Mornings are a sacred space for Solange Wankwi. Her 4 a.m. start to the day involves prayer, reading and catching up on work. On the family farm in the outskirts of Bamenda, Cameroon, Solange’s childhood chores involved feeding her two pigs and four goats before going to school every morning.
“That’s the most productive time for me,” Solange said. “Because it’s quiet and I can think freely.”
Solange embraced similar early starts during her time at the CSE (Centre of Social Excellence) in Yaoundé. The centre, which is also The Forest Trust’s Cameroon office, houses students and teachers from diverse backgrounds.
CSE graduates work in Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their efforts impact more than 351 riparian communities and over 120 indigenous communities in those countries.
Morning lessons at the CSE started at 8 a.m. and continued until lunch, Solange said. They covered issues ranging from stakeholder engagement and African cultures to land issues and the HCS (High Carbon Stock) approach.
Most afternoons were spent in groups conducting presentations and sharpening communication skills. Communicating knowledge is key, Solange said.
“Information is power,” she explained. “But it’s only powerful when you share it with people.”
Lessons learnt at the CSE complemented those Solange internalised in her youth. Born to a tailor mother and strict father involved in construction, Solange was especially close to her grandfather, who was the village chief.
“My grandfather imparted on me that if you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, if you’re not comfortable with something, don’t do it for doing’s sake,” she said.
Before joining the CSE, Solange worked on a water, health and sanitation project in the Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon. The project involved supplying clean water to rural areas and teaching residents to manage the scheme.
“When I was growing up, our community had a water project that we enjoy until now,” she said. “So it was a great opportunity to ensure other people have the same privilege.”
At the close of every day, two CSE students prepared a meal shared by all eight batch mates. The centre is TFT’s attempt to bridge a gap in the industry – professionals, such as Solange, who have the agribusiness acumen to complement a strong sense of social awareness and skills. She now utilises those skills in Nigeria for an oil palm plantation owned by an international agribusiness.
Her responsibilities involve spending time in the field with around 450 small-scale oil palm farmers. Solange helps map their lands and engages with them on her company’s behalf. She also helps implement the company’s Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) strategy.
When Solange first started working with these Nigerian farmers, there was a lot of tension between them and the company. Most of them didn’t trust the company, she said.
“I first tried to build trust and a relationship with them,” Solange said. “I just opened up and told them the truth.”
This created a space for feedback and learning. Every farmer has something to teach you, she said.
“I used to think that small farmers don’t keep records,” Solange said. “But in the field, you discover that they have a different way of keeping records. They may not write down the figures in a book, but they have their own way of recording things.”
By Rudro Roy and Rosie Pearce