Nelly Bassily | April 28, 2008
On Jean Pierre Imele’s 150 hectares of land in Cameroon’s Littoral province, the variety of plants is impressive. Mango, banana, and avocado trees seem to spread endlessly into the distance.
It’s been 20 years since this agro-meteorologist and organic agronomist decided to focus exclusively on organic farming. He said his decision was ideological. He saw the potential of organic agriculture to promote development free from reliance on the agro-chemical industry.
Getting started wasn’t easy. Mr. Imele recalls that he was discouraged at first. He recruited small-scale farmers to work with him, but it took time to convince them of the value of organic agriculture and train them in organic techniques. The concept of preventative soil and plant care, which is key to eliminating the need for chemicals, was new to the group. It took three months for the first crops to emerge.
In time, the group’s perseverance paid off. Mr. Imele now works with more than 30 small-scale farmers, training them and purchasing their produce. Jean Marie Tsop is one of the collaborators. He was unsure of the organic approach at first, but soon found it to be cost effective. Mr. Tsop says he can produce more on his single hectare of land using organic techniques than he ever could when he used chemicals.
Mr. Imele and his collaborators now produce between 600 and 800 tones of fruit each year – from pineapple and passion fruit to aloe vera and avocado. About half of the crop is exported. Whole fruit goes to Europe, and fruit jam goes to the United States, Japan, and Australia. These foreign markets have exacting standards for organic products. Each year, European evaluators visit Mr. Imele’s farm before delivering organic certification. This certification is essential to exporting organic produce.
The fruit that is not exported whole or as jam is processed into juice. Some of the juice makes its way to Europe, and the rest is sold at Mr. Imele’s shop on the outskirts of Douala, Bio Nature. Mr. Imele says many of his clients have health problems, such as high blood pressure, obesity, or diabetes. But the one thing they all share is an understanding of the environmental and health benefits of organic produce.
As for those who say that organic produce is too expensive for small markets, Mr. Imele says this idea is outdated. He says his organic production process makes use of everything – even waste –keeping costs low. According to him, this makes organic produce profitable to grow and affordable to buy.
In Cameroon, there is no legal framework to regulate the organic sector, so organic farmers follow international standards. Mr. Imele hopes this void will soon be filled – especially for the benefit of the thirty-some independent producers that he manages. His dream for the future is a network of Cameroonian schools that would teach organic agriculture.