Akili ni mali – the Swahili translation for knowledge is wealth, is the name adopted by a local women’s association in Yanonge in Democratic Republic of Congo.
Led by its president Helen Fatoum, the association involves 20 women who engage in various activities from farming to trading.
The Akili ni mali association was created in 2014 in response to economic challenges the women and their families were facing, notably low agricultural yields, low revenues and high loan rates from local financial institutions.
The women decided to form a group, purchase farmlands, then sell the produce on the local market.
Initially, harvests did not reflect the scale of their efforts though, and even when they increased the scope of their activities – adding some fish-farming along the way – their incomes did not grow as fast as their expectations.
In 2017, representatives from the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) met Akili ni mali members in Yanonge, as part of a large set 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, CIFOR-ICRAF has worked with Akili ni mali ever since, on issues as varied as improved farming and agroforestry techniques, book-keeping, accounting and the provision of loans to help develop their ventures.
“We were planting a lot of cassava and maize but not harvesting enough to support all of us, Fatoum said. “Our first fish farm didn’t give us as much fish as we had hoped. When we started learning and applying the new knowledge and techniques, harvests increased steadily and our produce easily found its way to the local market because we were able to sell at competitive prices.”
Due to sales of their farm and fish produce, the association decided to improve the quality of the lives of its members. With each harvest, a percentage of the profit was kept aside to purchase household items such as beds, mattresses, chairs and cooking wares for its members.
“Before I joined the association, my children were not registered in school,” said Angel Likoma, a member of the association. “Now, from the profit I am making with my sisters in the group, I am able to send all three of my children to school.”
Formal education has always been an area of interest for Fatoum and was one of the inspirations that led to the birth of the association. Many women in Yanonge have no options for formal education and depend heavily on their husbands for income. Fatoum always believed that if women are allowed more formal education and taught skills, they will be empowered to contribute to the well-being of their families and communities.
To see her belief realized, Fatoum identified some members within the association who had a minimum level of formal education and decided that an additional percentage of the farm profits would be used to pay for advanced studies.
One of the beneficiaries of this initiative is 25-year-old Aminata Kombozi. After divorcing her husband in Kisangani, left with no income, Kombozi decided to return to her parents’ village in Yanonge.
She soon encountered the Akili ni mali’s members who decided to finance her studies in a higher learning institution where she graduated as the first and only female agronomy engineer in the area.
“I never imagined that I would go this far in my education. I will never forget this opportunity given to me by the Akili ni mali,” Kombozi said.
Her educational success planted a seed of possibility within the other members of the Akili ni mali and in August last year, an adult school program was started in the association – sponsored by yet another percentage of profits made from their growing farms and businesses. The members identified a retired schoolteacher in the community who offers practical lessons in French touching upon the activities of the group. Twice a week, the women are taught how to introduce themselves, describe their activities and to identify plant species and objects around them in French.
When asked her reasons for starting the adult school, Fatoum said: “We want to be able to tell others what we have learned and how it has changed our lives in our own voices. CIFOR-ICRAF will leave our community one day. If we do not understand the knowledge given to us, what we know now might disappear with time.”
In its overall action to increase the availability of sustainably produced crops and animal protein sources – a local declination of the broader landscape approach in the area – CIFOR-ICRAF’s teams and their partners work with and support local entrepreneurs to adopt alternative livelihood ventures to enrich local diets, while abandoning unsustainable models favoring the overexploitation of forest resources.
Local individuals, communities and formal associations assume center stage in this approach which favors engagement and participation, supporting activities over the long-term. Since inception, beneficiaries have been encouraged to take ownership of activities through performance-based schemes, while CIFOR-ICRAF provides support through frequent monitoring and assessments.
At regular intervals of time, a few kilometers away from the Akili ni Mali fields, CIFOR-ICRAF teams also host farmers and association members at its Yanonge pilot farm, 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 fishponds, before they go back and test them on their own farms, supported all-along by local monitors.
So far, more than 300 farmers and 41 associations have benefitted from the various techniques tested on CIFOR-ICRAF’s two pilot farms. However, these numbers are meaningful only when reflected in the efforts and improvements of groups such as Akili ni Mali. Thanks to their commitment, many more local small-scale entrepreneurs and businesses can look forward to a brighter future.
This project is supported by the European Union, the Belgian Cooperation (ENABEL), U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID and others.
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