Nakinti Nofuru, GPJ

Erratic Rains, Dry Spells Destroy Crops in Cameroon, Forcing Farmers to Replant and Pushing Up Food Prices

Farmer Lucy Mangie's sister Mercy Lum sells vegetables harvested from Mangie’s farm in a market in Bamenda, Cameroon. Mangie, who cultivates land near streams in Cameroon’s Northwest region, has adapted to climate change by watering her crops whenever the rains stop.  

In recent years, rainfall has been starting and stopping unpredictably in Cameroon, disrupting planting and harvesting cycles.

BAMENDA, CAMEROON – Vivian Angu is walking home from her farm, carrying a hoe over her shoulder and a cutlass in a farm bag.

She has been weeding her crops all day. She prays that the rains that have been pounding the area since May will stop for a while and allow her Irish potatoes to get some sunshine.

The 43-year-old farmer from Bamenda, the capital of Cameroon’s Northwest region, has been growing Irish potatoes and other vegetables for 21 years.

The last three years have been different, she says. Weather patterns have changed so much that farmers can no longer predict when the rains will start or stop.

Farmers around Bamenda customarily plant in March, when they expect the rains to start. In the past three years, however, rains have started late, stopped early, or run long. Sometimes they start and then stop after only a few days, causing crops to wither.

“The world has really changed,” Angu says. “Cameroon too has changed. Rain falls without control.”

Last year’s weather was particularly alarming, she says. Rains fell for nine months.

“I have never witnessed a year that rain falls from March right up to December,” Angu says. “Never.”

After she planted her crops last year, the rains stopped and her crops languished. When she replanted, a hailstorm destroyed her crops.

This year, she waited for the rains to start and then planted her crops in late March. The rains stopped a few days later and resumed in May. She was able to bring in a partial harvest.

“These days it rains quite all right, and this causes us to plant,” she says. “All of a sudden, the rain will stop and our crops will die as a result. This gives us double work, because we have toplant again.”

Angu has heard people say the erratic rains are caused by climate change, she says. While she says she doesn’t understand the scientific details of climate change, she knows that the changes people attribute to it – the changes she has seen on a daily basis over the past three years – are potentially devastating to her and other farmers.

“We lose time and money because of this climate change,” she says. “I now believe that this climate change thing is real.”

For the past three years, farmers in Bamenda say they have been losing crops and money because of unpredictable rainfall. Sometimes the rains start and then stop within a month, causing crops to fail. Sometimes the rainy season lasts for more than six months.

Experts attribute the change in climate to global warming. They advise farmers to adapt to the changing weather patterns by planting when it rains and replanting when their crops die – a costly practice.

Human activities, such as burning fossil fuels, emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that trap heat close to the Earth, causing global temperatures to rise, says Tansi Laban, regional delegate of the Ministry of Environment, Protection of Nature and Sustainable Development. This warming, in turn, causes changes in other climatic conditions, including ocean temperatures, rainfall and storms.

These effects are being felt all over Cameroon, Laban says.

In the Northwest region, for example, the rainy season no longer starts in mid-March and ends in mid-September, he says. Rains start and stop irregularly.

Last year, the rainy season extended from March to December, something that has never happened before, Laban says.

This year, the rains started in January and stopped at the end of the month. They resumed in early March and stopped again in early April. The rains resumed again in May and continued well into September.

Because of climate change, the mean annual temperature in Cameroon increases at an average rate of .15 degrees Celsius (.27 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade, according to the Africa Adaptation Program of the U.N. Development Program.

Cameroon is warming at a slower pace than other West African countries. Nigeria’s mean annual temperature is rising .18 degrees Celsius (.32 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade, and Ghana’s is rising .27 degrees Celsius (.49 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade.

Climate change also is causing a drop in rainfall in Cameroon. The mean annual rainfall has decreased by about 2.9 mm (7/64 inch) per month per decade since 1960. That means rainfall is decreasing by an average of 2.2 percent per month each decade.

Because most Cameroonian farmers practice rain-fed agriculture, these changes in climate have dramatically affected yields.

Food production in the Northwest region has dropped by about 20 percent, Laban says, causing an increase in consumer food prices.

A full bucket of Angu’s crop, Irish potatoes, which cost 2,000 Central African francs ($3.90) to 2,300 francs ($4.50) two years ago, now costs 2,500 francs ($4.90) to 3,000 francs ($5.80). Furthermore, vendors don’t put as many potatoes in the buckets as they did before.

Countrywide, food prices have risen by 2.2 percent, according to a 2014 World Bank report.

The North and Far North regions of Cameroon are especially hard hit by food shortages, according to the World Food Program. Those areas experienced a high rate of crop failure because of droughts in 2009, 2011 and 2012 and floods in 2010 and 2012.

Still, Cameroon is more food secure than some of its neighbors.

Cameroon ranks 84th on the 2014 Global Food Security Index, ahead of some West African countries. Nigeria ranks 87th and Angola ranks 92nd. The higher a country ranks on the index, the more food secure it is.

Changes in the climate of the Northwest region confuse some farmers.

Charlotte Mufi, who has been growing groundnuts on two acres for 11 years, says her crops have failed twice in the past two years because rainfall has been insufficient. She was forced to replant.

Last year, she planted when rains started early. Then the rains stopped and her groundnuts withered.

“Honestly, I don’t know when to plant anymore,” she says. “I depend on the farming population of Bamenda. If I see many people carrying their hoes to the farm, I carry mine too. This is because I cannot tell on my own when the right time for planting is.”

This year, she planted in March. Even though the rains stopped for some time, her crops were not much affected, she says.

The irregular rains of the past two years have cost Mufi losses between 30,000 francs ($59) and 60,000 francs ($118), she says. Such losses are substantial in a country where the average annual income is $1,262.

Because of the income losses, Mufi has struggled to raise school fees for her five children.

However, Mufi will keep on farming even when rains fail her, she says.

“My farm is my own office – that is where my money comes from,” she says. “Even if climate change continues to damage my crops, I will pick up the courage to keep planting because that is where I get money to support my family.”

Some farmers in Bamenda do not consider rainfall irregularity a problem. They say they have adapted to it.

Lucy Mangie, a farmer who grows parsley, celery and spices, waters her crops when rains fail. She obtains water from streams and a spring in a nearby hill that never dry up completely, even during dry times. She has raised healthy crops each of the past two years, she says.

Mangie started watering her crops when rainfall became irregular two years ago, she says. She cultivates land near rivers and streams so she can farm year-round.

“I plant my spices in places where access to water is not a problem,” she says. “I water my farm on a daily basis during dry periods. I no longer depend on rainwater.”

Most farmers in Bamenda, however, rely on rainfall to grow their crops.

Erratic rainfall disrupts the normal planting and harvesting seasons and therefore diminishes food production, says Emmanuel Kafain, an agricultural economist working with Cercle International pour la Promotion de la Création, an environmental nonprofit organization.

“The people of the Northwest region know that in March, they are supposed to plant Irish potatoes and by June, they are harvesting,” he says. “If it doesn't rain in March, farmers cannot plant the crops. If rains start, then stop after a few weeks, most crops wither.”

Too much rainfall also affects food production, Kafain says.

Crops that do not need continuous rain can rot in the fields, resulting in minimal harvests, he says.

Further, exceptionally hot weather is hard on crops that require relative cool, including Irish potatoes, cabbages and tomatoes. 

Because food prices go up when supply does not meet demand, such climate irregularities force families to spend more on food.

Judging by his observations in the field, Kafain says climate change has hit women especially hard.

“Women mostly grow food crops,” he says. “They are the ones who toil in the farms, replanting and losing seeds. They work double, losing energy, and sometimes this impacts on their health negatively.”

Last December, the organization held a seminar on the impact of climate change with farmers in Bafoussam, the capital of Cameroon’s West region. The farmers of the region also complained about double planting, losing seeds, and increased poverty, he says.

The organization plans to hold such seminars in several other locations to help experts understand the impact of climate change as they look for solutions, he says.

At the moment, they are not able to advise farmers on when to plant as the rains are too unpredictable, he says.

“It is unfortunate that the changes happen so fast and in an irregular manner,” he says.

Laban advises farmers to work with the patterns of climate change.

“If it rains, plant,” he says. “If the rain stops and your crops die, try and replant following the resumption of rain.”

To help farmers cope with climate change, the government last year provided improved Irish potato seedlings and tractors to farmers in Santa, a village in the Southwest region, Laban says. That area also has been experiencing erratic rainfall.

The government has no plans to control food prices, Laban says.

Lois Yengo, a forestry technician and a trainer with Cercle International, says farmers have no choice but to proceed on the assumption that it will rain, even though they have no guarantees.

“At this very stage of climate change, farmers have to speculate wisely and replant when necessary,” she says. “It is a very big challenge, but we all have to look for ways to fight the challenge.”

Replanting is costly. When farmers must replant because their seeds have been destroyed by insufficient or excessive rain, they have to use their savings to buy more seeds and hire laborers.

Accordingly, Angu urges the government and environmental organizations to thoroughly study climate change in Cameroon and pass on their knowledge to farmers.

The government is working closely with nongovernmental organizations to seek solutions for the effects of climate change, Laban says. It will disseminate those solutions to farmers once it finds them.

In the meantime, farmers in Bamenda say they will continue growing crops despite the challenges posed by climate change.

Angu is not discouraged by climate change.

“I will never stop farming because of climate change,” she says. “Otherwise, how will my family survive?”