Nelly Bassily | March 24, 2013
Calixte Mbilong is the head of the local okok co-operative in Minwoho village, central Cameroon. She praises the indigenous plant: “When you are tired, it rejuvenates even old ladies like myself.”
Another village woman, Beatrice Ananga, prepares a meal made from ground okok leaves, palm kernels and peanuts. She can’t imagine life without okok. Laughing, she says, “If there were no okok, how are we going to live?” A prospective bride must know how to cook okok, or she will not be considered suitable wives by her husband’s family.
Okok is a forest creeper which is eaten as a leafy vegetable. It is a crop of huge significance in the Congo Basin. The Centre for International Forestry Research, also known as CIFOR, estimates the okok trade in Cameroon alone to be worth $12 million US a year.
Okok occurs naturally in the Congo Basin rainforest. It climbs the trunks of established trees and wraps itself around their branches. But the popularity of the vegetable has soared in Cameroon and amongst Cameroonians living abroad. This has led to concerns that supplies of the vegetable will not meet demand, and that continued harvesting without replenishing the forest will affect its long-term survival.
Abdon Awono works for CIFOR. Speaking of okok, he says, “It is very important in terms of food; it is very important in terms of medicine; and it is very important in terms of income generation.”
Mr. Awono encouraged CIFOR to partner with a Cameroonian research organization and a local NGO on an okok domestication program in several villages. Domestication does not require deforestation, because the trees around which the okok is planted do not need to be cleared.
Mr. Awono explains, “We started convincing them that it was also possible to plant okok as they do with cocoa and other agricultural products.” Initially, it was a difficult process. Villagers believed that there was enough okok in the forests, and no need to plant more. But they became convinced, and the project was so successful that it was expanded nationwide.
A key feature of the program is to assist villagers to form co-operatives. Forming a co-operative allows villagers to organize group sales and negotiate higher prices for their produce. The bright green okok leaves are tied in large bunches and taken to market. Farmers now earn 800 CFA Francs ($1.50 US) per kilogram of okok, up from 200 Francs CFA (40 US cents) when the project started.
The project was overseen by Pierre Ayissi Nanga, the head of a local NGO, Association for the Development of Environmental Initiatives. He says, “Okok has become a national dish. Everybody consumes large quantities.” According to Mr. Nanga, nurseries were set up in 2003. Villagers were trained how to grow the plants and how to transplant them into the forests.
Attracted by the program’s success, the Cameroonian authorities have now committed $500,000 US per year to expand it across the country. Mr. Nanga has been appointed the national coordinator of the project. He says, “Each family used to earn about five to ten thousand Cameroonian Francs ($9-18 US) per week, and now they can make up to 20 or 30 thousand ($37-55 US).”
Calixte Mbilong walks at the front of a line of women into the forest beyond her village. Each woman carries a tiny okok seedling ready for planting in the forest.
Mrs. Mbilong says, “After the cocoa season is over, okok is what we rely on for our livelihoods. On Monday, Thursday, and Friday, I sell okok.”
Mrs. Mbilong is happy if she can make 35,000 CFA Francs a week ($70 US). She says, “It is important for me. It is with this money that we pay our children’s school fees, take care of our health, and buy clothing. It allows me to buy all that I need.”