by Alexander Petroff
FROM STARVATION TO SUSTAINABILITY
It was April 2006. After years of imagining and studying and training in every way I could think of about how to start a self-sufficient village, I was about to actually start. I had even set up a non-profit organization, Working Villages International, and raised a little start-up money. Still, up to this point, it was all just a dream. But now, I was finally at the turning point between dream and reality. I was at day one, standing outside an old burnt-out Belgian plantation house, donated to us by the progressive young chief of the village of Luvungi. My Congolese friend and I had told him that we would need to hire some workers to help clear the land around the compound, and to put a new roof on the building.
We could pay the workers only about $2.00 per day, but that was good pay in a region where there annual income was $100 and unemployment was 98 percent. I thought we should be able to attract at least 20 workers. Then, I looked out to see a crowd of about 800 eager villagers, each one with their own hoe. They were ready to work!
Thus began WVI’s Ruzizi Valley Project in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where 10 years of war had left over 4 million people dead, plunged the country into anarchy, and just about completely collapsed the economy. Before the war, the Ruzizi Valley, located in eastern Congo, along the Rwanda border had been known as the “rice bowl of Congo.” It is located practically on the equator, with rich soil, and a relatively cool climate because of its high altitude.
Clouds of moisture evaporating from Lake Tanganyika, 40 miles south, collide with the Mitumba Mountains to the north, delivering ample rain, except during the summer dry season. A farmer’s paradise! Congolese refugees back in Maine had told me they learned of the Ruzizi Valley at their high school in Kinshasa (1000 miles from Ruzizi), “One bean plant can grow 5 pounds of beans!” Before the war, the Ruzizi Valley was covered with farms and dairy cows.
But now, practically all that was gone. When Rwanda solved its problem of genocide by pushing the Hutu fighters into Congo, Congo was severely destabilized, and Ruzizi bore the brunt of the fighting because it was right on the Rwanda border. Its farms were wiped out, and most survivors fled to the cities. Nine different countries became involved in “Africa’s First World War.” Unfortunately, their real goal was not to save Congo, but to exploit its reserves of gold, copper, diamonds and the coltan needed for cell phones.
The violence and collapsed infrastructure left the population starving. Even though many local people had been killed or driven off the land, there was a U.N. camp in the Ruzizi Valley, and that attracted refugees who were driven away from other places. The population was quite mixed ethnically, but they were all starving equally.
Two years before I started the project in Congo, I had spent my junior semester abroad, working at the Namalu Ox Hire and Ox Training Center in Uganda, and writing a paper on economic development for college. One constant problem when I was in Uganda was poisonous snakes. Karamoja was a dry province, and when anyone mixed up concrete, half a dozen poison snakes would shoot out of the grass towards you, hoping to get some moisture from the concrete. I worried about having a similar problem in Ruzizi.
I asked Chief Ombeni, “What’s the snake situation here?”
He replied, “There are no snakes.”
“But how can that be? This is exactly the kind of place that snakes like.”
“In the war, the people were hungry, so they ate all the snakes.”
“Yes, but, if you have no snakes, then you must have a rat problem.”
“No, they ate them also.”
The miracle of WVI’s Ruzizi Valley project is that we have been able to take these same starving people, and give them the training and the opportunity to produce their own food using sustainable methods. Now, after 4 years, the 600 villagers who work for us, and their families, have an ample diet and are eating much better quality food than the average American. How did we do that?
STARTING WITH AGRICULTURE
In my college travels to different non-profit groups in Uganda, I saw innumerable projects where a school or orphanage or hospital had been built. The services were important, but they depended on a constant flow of cash from Western countries. So once the Western overseers pulled out, you could see numerous ramshackle projects where the cash flow had dried up.
Another weakness was to set up a project to be fully dependent on foreigners for the day-to-day leadership of the project. The most effective projects, like the Namalu Ox Hire and Ox Training Center where I worked, carefully cultivated leadership personnel by selecting and training the most qualified individuals from the local population. This model was more sustainable because it created better loyalty from the local population, made people more receptive to the training, and encouraged local initiative.
I saw the drawbacks of relying too much on Western cash and Western project leaders. Instead, I wanted to develop my project in such a way that it requires less outside funding – not more; and less outside leadership – not more – as time went by.
Thus, I decided to put my first emphasis on agriculture and to find local leadership to manage day-to-day operations, if at all possible. Looking back over the last few years, I’m convinced that agriculture was the best choice to avoid the pitfall of long-term economic dependence on the West. By providing start-up capital and training, we can get people launched on a path of economic development that can keep going even after we pull out. And, I made it clear from the beginning that we would definitely leave: After ten years, we will move to another village: you will be on your own.
That way, based on their own economic power, people can build social services like schools, health care facilities, and care for orphans. These won’t be as fancy as services funded by Western donors, but instead of collapsing when the donor base leaves, the local services they start can continue because they will be founded on the local economic base.
LOCALIZED ECONOMICS = VILLAGE SELF RELIANCE
Africa is strewn with the wreckage of 60 years of failed development programs. Practically all of them have been based on producing something for export, something for the global economy. Even farming is no better than mining, if it is just going to be to sell overseas. There is no profit for local farmers, especially small farmers, because they have to compete with agribusiness farmers abroad who have an unfair advantage due to government subsidies and economy of scale. Any remaining profits for small African farmers are eaten by the skyrocketing price of shipping.
I was amazed to learn that according to US government statistics, the biggest component of food aid to foreign countries is actually the shipping costs, not the grain or milk. Working Villages is also not interested in selling fair trade coffee or making different craft items to be sold in U.S. boutiques. These simply can’t provide widespread economic benefit in the communities that produce them. The global economy is a failure and it will continue to be more of a failure as oil gets more expensive. So what is the alternative model?
The alternative is to build a local economy focused on providing for local needs. Gandhi called it “Swadeshi.” I call it simply “Village Self Reliance.” The idea is not to make one agribusiness CEO a billionaire while everyone who works for him struggles to scrape by. Instead, the idea is to give a village full of people a chance to make a decent living by using local land and local materials to produce food and goods that their neighbors actually need. This idea is so simple that it’s difficult for many people to understand, because they have been taught all their life that “free market” international trade is the miracle that will solve all economic problems. But, ultimately what we want at Working Villages is many locally owned, small farms and workshops that work together to provide for each other to build a community.
When I started my village in 2006, I set up a Congolese friend as project manager. The Ruzizi Valley has vast tracts of scrub land, and we worked hard organizing everyone to clear land and dig up the soil to plant a 60 x 100 foot garden. Villagers were enthusiastic workers. However, they suddenly became skeptical when they found out that I planned to put a grass roof on the dilapidated plantation house the chief had given us. They expected us to simply drive to the city of Bukavu and purchase a tin roof, like all the other foreign non-profit organizations they had seen. They thought I must be crazy.
Behind my back they began to call me “Muzungu Nyasi.” “Muzugu” means “white man” and “Nyasi” means “grass.” “Grass-man.” But really, it meant “Crazy-man.”
But I had learned thatching at Fox Maple school in Maine, and it was important principle to make sure everyone had a chance to earn a little money. We paid villagers 25 cents apiece for bundles of grass, and 50 cents apiece for bundles of matetei bamboo. As they soon realized that they were going to be the benefactors of this policy, they decided that “Muzungu Nyasi” was not so crazy after all.
However, the name stuck. Only now it became an honorable title. (Even a year or two later, if I visited the chief of a neighboring village, my translator would introduce me, “This is Muzungu Nyasi.” “Oh, Muzungu Nyasi! We have heard about your work. When are you coming to do a project in our village also?”) Also, amazingly, our workers had so much determination that they built a half mile road to the project – using only hand tools – in just three days.
The villagers were grateful for work, but we had so many prospective workers we couldn’t afford to keep them all. We set up a policy. For one week, we would hire the first ten men and the first ten women who showed up for work each day.
It was important to hire men, because unemployed men could become lured by various militia groups and cause violence and instability, but it was also important to hire women, because many of them were the head of household since their husbands were killed in the war.
At the end, we hired the best of the best, and these men and women became our core workers. They learned quickly and were hard workers. (Over time we expanded our work force, as we were able to raise more money. These excellent workers set a strong example, which was a great benefit as we brought new workers on board.)
I had to return to the US to graduate from Hampshire College in May, and to raise more funds. According to my previous plan, I relied heavily on my Congolese project manager. He was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the project, but unfortunately it turned out that he had no real managerial ability. I could only be in Congo for a few weeks at a time and whenever I was away, he was not able to develop the project in a focused manner. After about a year, he left the project for some more exciting endeavor. Building a farm project was not for him.
That left me with no one to manage the project. I needed to get back to Congo, to find new management, but there was a huge outbreak of instability and widespread fighting preceding the national elections (the first in 40 years) so I had to wait. Week by week, I grew more worried, wondering if my project had been destroyed during the fighting.
Finally, after several months of anxious waiting, I was able to return to Congo. Some friends in the Congolese community in Maine put me in contact with a Congolese translator named Blaize who would meet me when I flew into neighboring Rwanda. We drove over the border towards the project. As we drove through Luvungi, we had to slow down because of the bad roads. I could hear the people talking. I asked Blaize what they were saying. “They are saying, ‘Is that him?’ ‘No, it can’t be him. After so long, he won’t back. It is some other Muzungu (white man).’”
Finally, the car drove up to the project. We were amazed to find 2 of our security guards still standing guard, even though they had not been paid for several months. When I say “security guards” you might imagine someone dressed in a smart uniform, carrying a gun, standing next to a chain link fence. Such was not the case. Our guards never had any guns. There was no chain link fence. Only a ramshackle 6’ x 6’ guard shed to keep the rain off. A rope across the road was the only physical barrier. The actual security was the good will of the village, which was still hoping that the project would start up again.
When Blaize and I got out of the car, the guards began to shout in disbelief, “Muzungu Nyasi! Muzungu Nyasi!” Soon everyone gathered excitedly and welcomed me to back to the project. When I went into my room in the headquarters, I found that none of my belongings had been touched in the months of my absence. In such a poverty-stricken area, this was a real testament to the commitment of the villagers to the project.
So, I was back, the project was safe, and the villagers were enthusiastic to resume work. But I had no manager. I thought of one of the men who had helped supervise setting up the small garden in the beginning, a very quiet man from a good family nearby. I felt he might be a good choice. “Does anyone know where Fiston Malago is?”
The villagers told me, “Fiston is not here. His family estate is here, but he is in Kinshasa (the capital, some 1000 miles away). He is managing some agricultural project for the U.N. We don’t know how to reach him.” But miraculously, Blaize told me that he had dated Fiston’s younger sister in high school. If he could reach her, she must have a phone number for Fiston. Blaize tried his old phone number and he actually talked to the sister. She gave us a number for Fiston.
When we got through to Fiston in Kinshasa, he was quite surprised to hear from us. Blaize simply told him. “Muzungu Nyasi is here and he wants to talk to you. You need to come.” Fiston replied, “Muzungu Nyasi – he is a very serious man. I will be on the next plane!” We had not even offered him a job.
Two days later, he was there. I had seen Fiston working with the villagers about a year before, and intuitively, I felt like he was a natural leader, carefully showing them different techniques, even though he was fairly quiet. Only when he came back to Luvungi did I find out that he had a University degree in forestry and agronomy (plant and soil science). His job at the U.N. was paying several thousand dollars a month, a high paying job by Congolese standards. I knew he was worth it, but I also knew that we could not possibly pay that much. (I had paid the previous manager $100 per month.) I began the delicate matter of negotiating a salary with him.
“Fiston, I know that you are very qualified for this job. Unfortunately, I just don’t know how much we can afford to pay you. We don’t have much money.”
“And, how much are you making as President of WVI?”
“Well, Fiston, it’s a very new project. Since we don’t have much money, I can’t really take any salary right now…”
“Then I shall take the same amount!”
PHASE 1 – SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE
Fiston’s father had been an exceptionally well-beloved governor of the province in the 1960s, but when the dictator Mobutu took over the country, Fiston’s father resigned in protest of Mobutu’s policies, further endearing him to the local populace. After returning to his estate in Luvungi, he continued to try to help out the people of his local community. He instilled that commitment to community in all his children, especially Fiston.
After completing his studies in agronomy, Fiston longed to use his knowledge to benefit his community. He later told me that when WVI came to Luvungi in 2006, he thought that would be his opportunity. He was deeply disappointed when the project manager proved to be too disorganized to accomplish anything. Fiston left and took the UN position in Kinshasa. So, when he received our call, he felt it was a second chance, and he was determined to make the most of it.
Fiston proved to be an organized and energetic leader, capable of inspiring the villagers in their work. With just a little bit of capital, he could accomplish much. He was quite familiar with tractor agriculture, but gas was $12 per gallon and we had no tractor. That could not stop him. No need to wait for a tractor. Much could be accomplished with hand labor, and villagers desperately needed jobs. Ruzizi’s fertile volcanic soil was a treasure, he told them, but they must learn techniques to keep it that way, and not let it become like the devastated lands in other parts of Africa.
The first thing Fiston stressed to them was the importance of compost. The local practice was to burn land before planting. That had to be stopped. Burning should be used only for diseased or infested plants. Although I had never seen compost piles in my travels in Africa, suddenly I started seeing the villagers hauling big armloads and wheelbarrows of weeds and grass to compost piles all over our project.
As soon as land was cleared, he had villagers build a number of raised beds for vegetables. He had them make little roofs to shelter seedlings from the blistering equatorial noonday sun. And the crops in the fields and raised beds were now covered with mulch. This was another new thing, but the thick grasses which we had used for thatching could also be cut for mulching, to preserve moisture, prevent weeds and boost soil fertility as they decomposed.
Fiston instructed villagers in the importance of crop rotation. Corn was already a popular crop in Ruzizi, corn meal mush being a common item of the local diet, but corn saps nutrients from the soil, so it should be rotated with a bean crop to help replenish nitrogen. He used beans that were popular in the local diet.
Fiston and I had had a number of conversations about the problem of farmers going into debt to plant their crops. He was determined to set up a culture to avoid this as much as possible. Instead of purchasing fertilizer and pesticides, organic methods could be used to fertilize crops and avoid insect damage. And, he felt very strongly about the idea of using open pollinated seeds so that villagers could save seeds instead of buying them.