – after some time – in the whole country.

30As this paper has shown, it is not the profitability of cotton or alternatively the low prices for other crops, that pushes farmers into cotton cultivation. It is the institutional set-up of agricultural input and credit markets controlled by Sodecoton which leaves them little choice. If one wants to eat maize, one is obliged to cultivate cotton.



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Lele U. J., Van de Walle N., Gbetibouo M., 1989 — Cotton in Africa : an analysis of differences in performance. Washington : World Bank.

Levrat R., 1984 — La place du coton dans la vie des paysans du Nord-Cameroun. Les Cahiers d’Outre-mer 37 (145) : 33-62.

Roupsard M., 1981 — Les étapes de la culture cotonnière au Nord-Cameroun. Revue de Géographie du Cameroun 2 (2) : 121-33.

Roupsard M., 1984 — Le point sur la culture attelée et la motorisation au Nord-Cameroun. Cahiers Orstom, Ser. Sc. hum. 20 (3-4) : 613-31.

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1 The MEAVSB (Mission d’études d’aménagement de la vallée superieure de la Bénoué) executed the NEB-project, funded by the Cameroonian government and the European Union.

2 This latter group was never counted and it is only through population figures that an estimation might be made of the total number of migrants as the population of the North Province rose from about 450,000 in 1976 to just over 800,000 in 1987 and an estimated 1,6 million in 1998.

3 For more details, see also Roupsard, 1987 :322-6.

4 According to Levrat (1984 :38) only 10 % of the total produce came from the Bénoué region. See also Pontié (1979) for a discussion of the impact of the replacement of groundnuts by cotton and the consequences the-reof for food crops, the entitlement to land, division of labour, revenues within the family, and the development of exchanges (concerning Guiziga, Far North Province).

5 The French CFDT preserved 45 % of the ‘shares’, the Cameroonian state and different ‘sociétés’ got 55 %. In 1981 the participation of Cameroon increased to 70 %, leaving the CFDT with 30 % (Levrat. 1984 :34).

6 See for example,

7 Another example of Sodecoton’s control over farmers is the imposition of block-cultivation. Thus supervision of the production processes such as sprinkling of insecticides, control of crop rotation, calculation of the expected cotton harvest and the control on intercropping – which is pro-hibited by Sodecoton – is facilitated.

8 Most cotton cultivators are men. Few women are officially registered cotton growers and of these few, most women register in order to obtain fertilizer that in turn is used by someone else, their husband or another family member. However, women do provide a large part of the labour required for cotton cultivation.

9 The ultimate escape for a heavily indebted farmer is to move away from the village again. In this rural society, with the majority of people being migrants, people come and go every year for all sorts of reasons.

10 If a chef does not do such things, eventually people will leave his group. An example is Digil, a chef du cercle who received 26.000 F CFA which he kept all for himself. The following year a lot of people had left his group.

11 For example, in 1999, the cotton money only arrived in May in Riao and Bamé.

12 The Herald Newspaper (07/09/2002) reports that although the prices in the season 2000/2001 had dropped to their lowest levels since 1986, cotton production rose again (from 194,690 tons in the 1998/1999 to 230,485 tons in the year in review, 2001), as a resuit of the extension of the area cultivated and the improvement of output per hectare. This also proves that decision-making at farm level concerning cash crop production may be influenced by prices – in this case of the cash crop cotton -but it is not predetermined by prices as is often assumed in macro-economic studies. By looking at prices alone, the choices made by farmers can not be understood.

Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 1. Map of Northern Cameroon. Arrows indicating the migratory movements.
Fichier image/jpeg, 173k


Judith de Wolf, anthropologue, Icraf
World Agroforestry Centre,
Agroforestry Programme, Chitedze Agricultural Research
Station, P.O. Box 30798, Lilongwe 3, Malawi ;

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