Téapleu – “If you come back in a few years you will see buildings here instead of mud huts!”
Elise Zienssu, 44, is upbeat. She is one of the lucky few women returnees who have found work reclaiming farmlands in a WFP-supported Food for Assets project in Téapleu, an Ivorian village near the Liberian border.
Thousands of families fled this region during the 2011 civil war and took refuge in Liberia. When they came back in May 2012, they found their homes looted or burned down and their livelihoods destroyed.
“WFP’s food assistance was a godsend,” says Elise, “because when we came back it was the onset of the lean season and we were on the brink of hunger.”
The returnees are grateful for WFP’s emergency general food distributions, which prevented many of them going hungry during the “lean season,” the period of year, from May to September, when households run out of food reserves. However, what they are really proud of is their own hard work: the 22 hectares of rice fields they have since planted.
Launched in July 2012, in partnership with COOPAFAN, a local NGO, the WFP-supported Food for Assets project has allowed 88 women heads of families the opportunity to make a living by growing rice. While WFP provides each of these women 44 kg of rice per month in return for their labour, COOPAFAN offers technical expertise and capacity building, as they have never had the experience of working in low lands before.
Rebuilding lives through work
Elise has a twinkle in her eye when she looks at the rice fields in the low lands of Téapleu. The promise of a good harvest at the end of this year means the ability for her to feed her children, fill her granary and have seeds for the next planting season. The cash she will gain from the sale of rice will also cover other family needs, like healthcare and education.
WFP’s emergency general food distributions – consisting of rice, beans and cooking oil -- during the lean season “did encourage many refugees to return home,” says Soro Louis Tahoma, Project Officer for COOPAFAN.
But what the Food for Assets project has achieved is remarkable: it has completely transformed the village. The women and their families are happy about their newly acquired farming skills. The high-yielding varieties of rice (3 times higher than the traditional varieties) they learned how to grow have raised their hopes for an excellent crop and “guaranteed the community’s food security for next year,” says Soro Louis Tahoma.
The project is so successful that many women in the village who did not get the chance to be among the lucky 88 are appealing to WFP and COOPAFAN to expand it so they also can get the opportunity to work. “I do feel for the others,” says Claudine Téhé Mondan, 38, who looks over-worked but contented. She was among the first to come back to the village as she had not even been able to make it to Liberia during the wave of violence and had to hide in the bushes with her children, sometimes going for two days with nothing to eat.
Wings to fly
“The work in the rice fields is very hard, as we have practically no tools and implements to speak of,” explains Claudine. But after our livelihoods have been shattered, we are lucky to be able to work and look forward to a promising crop. All people here want to work, as they have to start again from scratch. Only through work can we rebuild our lives”.
The same Food for Assets project is running in 14 other villages, giving work to 566 families. So far, 164 hectares have been reclaimed. Through this partnership, WFP and COOPAFAN hope the project -- involving 24 agricultural experts and agronomists teaching the villagers new farming skills -- will lead to the development of 1029 hectares of rice fields, benefiting 4116 households in 56 villages.
The potential for growth is huge, as there are more than 3 thousand hectares of unexploited low lands in the region. “If the project continues for five years,” says Soro Louis Tahoma, “WFP’s objective of achieving sustainable food security for the villagers of the region will be reached.”
Claudine puts it another way -- saying that if the project continues, and provided the hard-working women can get modern farming tools, “we will have wings to fly. We will become wealthy!”