Akili ni mali – the Swahili translation of knowledge is wealth, is the name adopted by a local women’s association in Yanonge in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Led by its president Helen Fatoum, the association has 20 women engaged in various activities ranging from agriculture to trade.
The Akili ni mali association was created in 2014 in response to the economic challenges faced by women and their families, including low agricultural yields, low incomes and high loan rates from local financial institutions. Some women have decided to band together, buy agricultural land and then sell the products on the local market. Initially, the harvests did not reflect their efforts, and while they expanded the scope of their business – adding a bit of fish farming along the way – their income did not grow as fast as they expected.
In 2017, CIFOR-ICRAF met with members of Akili ni mali in Yanonge, as part of a larger package of long-term interventions in the area known as the Yangambi Engagement Landscape. Through multiple activities supporting the development of more profitable and sustainable local value chains, largely funded by the European Union with additional support from the Belgian Cooperation (ENABEL), USAID and others, CIFOR-ICRAF has worked with the Akili ni mali ever since, on issues as varied as improving agricultural and agroforestry techniques, bookkeeping, accounting, and providing loans to expand their businesses.
“We planted a lot of cassava and maize, but we didn’t harvest enough to meet all of our needs. Our first fish farm did not give us as many fish as we had hoped. When we started to learn and apply the new knowledge and techniques, the harvests increased steadily and our products found their way easily to the local market as we were able to sell at competitive prices,” explains Fatoum.
With the new sales made from their farm and their fish products, the association decided to improve the quality of life of its members. At each harvest, a percentage of the profits were set aside to purchase household items such as beds, mattresses, chairs, and cooking utensils for its members.
“Before I joined the association, my children were not enrolled in school. Now, thanks to the profit I make with my sisters in the group, I can send my 3 children to school”, says Angel Likoma, member of the association.
Formal education has always been an area of interest for Helen Fatoum and was one of the reasons that initially motivated the birth of the association. Many women in Yanonge have no formal education options and are highly dependent on their husbands for income. Fatoum always believed that if women had access to more formal education and acquired skills, they would be able to contribute to the well-being of their families and communities.
To materialize his belief, Fatoum identified certain members within the association who had a minimum level of formal education and decided that an additional percentage of the farm’s profits would be used to pay for their further education. One of the beneficiaries of this initiative is Aminata Kombozi, 25 years old.
After her divorce from her husband in Kisangani, with no income, Kombozi decided to return to her parents’ village in Yanonge. She quickly meets the members of Akili ni mali who decide to finance her studies in a higher education institution where she obtains her diploma as the first and only female agricultural engineer in the region.
“I never imagined that I would go so far in my studies. I will never forget this opportunity that Akili ni mali gave me,” says a delighted Kombozi.
Kombozi’s educational success sowed a seed of possibility among fellow Akili ni mali members, so that in August 2021, an adult school program was launched in the association – sponsored by another percentage of profits made by their growing farms and businesses. The members have identified a retired teacher from the community who gives practical French lessons relating to the activities of the group. Twice a week, the women learn to introduce themselves, describe their activities and identify in French the plant species and the objects around them.
When asked why she started the adult school, Fatoum says, “We want to be able to tell others what we learned and how it changed our lives from our own mouths. CIFOR-ICRAF will one day leave our community. If we don’t understand the knowledge given to us, what we know now may disappear over time.
In its global effort to increase the availability of sustainably produced crops and animal protein sources – a local extension of the wider landscape approach in the region – CIFOR-ICRAF teams and their partners work with and support local entrepreneurs to adopt alternative livelihood projects to enrich local resources. food, while abandoning unsustainable models favoring the overexploitation of forest resources.
Local individuals, communities and formal associations are central to this approach, which promotes engagement and participation and sustains activities over the long term. From the beginning, beneficiaries are encouraged to take ownership of activities through performance-based programs, while CIFOR-ICRAF provides support through frequent monitoring and evaluation of progress or their absence, in which case the problems are evaluated and generally solved together, within the framework of regular tests. and-errors and adaptation cycle.
At regular intervals, a few kilometers from the fields of Akili ni Mali, CIFOR-ICRAF teams also welcome farmers and members of associations to its pilot farm in Yanonge, where participants can see and test various approaches and techniques, including how to produce and apply biopesticides, or how to produce and mix manure in fish ponds, before returning to test them on their own farms, supported throughout by local monitors.
So far, more than 300 farmers and 41 associations have benefited from the different techniques tested on the two CIFOR-ICRAF pilot farms. However, these numbers are only meaningful when reflected in the efforts and improvements of groups such as Akili ni Mali. Thanks to their commitment, many other small entrepreneurs and local businesses can hope for a better future.
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