Communication for Sustainable Development

The fight to stem Africa's rural exodus


* 14 million sub-Saharan Africans migrate from rural to urban areas every year
* Rural Futures program set up to boost farming communities
* CIDAP is a grassroots movement that has turned around fortunes of Togolese village
* CIDAP's story is told in the documentary "The Dancing Forest"

(CNN) -- While Africa's cities are growing exponentially, Africans are leaving rural areas in their droves because they can no longer make a living from farming.

A recent report by U.N. Habitat found that 14 million people in sub-Saharan Africa migrate from rural to urban areas every year. Of those, 70% move into slums. This migration means more Africans will live in urban than rural areas by 2030, the report predicted.

The plight of Africa's rural poor, who still account for the vast majority of the continent's population, is the focus of Rural Futures, a new two-year program supported by the African Union.

Estherine Lisinge-Fotabong, from the New Partnership for Africa's Development, the organization behind Rural Futures, said: "The growth and development in African countries has not benefited the rural world.

"In the long term, agriculture should form the backbone of the continent, but to do that it needs to be transformed."

One of its key goals will be to create jobs in the countryside by encouraging rural industries and agribusiness, said Lisinge-Fotabong.

"Rural exodus in Africa is compounded by the development gap between the city and the rural areas, lack of basic rural amenities like water and electricity and lack of opportunities for young people," she said.

"We also need to support farmers in preserving the environment. Rural communities have a critical role to play as custodians of the environment. We need to empower them to adapt their methods and mitigate the effects of climate change."

The climate of sub-Saharan Africa is itself a factor that can force farmers to abandon their villages, according to Valerie Mueller, of the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute.

She said: "One reason people leave the countryside is because they are experiencing a drought that completely devastates their livelihood.

"Policies that can help reduce the risk of these kinds of natural disasters include introducing irrigation, insurance policies against crops failing, and drought-resistant crops."

While Rural Futures has backing from the likes of the U.N. and the World Wildlife Fund, Africa's farmers are also being empowered by grassroots movements.

In Togo, the fortunes of one small village have been turned around through the efforts of a farming project that emphasizes community, education and sustainable agriculture.

Seda Bawiena grew up in the village of Baga, in northern Togo, in the 1940s, but left to pursue his education. Twenty-five years ago he returned to Baga, only to see its increasingly infertile soils were being abandoned.

In response, Bawiena and his wife Tiyeda set up the International Center for Agro-Pastoral Development (CIDAP). Ever since, CIDAP has been teaching improved farming techniques, diversifying crops and increasing yields.

The story of CIDAP is told in documentary film "The Dancing Forest," by French filmmaker Brice Laine, which won the environmental award at last year's Reykjavik Film Festival.

"Rural exodus is one of the major problems for all the communities in this area, and most of West Africa," he said.

"Twenty-five years ago the village (Baga) was completely dying -- all the young people, and even the old people, were leaving.

"One of the aims of CIDAP was to counterbalance the rural exodus by changing mentalities. The aim was to show that through a different way of working the land it's possible to live off the land and grow better food and have a better life."

Laine, who grew up in Togo, says that rather than imposing new ways of farming on the community, as some NGOs do, CIDAP encourages a bottom-up approach that values hard work and builds on existing traditions.

Farmers from all over Togo, and neighboring countries, visit CIDAP to learn modern farming methods and rediscover traditional techniques that have been neglected, such as composting and using animal waste as fertilizer, said Laine.

CIDAP has set also up a technical institute that teaches diploma courses in agriculture, administration and home economics.

Laine described the technical institute as the future of CIDAP, inspiring young people to spread CIDAP's philosophy.

"Young people learn those techniques and go back to their communities and create their own farms and development programs," he said.

"We're seeing changes now. People are staying in the villages -- they have a new perspective on life. They are realizing now that going to the cities is not their only option. They understand that life in the city is not ideal and it's better to stay in the community, in your own way of life, and try and change it for the better."

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