Many Cameroonian Youths Who Lack Educational Opportunities Flourish in Flower Gardens and Tree Nurseries

Young Cameroonian men who never attended secondary school are finding employment in the newly popular floral and nursery trades. Strong wages enable many garden workers to start their own enterprises.

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Many Cameroonian Youths Who Lack Educational Opportunities Flourish in Flower Gardens and Tree Nurseries

Festus Bessing, who raises flowers and trees alongside a busy road outside Buea, the capital of Cameroon’s Southwest region, grafts a limb onto a tree.

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BUEA, CAMEROON – Festus Bessing is covered in mud. He spends his days surrounded by roses, sunflowers and black-eyed Susans. Wielding his gardening sheers and waiting for customers to visit his roadside garden, Bessing moves through rows of bright, colorful flowers in his 35-meter-long (114-feet-long) garden.

Bessing sells more than 50 varieties of flowers on the side of Mile 14, a stretch of Buea Mutengene Road, a thoroughfare that links Buea, the capital of Cameroon’s Anglophone Southwest region, with French-speaking regions to the east.

Operating alongside such a busy thoroughfare, Bessing is able to sell flowers to a wide range of customers, including some who come from the neighboring nations of Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

Bessing, who has been a florist and gardener for nearly a decade, takes great pride in his work. He loves to watch visitors explore his gardens, admiring his plants and smelling their sweet scents.

In addition to cultivating flowers and making custom flower arrangements for weddings, graduations and church ceremonies, Bessing grows and imports trees for his customers to replant. His favorites include araucaria and Chinese swamp cypress, distinctive conifers.

Despite lacking a high school education, Bessing has learned to tend to a diverse array of flowers and operate a profitable business.

Bessing finished primary school but did not go on to secondary school because his parents could not afford the tuition and fees, he says. He learned gardening by working in his brother’s garden for six years.

He has owned his own garden for four years and now enjoys a steady stream of customers.

“I am making enough money to cater for my wife and three children,” he says.

In peak periods, Bessing’s sales can rise as high as 300,000 francs ($570) a month. After paying business expenses, his income in peak periods runs from 150,000 francs ($285) to 200,000 francs ($380) a month – much more than the average plantation worker earns.

Agricultural workers in the region earn an average of 40,000 francs ($75) a month, according to the Fako Agricultural Workers Union.

Bessing’s experience is becoming more common throughout Buea.

Floral businesses provide a vital opportunity for young Cameroonians with limited education. Many gardeners along Mile 14, Mile 15 and Mile 16 – common locations for roadside gardens – report having a First School Leaving Certificate, indicating completion of primary school. But for most, secondary school and higher education were out of reach.

Despite their limited education, gardeners in the region report earning as much as 600,000 francs ($1,140) a month during peak seasons.

By comparison, a college-educated, early-career public servant in Cameroon earns just 131,000 francs ($250) a month, says Geneva Nanyongo, a government worker who has a college degree.

Some 20 gardeners raise flowers along Mile 14, Bessing says. All of them learned their vocation on the job.

The region’s first gardeners learned from Francis Ngwa Che, who popularized flower gardening in the region.

In 1983 Che, who held a doctorate in botany with a specialty in genetic engineering, opened a Buea flower garden where he taught local youths how to start up and manage flower garden businesses, says Lesinki Ntehnda, son of the late teacher and environmentalist.

Jonas Ngwang, 49, was one of Che’s first students in Buea. With Che’s guidance, Ngwang started his flower garden business in 1987.

Ngwang lost his parents when he was in primary school. After their deaths, he lived with an uncle, a laborer who could not afford to send him to secondary school.

Instead of attending secondary school and high school, Ngwang helped his uncle tap rubber on local plantations. One day his uncle told him about Che and asked if he would like to work and study with him.

“That was the last thing I thought of doing,” he says. “But it later turned out to be the best thing in my life.”

Ngwang worked in Che’s gardens for three years, saving up his earnings to start his own garden. He now gardens in Mile 14 and Mile 15.

Starting a garden here is not inexpensive.

A new gardener will need 215,000 francs ($408) to register for water supply from the Mutengene Water Project Committee and 7,500 francs ($14) for the annual water maintenance fee.

Land rents vary according to garden size; Ngwang pays 20,000 francs ($38) a year. On top of those expenses, a gardener must purchase seeds and starter plants and pay any workers he employs.

Ngwang’s garden has grown over the 27 years he has been in business. He now employs six laborers who work in three gardens in Buea, he says.

Ngwang has invested in other businesses. Using profits from his gardens, he has purchased four motorbikes that he rents out in and around Buea.

Ngwang says he has trained more than 50 gardeners over the years.

The success of his enterprise has allowed him to live a good life, he says.

“I was able to build a house and send all my children to school because of this business,” he says.

Three of his children go to secondary school and two attend the University of Buea.

Divine Kum has worked in another garden along Mile 14 for three years. The son of poor farmers, Kum also left school after earning his First School Leaving Certificate.

“I don’t regret that I did not go to school,” Kum says. “I think I can make enough money as a gardener.”

He has big plans for his future.

“I would want to open my own flower garden immediately [after] I raise capital,” he says. “I know it is a good business for those who can work very hard.”

Bessing agrees that gardening can be profitable for those who work diligently. To maximize sales, he works in his garden seven days a week, weeding, replanting, nursing and watering his flowers and trees.

The peak period for flower sales runs from March to July, when the rainy season sets in, Bessing says. His slowest month is September, when he takes in less than 25,000 francs ($47) because parents are spending much of their money on their children’s back-to-school needs.

Araucaria heterophylla, commonly known as Norfolk Island pine, is an especially profitable tree, Bessing says.

A Norfolk Island pine that stands 3 to 4 meters (10 to 13 feet) tall sells for about 250,000 francs ($470), and one that stands 7 to 8 meters (23 to 26 feet) tall sells for about 500,000 francs ($950). Because these trees are so costly, most are purchased by corporations, banks and rich people.

Customers flock to Mile 14 to buy plants and flowers.

Rosemary Mbu, an event planner in Buea, frequently buys flowers from gardens on Mile 14.

“The Mile 14 florists are helping us a lot in accessing natural flowers around Buea (CQ) (CQ),” says Mbu, who has been buying flowers for 15 years. “If they weren’t there, I wonder where I would have been buying my flowers.”

Mbu buys flowers from these florists every month – and sometimes every week – to decorate spaces used for weddings and other events.

“I buy fresh flowers for as much as 500,000 francs ($950) sometimes, depending on the level and number of occasions I am planning,” she says.

Mbu also purchases flowers from Mile 15 and Mile 16.

Mile 14 residents say they appreciate the gardens for providing employment opportunities for local youths.

Farmer Peter Moka, 68, has lived on Mile 14 all his life. Gardening operations have kept local young people away from thievery, he says.

“The youths of Mile 14 are very hard-working,” he says. “Most of them are gardeners. If they didn’t get themselves involved in this business, most of them would have been armed robbers or petty-petty thieves.”

But young gardeners reject the notion that they would have turned to crime had they not entered the flower and tree business.

“I have grown up with the fear of the Lord,” Bessing says. “I would never have been a thief if I were not a gardener. I would have looked for something else to do.”

Kum agrees. Only lazy people would turn to stealing, he says.

While grateful for his success, Bessing says he is still looking to grow his business and expand his botanical know-how.

He is saving money to invest in larger gardens. And determined to advance in the trade, he is looking for a mentor.

“I want to improve on my gardening skills at all costs, even if it means traveling out of Buea to achieve this,” he says.