Monday, 28 December 2015

DR Congo: Changing Lives for Women Farmers in Congo From Halfway Around the World

DR Congo: Changing Lives for Women Farmers in Congo From Halfway Around the World

28/12/2015

Changing Lives for Women Farmers in Congo
From Halfway Around the World

Annie Kinwa-Muzinga, a professor of agriculture at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, came to the United States from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1990. When she returned in 2012 to conduct a study on the role gender plays in the region’s agriculture for the International Food Policy Research Institute, her interviews with local women sparked an idea and an impulse purchase—200 acres of land in Kikwit. She named it Kivuvu Farm, which means “hope”  in Kikongo.

“We’re always telling students, ‘Give back to the community,’ ” she said. “It was a way for me to give back. I want to empower women and help them to have a living with the farm. I can provide them leadership even from far away because that is my area of expertise, and I can talk to them in our language.”

A few minutes later, there was a tinny cell phone ring in her office. “That’s the farm,” she said, and on the line was Ms. Josephine, the on-the-ground manager. Through daily Skype conversations and email, the two are able to run the 10-acre portion of the land that’s currently being farmed. Kinwa-Muzinga told Josephine she’d get the day’s report later, and the two of them laughed as much as they talked during their brief conversation. “It’s something that’s in my heart, and that’s how I communicate with them—all the time,” Kinwa-Muzinga said after the call.

Since 2012, when she purchased the land, the number of women farming has grown from 10 to 30. Nine months out of the year, during the Congo’s two growing seasons, they raise corn, okra, peanuts, and cassava. Half of the crops go to feed the farmers’ own families, and the other half is intended for sale.

But poor infrastructure on the farm has led to losses, and the operation is struggling to support itself. Kinwa-Muzinga initially shared her vision for the farm, as well as its financial support, with a friend. When he died last January, the burden fell solely on her. Half of this year’s corn crop, earmarked for a profitable sale, was stored in a leaky shed and ruined. Currently the farm runs on donations and perseverance.

“I promised him that I would continue,” she said of her collaborator, Kevin Dickinsen, in an interview with TH Online. “I don’t know how. [The women are] pushing me to not lose hope.”

Some hope came in November from the the Pioneer Dairy Club at UW-Plattesville. A $2,000 donation will likely go toward the construction of a new storage shed and the purchase of a cow. In addition to providing milk for the women’s families, it could eventually lead to another value-added product once they learn to make cheese. The goal for 2016 is to purchase a second cow.

Of the 30 women who work the farm, many (including Josephine) are widows, a group Kinwa-Muzinga deliberately focused on after her study’s findings revealed them to be particularly vulnerable.

“The government policies protect the women—but not much. We know sometimes that they really struggle when their husbands pass away,” she said. Laws don’t always align with local traditions and customs, for example, and a woman may find the land she farmed with her husband sold out from underneath her; widow farmers have reported not knowing about land transfers until the new owners came to evict them.

With the help of land rights groups, some are able to regain matrimonial land after divorce or death, but many do not. A study in Zambia showed more than one-third of widows lost access to family land when their husbands died. “It is this dependency on men that leaves many African women vulnerable,” said Joan Kagwanja, a food security and sustainable development officer at the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa.

Kinwa-Muzinga operates a safe haven from afar, but she wants it to be self-sustaining. When she spends her sabbatical in Congo in a few years’ time, she plans to share more of her knowledge in hands-on ways: providing more agricultural trainings, teaching how to apply for grants, and collaborating with the local university on a farm internship program. Her farm goals for 2016 include building one or two houses on the farm to save the women a multi-mile walk.

One day she’d like to build an elementary school on the land.
“God will provide. There are always Christmas miracles, so you never know,” she said, laughing.

By Sarah McColl