A horde of women attempt to buy cassava cuttings from a newly-arrived vehicle at the bus station in Pokola, in northern Congo. The cuttings are from Kabounga, more than 150 kilometres away. One woman stands out in the crowd, and commands the attention of the seller. Her clear voice rings out in discussion of the price. Her name is Elise Elenga. She is spokesperson for the women farmers in this square. She also acts as an adviser to the many women who ask for her guidance on how to diversify their economic activities, or resolve a dispute.
Although she grew up in the city, Elise Elenga blossomed in the small forest town of Pokola. Mrs. Elenga has moved from the city to the forest, and from farming to being a small-scale businesswoman. Today she combines farming with her various business interests. But she never dreamed that her life would take this path.
Mrs. Elenga left Brazzaville to join her husband in Pokola twelve years ago. Since then, she has become a model female entrepreneur. She remembers her early days in agriculture: “When I arrived in Pokola, it was hard to get through the month with the money that my husband gave me. We had to buy everything. And the products were very expensive.” But then a friend gave her a piece of land. She decided to grow cassava to feed her four children. Soon, she had the taste for farming.
Another friend advised Mrs. Elenga to find more land and grow products to sell. Mrs. Elenga spoke to the local authorities: “They granted me a large plot and I planted cassava. In the third year, I sold cassava chips and cassava for making fufu. Financially, too, I was satisfied.”
With the money earned from farming, Elise began to trade various items. When there was no farm work to do, she made trips to Douala in Cameroon to buy supplies. She is well-known in Pokola as a vendor of cloth, shoes, baby clothes and clothing for men and women. Not to mention cooking utensils and agricultural implements. People stop by her house to request items they need.
Elise Elenga recognizes that farming is very difficult in Pokola. The town lies in the middle of the forest. Trees and stumps must be cleared before fields can be planted. She says, “Our difficulties do not stop there.”
She walks eight kilometres to reach her fields. It is a 16-kilometre round trip to collect and transport her crops to market. Sometimes she expects a good harvest, only to discover her crop is suffering from plant diseases such as mosaic virus. She explains, “This disease is plaguing our cassava plantations. That’s why we plant more than one field per year. You must have the willingness and courage to keep going each year.”
This small-scale farmer has big ideas. She hopes to buy land and build houses in the city. She wants to rent them out so that she and her family receive an income when she is retired. But for now she is satisfied with what she has achieved through farming. She says, “Thanks to agriculture, I can pay for my children to study in town. And I help my parents.”
When asked about the role of African women, Elise says: “For me, today’s woman should no longer cross her arms, even if her husband has a good salary. When the husband goes to work, the woman also should seek an occupation. She could have a field of cassava or bananas, a vegetable garden or a small business. I earn hundreds of thousands of CFA francs per month. With agriculture, I do not envy those who work in businesses or the public sector.”