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YAOUNDE, Cameroon (14 November, 2012)_For villagers in Cameroon’s Central region, the forest creeper known as okok is a wonder plant. High in protein, it’s believed to cure hemorrhoids and hypertension, combat malaria and HIV/Aids – and even frighten off snakes.
“When you are tired, it rejuvenates – even old ladies like myself,” says Calixte Mbilong, the head of the local okok cooperative in Minwoho village. “It also makes you more intelligent.”
And woe betide the young bride who doesn’t know how to prepare the leaves – she won’t be considered a suitable wife by her husband’s family.
Gnetum spp., called Okok or Eru in different parts of Cameroon, is a non-timber forest product (NTFP) of huge cultural significance right across the Congo Basin.
“It is very important in terms of food, it is very important in terms of medicine, and it is very important in terms of income generation,” says Abdon Awono, a Cameroonian scientist from the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
There’s no scientific evidence it cures Aids or malaria, Awono says, although that hasn’t been comprehensively tested.
“But it is a delicious dish, no matter the way it is cooked. Depending on the method, it can taste sweet or salty,” he said.
Okok occurs naturally in the Congo Basin rainforest. But the vegetable’s soaring popularity in Cameroon has led to concerns about sustainability – and to the launch of a program encouraging villagers to plant their own okok that’s been so successful, it’s been expanded nationwide.
While researching NTFPs in his home region of Lekie division, Abdon Awono noticed that villagers were having to walk further and further into the forest to find okok.
He encouraged CIFOR to partner with the Cameroonian research organisation Institute of Agricultural Research for Development (IRAD) and a local NGO to develop a trial domestication program in several villages.
“We started convincing them that it was also possible to plant okok as they do with cocoa and other agricultural products. Believe me, it was very difficult because they said, ‘What are you talking about, we have it in the forest, you cannot tell us to plant,’” he said.
“But along the line they started to realise it was very useful, because they could not get the quantity they needed from the wild.”
Pierre Ayissi Nanga is the head of the local NGO, ADIE (Association for the Development of Environmental Initiatives), and oversaw the program’s implementation. He says trends in consumption – it is even exported to expat Cameroonians living in Europe – have threatened okok’s survival.
“Okok has become a national dish – it is no longer a dish attached to particular ethnic groups in the Center, East and Southwest regions. There are different dishes derived from okok and everybody consumes large quantities,” he said.
“The product in the forest is already very, very insufficient. Okok that we could harvest in our back gardens 10 years ago, we can’t find it anymore. So it is urgent that we domesticate the plants.”
Beginning in 2003, Nanga says, nurseries were set up, villagers were trained, and plantations established.
But domestication need not mean deforestation: unlike other forms of agriculture that require cleared land, okok is a liana that grows in the forest, climbing the trunks and entwining around the branches of established trees.
Leaves for livelihoods
Calixte Mbilong leads a line of women into the forest beyond the village of Minwoho. Each carries a tiny okok seedling, just a few bright leaves, ready to be pressed into the soil of a new plantation.
They sing and joke as they plant – but this is serious work.
“After the cocoa season is over, okok is what we rely on for our livelihoods. On Monday, Thursday, and Friday, I sell okok,” Mbilong says.
“When I make 35,000 Francs CFA a week, it is important for me. It is with this money that we pay our children’s school fees, take care of our health, and buy clothing. It allows me to buy all that I need.”
A key feature of the program was to assist villagers to form cooperatives – like the one led by Mbilong – allowing them to organise group sales and negotiate higher prices for their produce.
According to Abdon Awono, they are now able to earn 800 Francs CFA ($US 1.50) per kilogram of okok, up from 200 Francs CFA (40 cents) when the project started.
“Each family used to earn about 5 to 10 thousand Francs CFA per week, and now they can make up to 20 or 30 thousand,” he says.
Despite their importance in the lives of many rural people in the Congo Basin, the economic value of NTFPs like Gnetum spp. has until recently gone unrecorded – hindering the ability to monitor, regulate and manage them.
But CIFOR research has shown just how valuable the okok trade is in Cameroon. It’s estimated to top US$12 million a year and is the third most valuable NTFP in the country, behind only fish and fuelwood.
The success of the pilot Okok domestication program in Lekie Division caught the attention of the Cameroonian government. Since 2009 it has committed around US$500,000 per year to roll out okok cultivation programs across the country, with Pierre Ayissi Nanga from the grassroots NGO appointed the national coordinator.
Abdon Awono says he’s proud of the program’s success.
“I’m happy because I see the impact on the population is direct, it’s something we can see. It’s not something we can just talk about at conferences – when you go to the field you can see what is happening and you can evaluate the change that is taking place.”
But he says there’s more work to do, applying the same research and techniques to other countries in the Congo Basin.
Back in Minwoho, one of the other village women, Beatrice Ananga, is preparing a meal made from ground okok leaves, palm kernels and peanuts.
She just can’t imagine life without the wonder vegetable.
“If there were no okok, how are we going to live?” she says, laughing. “How would we live?”
“We would be isolated. Maybe we would all die. How would we feed our children? We would have nothing, nothing.”
The national okok domestication program, Projet d’Appui à la Promotion de la Culture d’Okok (PAPCO), is funded by the Cameroonian government. The initial pilot program in Lekie division was funded by CIFOR, as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.