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To prevent malnutrition among young children and strengthen the role of women in their communities, Misereor, together with the local non-governmental organisation CEBEDES , is implementing a programme on integrated home gardens in Benin - a series of pictures.
Benin is a country with a population of ten million, almost half of which still lives in rural areas. It is reasonable to think that village life is a guarantee of good nutrition as there is the space to cultivate the land and keep animals. But in reality, poverty is more prevalent and malnutrition is a bigger problem in rural than urban areas. In south Benin, the farms are very small – how can five or six people feed themselves from two or three hectares? In central Benin, the farms are slightly larger, but rainfall is unpredictable and the villages are frequently cut off from the outside world.
A third of children between 6 and 59 months shows signs of delayed growth: Repeated nutritional stress and the delay in treating illnesses causes a child’s body to adjust to these conditions by reducing the growth speed. Delayed growth is the visible symptom but this stress often has other effects on a child’s abilities.
Before signs of delayed growth appear in children, they suffer from episodes of acute emaciation (significant weight loss). According to the report on the implementation of a government nutrition project in 2016, the percentage of acute malnutrition among the intervention areas is 2.7 per cent in Ouinhi, 4.2 per cent in Zè and 3.6 per cent in Ouèssè. Acute malnutrition can be quickly identified in children between 6 and 59 months by measuring the circumference of their upper arm (red = acute emaciation).
Pascaline Tononongbe is 38 years old, married and a mother of 4 children. She lives in the village of Zè, around 50 kilometres away from the capital city, where she has only been once in her life due to her limited funds. She never went to school. She stayed at home to help her parents in the field and to take care of her new-born siblings. When she grew up, she married farmer Benjamin Awede who inherited only one hectare and leased one hectare. The household has to sell part of its harvested maize, manioc and beans in order to cover the necessary costs for education, health, kerosene for the lamps, soap, salt and repairs on the houses. The rest is barely enough to feed the family for a few months; as a result, the quality of the sauces that accompany their staple food, as well as the amount and number of meals gradually reduce.
One day, Pascaline Tononongbe meets a field adviser from the non-governmental organisation CEBEDES, who comes to Pascaline’s village every month to weigh the small children. She recommends that she and the other women in the village add plenty of fresh vegetables, meat and fish to their diet in order to improve the family’s health by consuming more nutritious meals. However, this would prove difficult: She and many others in the village have only grown a few vegetables and do not keep animals. CEBEDES therefore suggested opening a teaching garden, where the techniques for cultivating a fruit and vegetable garden and keeping small animals can be taught and practiced. Pascaline and her husband were glad to take part in the project.
MISEREOR supports the non-governmental organisation CEBEDES so that a technician can run and look after around 15 learning gardens with 15 to 25 participants each year. For one year, they cultivate an agro-ecological garden and learn all of the proven techniques such as composting, selecting species, making and using biopesticides, collecting rain to water the gardens and learning about mulch. Mostly iron-rich leafy vegetables are grown as they are used in traditional cuisine but some gardeners are also happy to try new vegetables. Each teaching garden selects at least one species of animal for breeding: Poultry in simple barns (normally they run around freely), giant snails or catfish in small ponds.
After no more than a year of training, the participants are given help to set up their own garden. 507 individual gardens and 45 school gardens in three communities have been set up after two years.
Snails are traditionally collected in wetlands in the bush and catfish are caught in rivers and ponds. These species are resilient. Researchers and producers have learned how to domesticate them and simple methods for keeping them are available. The number of snails and fish produced can be easily distributed so that the costs are covered by the earnings. Part of the production goes towards feeding one’s own family however.
Sébastienne Tolokin tells us her experiences. “Last year, I took part in the training courses offered in the teaching garden in Lokossa in the Ouèssè commune. We learned a lot about agro-ecological horticulture and breeding chickens and snails. The harvest from the teaching gardens were used for cooking classes for the mothers of children in the village during the nutrition education courses and were also sold to support the members who has completed their training to set up their own garden.
I was also looking for a space for my own garden, which my father-in-law gave to me in the end. My husband helped me to build a fence around it with oil palm branches. I have dug 15 beds and grown a variety of vegetables. I use the harvest from my garden to prepare a variety of nutritious meals for my family and sometimes leftovers are sold. The income from this is used to help my husband cover the needs of our children in terms of education, health and buying staple foods. The garden is excellent because it has improved both the quality and the quantity of the food for my household and has made me happier. Next year, I am planning to expand my garden.
The work of CEBEDES in allotments has also piqued the interest of the communal services. They are informed every quarter of the programme’s progress. In addition, CEBEDES organises field visits for the agricultural services and social and health services. This allows the pilot project to be replicated and expanded. The mayor of the commune Ouèssè is delighted with the approach to tackle malnutrition in his community and says: CEBEDES started providing nutrition education by giving nutrition advice to pregnant women and young mothers with children between 0 and 59 months old.
Since 2018, the non-governmental organisation’s integrated family garden project has been covering the need to provide certain foods for advising the communes. The consumption of fruit and vegetables and other animal products that the field advisers recommend for good nutrition during the nutrition education classes is not easy for the communes to implement as our rural households are poor and these foods are not available all year round.
CEBEDES supports households by educating them about agro-ecological issues and breeding small numbers of fish, poultry and snails. We visited the gardens several times and talked with the beneficiaries. We have seen satisfactory results and can only welcome and support this approach by making land that belongs to the commune available to women, so that they can expand their farms and the women who find it difficult to access land can also benefit from the fruits of the garden. We will continue to monitor the gardens that have been built with the agricultural services so that we can continue this work at the end of the project.
CEBEDES aims to transition into standard operation after the current pilot phase. The developed approach enables farmers to begin producing vegetables with little investment. The gardens can be gradually expanded and include keeping small animal such as improved chicken farming and breeding fish and snails. The project technicians write technical data sheets and handbooks based on their experiences with the gardeners. These materials will be used this year to train other interested non-governmental organisations and operators so that CEBEDES’s approach can also be used more widely in other communes, for example in addition to the national nutrition education programmes.