Jean-Marie Kameni / Cameroun
As a young man growing up in rural Cameroon, Jean Marie Kameni knew that his future lay in launching some form of agribusiness. But his plans lacked one basic ingredient – the technical knowledge to ensure that his crops thrived.
Raised as an orphan, Kameni had always known he would have to find his own way in life, and after leaving secondary school, the idea of further education was a luxury he could not afford. He started teaching mathematics, physics and chemistry at the school in his village, and put aside enough savings to buy a one hectare plot, which he decided to plant with cocoa. That proved to be a costly mistake. Kameni’s first agribusiness venture failed to take off, and his cocoa crop was ravaged by fungal disease. The young man watched helplessly as the flowers fell and withered off the plants.
“The cause was the fact that I didn’t have proper training,” he now accepts. Determined not to give in – or to make the same mistake twice – Kameni enrolled in a technical school of agriculture in Bafang, not far from his village.
“I chose it because it was the closest one,” he explains. “Being an orphan, I had to continue working on the land to pay for my studies.” Kameni’s commitment paid off. In 2015, he graduated top of his class, full of ideas about how to carve a brighter future in farming. However, one major hurdle remained. Now, shorter of funds than ever, Kameni faced the problem of raising the cash he needed to set up his next agribusiness venture, which he had decided would be based on tomato production.
“No one had ever tried growing tomatoes in this area, and I saw that there was a scarcity of this product here, though demand was high,” he said. “I decided to give it a try.”
Planning every detail
At college, Kameni had realised that farming had to be done methodically, with the right inputs to achieve a good return, but the seeds, insecticide, fungicide and fertiliser he would need were far beyond his limited budget.
Never one to be discouraged easily, Kameni took a menial job with a monthly salary of 100,000 FCFA (€152) for eight months. His wages, together with other savings and a loan from his older brother, enabled him to buy quality hybrid seeds, which produced higher yields and had strong resistance to disease. He also bought a powerful hydraulic pump to irrigate the plants, choosing a model that can pump water over a distance of more than a kilometre. A final but essential purchase was the fertiliser and pesticides he would need to nurture his plants, and the plastic drums, pipes and sprayers to apply them.
Again using the knowledge he gained at agricultural college, Kameni thought carefully about how to cultivate his crop, opting for a technique of planting vertically, so as to protect the fruits from pests and diseases, thereby increasing yields and profits.
“In many parts of Cameroon, farmers don’t tie the tomato plants up. They let them trail on the ground, which has a number of disadvantages because pests eat the fruits. Also, in the rainy season, it means that the tomatoes are in contact with the wet ground and so they decompose faster,” says Kameni, who is now 31. “When you see tomatoes grown this way at the market, you can tell immediately, as they are dirty. With the method that I use, you tie the plants vertically. That also means you can fit more plants into a smaller area.” In a row spanning one and a half metres, Kameni cultivates 10 plants, all of them producing a rich crop of healthy looking shiny red fruit.
He who dares wins
In total, the young farmer invested 2.5 million FCFA (€3,800), a huge sum for someone from such straitened financial circumstances. But Kameni kept his nerve, and in his first season alone, he quickly recouped the outlay, producing 800 crates of harvested tomatoes, with a turnover of 4 million FCFA (€6,100).
He smiles as he recalls the gamble he took.
“I have been able to pay back my debts and with the rest of the money, I have rented another plot of land measuring 3 ha, which I am now preparing for cultivation. I have also bought more seed – about four times as much as I sowed last time.”
Kameni’s success has had a powerful effect on other young people in the community, 30 of whom have now found work on his tomato farm.
“He has helped us to find our way out of the darkness,” said Emmanuel Ngaleu, one of his workers. “Before, we did not know that this type of agriculture was possible. We are very happy, and we want to be like him. We are already being trained in the field, so that we may be in a similar position tomorrow.”
Well aware of the important role model he has become for youth in the area, Kameni is generous with his time and experience.
“People around me are envious of my job because I run my own business and I have enough to feed myself. Many young people come and visit me in my field. They want to be like me and I encourage them. I tell them to be daring like I was,” he says.
“I believe that agriculture is the backbone of the economy of a nation especially developing countries like mine. I would advise young people to work the land since even if you don’t have much money you can grow your own food to eat and be self-employed. Agriculture employs more than 60 percent of the active population – and it feeds even more.”