Cameroon is the sixth largest producer of cocoa in the world, most of it being grown in the humid, forested south of the country. Since 1994, farmers have sold their cocoa on the international market. Processed cocoa products such as paste and butter account for around 15% of cocoa export earnings.
One problem facing cocoa producers is that of ageing trees. Slow payment in the past, by the state-run commodity buying agency, discouraged farmers from investing in replanting programmes, and now up to half the plantations are more than thirty years old. Other cash crops grown in the south include oil palm and rubber. Yam, cassava, plantains and bananas are the main food crops.
The centre of Cameroon is dominated by the Adamawa massif, a sparsely populated plateau and area of transition from the forests of the south to the savannah of the north. It is chiefly used for grazing cattle. In the west it rises to high volcanic mountains with fertile soils, an area which has traditionally been the most densely populated part of the country. This pressure of population is unfortunately leading to significant soil erosion. Food crops grown here include oil palm, maize, groundnuts and beans, and there is a strong trade link between the Western Province and the cities of Douala and Yaounde. Robusta coffee, which constitutes 85% of Cameroon’s coffee output, is grown in all provinces except the north, while arabica beans are grown in the higher altitudes of the west, northwest and east.
The north of Cameroon is most exposed to environmental degradation; droughts, floods, locusts and elephants destroy harvests and make the area increasingly dependent on outside aid. Rice, one of Cameroon’s main food imports, is grown in the north by both traditional and modern methods. Other food crops include millet, sorghum and maize. Staple foods vary across the country according to ethnic group, but millet and sorghum are among the most widespread. Cotton is the most important cash crop in the north, farmers receiving incentives and training to boost production. Cotton is the only agricultural industry still being run as a public monopoly. Livestock are also important in the region, particularly for the migrant cattle herders, the Fulani.
Around 75% of Cameroon’s land area is under forest, and about half of this is currently being exploited for timber. The industry, which is largely owned by French companies, has expanded with encouragement from structural adjustment policies. Mahogany, teak and ebony are among the biggest exports of timber. However, poor regulation is allowing severe deforestation to occur, with self-interest among some in authority often cited as the reason for the lack of controls.
One of the main obstacles to progress for Cameroon’s smallholder farmers lies in access to credit: interest rates and collateral requirements are simply too high for the majority. Encouraging micro-credit enterprises for processing and marketing of produce, and offering support to local savings and credit groups, would provide opportunities for income generation and use of labour-saving technologies. With women farmers the primary agents in food production, training female extension officers to work with them could also be an important step in improving the livelihoods of Cameroon’s rural population.