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Feature Story

In Cameroon, transforming lives with solar power

July 22, 2021

Men and women sitting in a circle - training members of the Yolo community in how to identify a good solar bulb
Photo courtesy of Fadimatou Buba

When the school where she teaches was forced to close by clashes in Cameroon’s northwest, Fadimatou Buba knew she had to find another way to help her community thrive.

Herself an indigenous Mbororo woman, Buba knew through interviews and research she had conducted after university graduation that the lack of electricity was one of the greatest difficulties faced by her people.

In this era of rapid technological development, energy poverty can affect almost every aspect of life. Without power, it is difficult to communicate, to learn, to cook, and to earn money. Isolated communities are also deprived of a window to the outside world - a particularly dangerous privation during a global pandemic and domestic unrest.

“I saw that a lack of electricity is one of the greatest challenges faced by indigenous communities,” Buba said in an interview. “So, I said, ‘Okay, let me see how I can help them because they are cut off from the mainstream society.’”

With funding from the Global Environment Facility’s Small Grants Programme (SGP) through its Indigenous Peoples Fellowship, she embarked on an initiative that has delivered multiple benefits by introducing solar energy to indigenous women in the communities of Yolo, Dedango, and Botombo.

Cattle-rearing is the main economic activity for Cameroon’s one million Mbororo, the country’s largest indigenous group, but the lack of electricity makes it difficult for these pastoral people to realize the full economic potential of their generations-old expertise.

Mbororo dairy herds produce a lot of milk, but without refrigeration, there is no way to preserve their output. Some farmers discard up to 30 liters of unused milk each day.

“Now we have trained them on how they can transform this into other dairy products - like yogurt, cheese and butter—that they can preserve using the solar power and then sell to generate income,” Buba said.

She chose to focus the work specifically on Mbororo women, whose lack of economic power helps fuel gender-based violence in the community.

Not long after the project began, spreading conflict in Cameroon’s northwest forced Buba to make some adjustments. Perhaps the largest of these was the relocation of the team’s original dairy factory from the original site in Bali Nyonga eastward to the town of Sabga.

People covering cables to prevent shocks in the Yolo community in the west of Cameroon
Fadimatou Buba works with others to cover cables in the Yolo community in the west of Cameroon. Photo courtesy of Fadimatou Buba

Still, Buba’s experience of leading a project during a crisis has taught her valuable lessons. She passed some of these on last month, during the GEF’s virtual Consultations with Civil Society on Enhancing Climate Resistance, which was co-hosted with the UNDP-managed SGP and the GEF CSO Network.

“My recommendation to the Global Environment Facility is to strengthen the capacity of local institutions like traditional rulers, and also not to be scared of working in crisis-affected zones,” she told attendees at the June 11th meeting.

Buba expanded on this last point during an interview, saying that even in conflict zones, there are always areas of relative stability where development work is both possible and vital. Nor do ongoing problems such as soil degradation simply go away during a crisis.

“If we wait for the crisis to be over, we have to build back again from scratch,” she said. Even in Cameroon’s northwest, there are areas of calm where valuable work on landscape regeneration and the introduction of climate-resilient economic activities such as the farming of fish and poultry and the planting of vegetable gardens can press ahead.

Buba said the SGP project “Empowerment of Indigenous Mbororo Women on solar energy installation to ensure milk preservation for sustainable livelihoods” has done more for target communities than simply enabling them to produce and store saleable dairy products.

She and the team have also offered those they train in solar power instruction in how to protect themselves against COVID-19 and taught them to sew masks. Cameroon has suffered a relatively low number of deaths so far, but with only about 0.3 percent of the population fully vaccinated, safety measures remain critical.

The team has also helped women to build energy-saving clay ovens, educated them on the dangers of deforestation, and introduced innovative animal husbandry techniques designed to boost milk yields while preserving ecosystems.

Pasturing cattle instead of letting them roam, for instance, limits soil degradation and can help rehabilitate land. To ensure confinement doesn’t affect the nutrition of the cows, farmers can plant innovative forage crops such as stylo, a legume that can help restore soil, and brachiaria, a nutrient-rich and climate-resistant grass.

Buba said the transformation of women into income-producers has also reduced gender-based violence, an all-too-frequent problem in her community. Nor do the benefits of electricity for households stop there.

“People are now able to watch television and catch up with current events around the world, especially the COVID-19 pandemic, which is a global threat,” Buba said.

“They are able to charge their phones and communicate. It has also helped the children improve their performance in school because they can now read at night. Before this, they (could only) read until 5 pm."

Education is very important to Buba.

Among the first in her community to go to school, she holds an English degree from Cameroon’s Yaounde 1 University and was a 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, where she trained in civic leadership.

In all her work with Cameroon’s indigenous communities, she makes a point of spreading the word about how education can transform lives.

Buba and the team this month kicked off Phase 2 of the three-phase project. This phase will expand their focus to the west and to the center of the country.

Ultimately, they hope to introduce solar power, with all its benefits for households and farms, to at least ten communities in Cameroon - an effort, she says, that will change as many as 2,000 lives for the better.