Witnessing the ‘power of we’

Once again the themes of Blog Action Day (today) and World Food Day (tomorrow) coincide with each other enough to prompt me to pen another of these sporadic blog posts. This year’s BAD is on the admittedly broad theme of the ‘power of we’, while WFD is on the slightly more specific (and slightly less inspiring-sounding-at-least) subject of agricultural co-operatives.

Amazingly, I’ve been fortunate enough to witness aspects of both of these themes in action in recent months – albeit in very different settings, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria. The video above is my report for DFID on the inspiring rural town of Masi Manimba, a community of about 30,000 people, a few hundred miles from the capital of DRC, Kinshasa. I spent a couple of days here at the start of the summer, together with a small team from the NGO Action Contre la Faim (ACF/Action Against Hunger). ACF had taken me and a colleague from DFID in DRC to see how the community there had been working together to tackle food insecurity and malnutrition with minimal help from outside aid agencies.

The townsfolk of this peaceful place had demonstrated the power of we by organising their community into small groups, with each household volunteering a couple of hours a day to tend the fields of a co-operative farm. Their combined efforts had lead to a situation where the community has transformed itself from a place of chronic food insecurity and malnutrition crisis a couple of years ago to a town that can now feed itself and have half its produce left over to sell.

ACF thought that this was pretty impressive, and it was hard to disagree, even though it seemed like an obviously simple approach. They had spent just a few months there in 2010 providing emergency nutrition support and feeding due to alarmingly high malnutrition rates amongst the town’s children. Whilst there, they’d taught a few members of the community in healthier eating techniques, and provided some basic agricultural training. One of the other things they’d done was to encourage the community to keep chickens to farm eggs, rather than just killing them to eat the meat. Again, a simple idea, but a transformative one, helping people to have a more varied diet. Now the town has a number of co-operative farms and ACF are hoping to replicate the project in other parts of this vast country.

Why does this matter? Well, malnutrition is a problem across DRC – which is frustrating as much of DRC’s land is incredibly fertile, and it could easily be self-sufficient in food production (instead of being a net importer of food). Agricultural co-operatives are seen as a necessary part of the solution to this problem. Food production and nutrition are far from DRC’s only challenges, but if communities here can harness their collective power then maybe the country really could one day be the breadbasket of Africa.

Fast forward a couple of months and a couple of weeks ago I found myself in Lagos, Nigeria’s bustling ‘second’ city, and west Africa’s largest – with a population of somewhere between 10-15million people. No-one really knows.

The contrast with the rural countryside of DRC’s Masi Manimba couldn’t be greater, but the ‘power of we’ was evident here too. In a nondescript, six storey office block near the University of Lagos, a group of young software developers, website designers and data analysts were pooling their collective talents to try and design websites and apps to help people understand trade data – to compare the prices of basic goods like chicken and soap. Not the most obviously inspiring project perhaps, but the underlying principle was of collaborative working, part of the ethos of the Co-Creation Hub, the shared workspace which occupies the top floor of the building. These developers were there as part of a series of ‘hack days’ – which also took place in London and Capetown – aimed at exploring what talented techie people in different countries could do if given the same sets of development data. The results were surprising, and worthy of a separate blog post perhaps. Watch this space.

The point is that these are just two small examples of how people in Africa are working together, using the power of we to find the answers to some of Africa’s development challenges. Both of them challenge the stereotypes of images we’ve accepted for far too long. The co-operative farm in DRC is a long way from the seemingly perpetual depiction of conflict and human suffering that we’ve become accustomed to seeing from the Congo. And the typical image of Nigeria on the web is of online scams and badly written phishing emails, not of young, intelligent people using technology for social good.

There is still malnutrition in Masi Manimba , and there are still huge challenges in terms of basic services in Lagos, one of the world’s fastest growing cities. An app that explains the difference between the price of chicken in Lagos and Capetown won’t change that. But if aid donors, aid agencies and communities themselves can continue to harness the power of we in countries like DRC and Nigeria, to really get to grips with issues like food security and encourage innovative uses of technology and data to tackle development challenges, then that surely is something worth blogging about. Spread the word. #BAD12   #WFD2012


About russellphoto

Photographer and multimedia producer/editor working in international development. Also on Twitter @russellphoto
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