Beer and business: the unexpected benefits of water access in Cameroon

A solar-powered water project in Cameroon's arid north has enabled villagers to fight poverty by starting small businesses

When the government of Cameroon started a solar-powered water distribution system in the north of the country, the objective was to improve access to potable water and to ease irrigation for farmers in an area beset by drought, water-related illnesses and an influx of refugees fleeing Boko Haram attacks.

But the pioneering $1.3m project has had an unexpected effect: most of the recipients of the water in the local village of Mindif are using it to start small businesses, which they see as the best way of adapting to the increasingly tough climatic conditions and to overcome poverty.

"Using the water source to invest in businesses shows how water resources can be used to build resilience among very poor communities," said Zachee Nzoh Ngandembou, the coordinator of the Center for Environment and Rural Transformation (Cerut), a Cameroonian NGO helping local communities, especially women, invest in income-generating activities to fight poverty.

Using the sun to combat the lack of water

In the parched six neighbouring villages – Mindif, Larie, Katchel, Dir Irlagare, Mayo Bahehel and Ouro Dole – many herders had lost nearly all their animals, their main sources of income, as a result of the region's erratic rainfall and drying groundwater supplies.

The new water supply system uses a 2,500 cubic metre water tower, built into the hills 15 km from Mindif. Using power from solar panels, the water is pumped up from an underground reservoir and distributed through a network of pipes to Mindif and the other villages.

Using the overabundance of sunshine, the system pumps more than 40,000 litres of potable water to the villages per day, providing families with water they desperately need, and rendering cases of water-related diseases a thing of the past,” says water project engineer Jorel Kom. Experts involved the project are confident that the water will not run out.

In the villages, more than 40 water storage containers collect the supplied water, which is delivered into household containers using a low-maintenance hand pump. Just one year after the project, clean drinking water is available to 80% of people in the villages.

Turning water into beer

With support from the government, Cerut gave out small grants of around €1,000 to more than 200 women to invest in businesses such as farming, soft drinks processing and cattle-rearing.

Ayisha Bouba, a farmer in Mindif, says that the new water supply project is a huge help to women who previously had to walk long distances to find water.

More than 60% of the women who benefited from the water supply and grants from Cerut are now involved in one business type or another, especially the brewing of Bil-Bil beer, a popular drink in the Sahel region. Farmers who grow millet used in the beer say better access to water has also improved their business prospects, both in production output and sales. Demand for the drink has become very high, especially in neighbouring northern Nigeria due to scarcity triggered by insecurity from Boko Haram attacks.

My business has since grown bigger, attracting more customers who no longer doubt the source of water used for production,” said Bouba. She says that with constant water supply her millet farm has increased production from 20 tonnes to more than 80 tonnes in less than a year.

Government water experts say NGOs such as Plan Cameroon and Unicef spare no efforts to improve conditions around water supply in northern Cameroon communities, where there are recurrent cases of cholera.

The government and many development partners have provided more than 1,000 boreholes to date,” says Parfait Ndeme from the Ministry of Mines, Water Resources and Energy. “The cost of providing potable water in the Sahel region might be three times more costly than in the rest of Africa. Distance is one major factor that influences cost and the arid climate in the region makes it difficult to have underground water all year round.”

Essimi Menye, Cameroon’s Minister of Agriculture, hopes more solar-powered water distribution projects will be constructed in neighbouring northern Nigeria, Niger and Chad to minimis e water-related diseases.

We will encourage the provision of more water sources that will permit farmers to improve on the quality and quantity of their production and fight against poverty and hunger in the desert-stricken northern region of Cameroon and beyond.” says Menye. “There can be no development and improvement in livelihood without water.”

The above article by Elias Ntungwe Ngalame in Yaounde first published on in Jul, 2015.