Ashundep Ettanki is building the base of remote rural economies in Africa by showing villagers how to pool their resources, learn ways around burdensome government regulations and utilize mass communications to coordinate their activities.
The New Idea
Sixty-nine percent of Africans live in rural areas, of which perhaps as many as half live in areas best described as remote and isolated. To reinvigorate the economies of remote areas in Africa, Ashundep Ettanki is developing a model for promoting cooperative savings and production activities for farmers that incorporates credit formation, community re-investment and radio communications. Now piloting the model in his home region of Mamfe, Cameroon, Ashundep hopes, over the longer term, to see his approach to the development of remote rural areas applied throughout sub-Saharan Africa.Ashundep hopes to reverse the feelings of isolation and, therefore, powerlessness that characterize the more remote rural parts of Africa that have experienced deteriorating economic conditions. His approach involves stimulating savings and credit formation for investment by simplifying burdensome government regulations and the regular use of radio communication to spread the word about successful ventures. Since almost everyone listens to radio, Ashundep deploys it to create a "virtual economic community" among remote rural dwellers. Ashundep believes that with this regular broadcasting of their collective endeavor, the pervading attitudes of hopelessness and fatalism will give way to a new self-image of action and achievement.
Much of rural sub-Saharan Africa, containing perhaps a third of the sub-continent's people, remains isolated by poor roads, the absence of other infrastructure including electricity and telephone and few, if any, government health services, education services, security or commercial banks, brokers, or transporters. Heavy seasonal rains render travel difficult at the best of times, making it sometimes impossible. In Ashundep's home region, for example, during the rainy season, travel by road to the nearest town can take several days. In this context there are few opportunities for a local economy to grow. Farmers struggle to transport their produce to market. Very few goods are available for sale. There is little incentive to save, no savings or other banking institutions, and no tradition of saving to invest in the community. In those rare instances when an initiative to create a financial institution does take place, it is stymied by leaden and unresponsive government bureaucracy.
Ashundep introduces the practice of cooperative saving and investing by inviting villagers to pool their resources to buy a useful tool, such as a yam processing machine. Because the savings plan has a clear investment objective, it can overcome the initial distrust among villagers. The next step is to bring several villages together to scale up their purchases. And finally, he formalizes the resulting organization by helping it to register as a Common Initiative Group (CIG), a legal category that confers tax advantages and is a prerequisite for public or private sector credit. This involves yet another "leap of faith" by the villagers, this one prompted by their past success and Ashundep's patiently presented case for the benefits from moving to a formal status with the government and commercial institutions. To register his projects as CIGs, Ashundep had to persuade the government to modify the cumbersome registration procedures that had effectively blocked small rural farmers from accessing formal credit. Ashundep's projects were the first from the Mamfe area to be registered.During his numerous visits to seats of government to convince officials to change its regulations, Ashundep also took the opportunity to create a new program for farmers with the regional radio station. The program involves regular notices for upcoming meetings and activities of the CIGs, as well as news about other events of interest to the small farmers (market opportunities and prices, government policies, and so on). The most popular element in the radio program, however, has been a regular series of profiles of the activities and achievements of these new CIGs, in both English and French. These "success stories" have both affirmed the new CIGs and created widening interest in the region.As a result of the success of the pilot project and the positive public attention it has received, Ashundep and his team have been asked to replicate this approach in other areas of Cameroon. His efforts have also caught the attention of institutions in neighboring countries looking for ways to revitalize their rural economies as well. As part of his rural development strategy, Ashundep conducts workshops to train local residents to manage these cooperative associations so that he and his team are able to move from one area to another forming new groups. As a way to ensure the sustainability of the projects that he helps to initiate, Ashundep is laying the groundwork for organizing barter and trade relationships among the member groups and other national and international organizations to secure export markets for their products. Ashundep is now meticulously documenting his methodology for publication. Based on the growing success of his pilot efforts, he is convinced that the formula of radio communication appropriately attuned to remote rural farmers, followed by modest levels of direct support, will enable the approach to spread quickly across the continent.
Ashundep is one of only two from his village chosen to attend university since Cameroon's independence in 1961. He owes that opportunity to the intercession of his elder sister, who recognized that her brother had exceptional ability and succeeded in persuading the village elders to lead a village-wide effort to raise the funds to send him to university.Ashundep keenly feels the obligation that he has to his village to "give back" for what he received. But his commitment to village development runs deeper than reciprocal obligation. When Ashundep was a young man he saw faded photographs of his village that showed it as a center of major yam cultivation. Further research revealed that the village had once been a large exporter of yams. His nascent determination to promote development could now grow in the soil of a better past.While at university, he remained secretary of his village association and led an entirely local effort to build a school in the village and provide teachers and materials. Eventually the school was certified by the government, which had earlier rejected the village's request for assistance with the project. This success whetted Ashundep's appetite for initiating social change, and taught him a studied skepticism about what one could expect from government.Ashundep asked to study economics at university but was prevented from doing so because he lacked sufficient mathematical training. Instead he took a degree in mass communications and worked for a year at a Yaounde-based newspaper after he graduated from university in Nigeria. The following year he returned to his village to help his elder sister and address the needs of the people in his area. He started a simple group savings plan in which each household contributed 100 CFA (twenty US cents) per week. The project collapsed when the members demanded their money back, saying that they feared Ashundep might be using it for some other purpose. Ashundep showed the members that the village chief, who was holding the money in trust for the villagers, had their savings. They insisted on having their money returned, and it was refunded in full. Through analyzing this initial disappointment, Ashundep lit upon the idea of beginning by working with the village to identify a specific investment objective, and only then introducing a savings scheme. Ashundep is now 34 years old, and has a wife and four young children. He continues to write articles for newspapers, but his passions are the community development projects he has undertaken.