Although the Central African Republic (CAR) has experienced relative calm since a coup d'etat on 15 March 2003, it is yet to recover fully from more than a decade of civil strife that had adversely affected all aspects of life across the country.
Illiteracy, food shortages, poverty and insecurity are some of the issues the transitional government of Gen Francois Bozize has to solve in a bid to restore normalcy to the lives of the country's 3.7 million people, many of whom have been traumatised by the years of civil war.
Reviving agriculture nationwide is a priority and UN agencies, NGOs and the government have made great strides in this regard.
Since early 2004, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) has embarked on food-for-work and food-for-training programmes aimed at helping the CAR's people attain sustained food security. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has distributed seeds for various crops, farming tools and breeder livestock to groups of farmers across the country.
WFP's 15-month "food-for-work and food-for-training" programmes are aimed at providing food support to community-based activities and to the victims of CAR's military crises to ease their reintegration into society.
"In partnership with local NGOs, we are helping victims of recurrent military crises to be reinserted through food assistance," David Bulman, the WFP representative, told IRIN on 30 September. "The programme concerns populations of [the capital] Bangui and some provinces."
Bozize seized power from President Ange-Felix Patasse following a six-month rebellion, mostly based in the west and the northwest. During the rebellion, properties were looted and vandalised in Bangui and in provinces of Ouham-Pende, Ouham, Nana-Grebizi and Kemo, leaving many of the residents without a means of livelihood.
As a result, agricultural production was adversely affected as centres supplying farmers with seeds were also looted. This resulted in the lack of seeds, risk of food shortages and an increased threat of disease outbreaks due to lack of food.
In April 2004, farmers across the country grouped themselves into 216 units known as Groupements d’Interets Ruraux (Rural Interest Groups), and received groundnut, maize, paddy and sorghum seeds from FAO.
However, despite this FAO aid that targeted 7,900 war-affected farmers, reviving the country's agriculture has been difficult. The situation is worsened by food shortages facing a majority of the population.
"I received seeds and farming equipment but I’m still battling to resume my activities because I have to feed myself and my family pending the harvest," Maurice Zapai, 50, a farmer and pig breeder told IRIN on 3 October.
As for the food-for-training programme, women are keen to join, but they are constrained by having to care for their families.
"Who will feed them while I am away?" is a question most ask when urged to join the programme. The objective of the food-for-work programme is to help poor families acquire and keep assets.
Bulman said the food was aimed at providing food security to poor households and to enable them to find lasting means of subsistence.
He said the food-for-work aspect of the WFP programme focused on helping with the reintegration of those who were internally displaced during the October 2002-March 2003 rebellion, as well as those who lost their property. The food-for-training aspect targets mainly women, to enable them to acquire skills thorough training.
"We are also supporting a programme of intensive functional literacy for women like sewing, saponification and basketwork," Bulman said.
According to the UN Development Programme (UNDP) 2001 World Report on Human Development, illiteracy affects some 66 percent of women in CAR. They form, consequently, the majority of the population living under the poverty line of less than US $1 a day.
The food-for-training programme was implemented to enable poor women to acquire skills that would help them earn money through non-formal education and, at the same time, continue to feed their families.
"Instead of proceeding to a traditional food distribution, we are rather using the food assistance to help women learn practical skills so that they can be on their own instead of being dependent on their husbands," Bulman said.
The food-for-work and food-for-training programmes began in February. By August, some 810 women had received 104,779 mt of maize flour, Corn-Soya-Blend, vegetable oil, beans, salt and sugar.
"Each beneficiary receives one-family ration corresponding to five individual rations," Bulman said.
The other 9,305 beneficiaries of the food-for-work programme received 224,336 mt of the same foodstuff.
This enabled fish breeders, grouped on 12 sites in the Ouango-Landjia suburb of Bangui, to resume their activities. In Boeing, a neighbourhood in the capital, six groups of farmers have also resumed activities.
In Borosse, 35 km north of Bangui, the residents were involved in a project to build homes for schoolteachers. This served to mobilise the teachers who had been posted to the area, but had refused to report to their workstations for lack of housing and because they had not been paid several months of salary arrears.
A parents' association used raised funds to pay unqualified teachers known as "maitres-parents", or "parent-teachers", to supplement the efforts of trained teachers.
"All the money the parents association generated was used to pay the parent-teachers," Bulman said.
He added that the association could not buy teaching materials after paying the unqualified teachers.
To solve the housing problem, the parents association sought the aid of carpenters and brick makers in Borosse who were willing to help. But they hesitated between abandoning their work - through which they fed their families - and building houses for the teachers.
"We gathered local construction material such as clay and wood, but it was not easy for us to start building," Hubert Ngueliba, the director of the primary school of Borosse, told IRIN on 4 October.
He added that he had to convince the community that it did not make sense that people from outside the area were more concerned about the education of their children.
"We used the food-for-work programme to support the building of the teachers' houses," Bulman said. "We explained to them that our support was not a salary. The purpose was to provide them with energy to help in building the houses and at the same time feed their families while they worked."
When the Borosse residents had difficulty in roofing the homes, WFP provided iron sheets. In the end, five homes were built and the teachers who had been posted there by the government reported for work.
Bulman added that the other aspect of the programme was to support and foster community-based activities.
Food aid to the HIV-positive
A revival of the country's agriculture would be incomplete without taking into account the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic on the population, especially given the government's estimate that 15 percent of the country's 3.2-million people are infected with the virus.
People living with HIV fall sick often, thus lowering their productivity. Indeed, the education sector has suffered the most as teachers living with HIV are often absent from work. Some die in the middle of an academic year, interrupting the curriculum.
In addition to HIV/AIDS, government workers have not been paid since May, making it even more difficult for them to support their families. According to the UNDP 2004 Human Development Report 66.6 percent of the population lives on $1 per day and can only afford one meal daily.
Cassava, the staple food, is no longer available in sufficient quantities on the market due to a price increase in the last two months. Government sources say a 50-kg bag of cassava currently sells for the local equivalent of $32 to $34, up from $16 few months ago. This precarious nutritional condition has worsened the health of HIV-positive people.
Subsequently, WFP began in August a $2 million food-aid project for HIV-positive people, AIDS orphans and other vulnerable children. Some 16,891 people living with HIV and 3,258 AIDS orphans have already benefited from the programme.
The programme plays three major roles: providing direct food support to households of HIV-positive people in a situation of food insecurity; enabling the households to save the little money they have and invest it in income-generating activities; and giving nutritional supplement to members of the families, particularly children aged under five years.
For those in the advanced stages of AIDS, the food support is aimed at improving and maintaining their nutritional condition. It is also aimed at encouraging them to take their drugs, particularly those on anti-retroviral treatment and anti-tuberculosis treatment.
The other groups targeted by the programme are AIDS orphans and other vulnerable children who drop out of schools and end up in streets begging to survive. These children are exposed to poverty, illiteracy and stand a higher risk of getting infected with the HIV virus.
"The food and nutritional support will work as a stimulant to keep AIDS orphans and vulnerable children out of streets and will also work as an interface to promote their schooling," Bulman said.
In 2003, following Bozize's coup, WFP, through the Prolonged Relief and Recovery Operations for Development, undertook emergency food distributions to schools in the provinces of Ouham-Pende, Ouham, Nana-Grebizi and Kemo; north and northwest of Bangui. A total of 95,000 school children received food rations.
"By October, we hope to proceed to another food rations distribution in school kitchens, and hope some 35,000 children will benefit from this," Bulman said.