Hundreds of motorbike taxis race past a long concrete wall near the Cadjehoun Airport in Cotonou, the largest city in Benin. Just in front of this wall bougainvilleas, daisies and pansies light up the street where small-scale nurseries connect with willing buyers, as aeroplanes tear into the sky not far above the gardens.
The nurseries, so close to the airport, are an unusual sight. But, stepping behind the wall reveals the real phenomenon: an expansive oasis of 15 hectares where people are hard at work ploughing, watering and planting their stretches of fruit and vegetables.
The Cite de Houeyiho, or Houeyiho site, is a farming cooperative that has been providing food and income to families for over 43 years. Now, 337 families benefit from this space. Fifty-one of the farmers are women who act as breadwinners for their families. They travel to Beninese markets, as well as neighbouring Nigeria and Togo, to sell their goods.
What is unusual about this farm, besides its location, is the collaboration between the private and public sector and civil society in its creation and management.
The land is government-owned but is managed by the Agency for Aerial Navigation Safety in Africa and Madagascar (Asecna), a private air traffic control agency.
“Asecna, knowing no buildings could be built here because of the nearby landing strip, donated it to the community to use as farmland,” explains Charles Bewa, the farm’s Founder and President. “There is no fee for farming here, but there is compulsory training and certain standards that have to be maintained.” There is a six-month banning period for farmers that repeatedly stray from the standards or ‘rules.’”
The land is divided into five different cooperatives, each with its own president, secretary and accountant, all of whom Bewa oversees.
Tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, chillis, sweet peppers and celery are some of the vegetables grown here, and the farmers are hard at work under the beaming sun. Only a few can afford irrigation systems; the rest weave through their crops with watering cans in hand.
One of the farmers is 27-year-old Josephat Degbevi. After getting his Bachelor’s degree in Geography, he looked for work for over four years before he decided to come to Cite de Houeyiho. He is now in a six-month training program.
“I saw they were offering agricultural training, and knew I could not stay at home any longer,” he says. “I needed to be doing something to put food on the table.”
Degbevi tugs at the foliage of a young carrot, unearthing the orange root and smiles. “This place has inspired me to save enough money until I can buy my own land.”
Huberte Soglohoun, a 23-year-old Geography Master’s student, has similar plans. “I am working here in between my studies,” she explains. “I am saving money to study further and to also get experience. After that I would like to buy my own land and have my own farm.”
Other farmers view their experiences at Cite de Houeyiho in the same light: it offers a temporary transitional space to get them on their feet until they can move on to bigger things. But if the land is free and the environment is welcoming, why do so many see this as only temporary?
“Many people are afraid here,” says Bewa. “As we do not own the land, Asecna could technically tell us to leave at any point and we would have to listen to them. We have no real ownership over the space or our influence here.”
The Beninese government does not offer any financial assistance to farmers at Cite de Houeyiho, despite it being a major source of financial relief for many that would otherwise have limited or no income and food. Bewa explains that the government has offered praise in the past, but that this is not enough to allow them to expand and improve.
“We have plans to find a place further away from the city centre, where we will grow only organic foods,” he says.
As an Ethiopian Airlines plane launches into the sky not far above, Degbevi explains that some families literally harvest their foods for each meal on a daily basis, sometimes eating on the farm itself. “From the soil to their plates,” he says, “this place allows for a community to not go to bed hungry and for them to have some control over their lives.”
Kim Harrisberg is a freelance multimedia journalist. Her writing focuses on African politics and society, refugee rights and developmental issues. She is doing her MPhil in African Studies at the University of Cambridge and aims to use media for social change.
Main photo: Farmers who cannot afford irrigation systems have to use manual watering systems which are often very time-consuming and physically exhausting. Photo: Kim Harrisberg.
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