Hunger stalks Cameroonians as food prices spike

As the curtain fell on the Afcon, many of Cameroon’s citizens went back to what was already an everyday struggle to survive. In the end the showpiece achieved – and meant – little for them.

Now that the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) party is over and the continent’s spotlight is no longer on Cameroon, many realities of its citizens’ daily lives are hitting them hard, including escalating food prices. President Paul Biya’s government might have spent billions in a blatant attempt to appease a frustrated youth and improve his dwindling support, but the Afcon failed as a public relations exercise. 

The Olembé Stadium stampede that claimed the lives of eight people on 24 January had already put a damper on the festivities of the tournament. And the Indomitable Lions’ failure to win the Afcon, instead settling for bronze, didn’t help the situation.  

“Since February we haven’t had three meals a day in our home,” says Stephanie Mebenga, a resident of Yaoundé, as she shops for food in the large Mokolo market. “My children and I have been forced to skip meals to survive since the cost of living is extremely high.” 

18 March 2022: Akono Luc Francis sells ginger outside the Mfoundi food market in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon.

Mebenga, a widow in her late fifties and mother of three, was forced to move to the capital from Boumnyebel, a village about 120km from Yaoundé. She used to sell locally made plantain chips as a street vendor but moved about a year ago in search of a better life. Though she has a new job in the wholesale trade, things haven’t changed much.

“For some time now life has been very expensive. I find it difficult to feed my children and myself. The money I receive isn’t enough to pay for all our needs. We have rent, tuition fees, electricity and transportation to pay. The rest of the money is very little. But with the way food is expensive we really cannot cope. I don’t know if I can hold on for too long anymore.”

Mebenga isn’t the only one struggling. “I have a neighbour whose conditions are worse than mine and I am sad. I live with constant fear. I don’t know what can happen tomorrow. Just look around you,” she says, pointing at the stalls, “and see how goods get bad because there is no one to buy. People can’t eat. You can’t feed yourself and your family. And you don’t know when it will end.”

Going up and up

Most Cameroonians are going through the same ordeal daily. The cost of living has dramatically increased and families are struggling because of skyrocketing prices in the markets nationwide. The prevailing situation has forced them into hardship, especially those with only one source of income. 

For instance, the price of 1 litre of oil has risen from 1 150 Central African francs to 1 300 francs (R33). A tray of 30 eggs has gone from 1 500 to 24 000 francs (R604). A 50kg bag of rice that usually cost 13 000 francs is now 15 000 (R380) and the price of 1kg of fish now stands at 2 000 francs (R50) rather than 1 300.

Douala in the Littoral region is the Cameroonian city with the largest population at more than 2.77 million people. It is also the economic hub of the country and arguably among the most expensive of the 10 regions to live in.

The city has its own perennial challenges such as high crime rates, water shortages, traffic congestion and power failures. The region, in particular Douala, had the highest number of cases during the recent cholera outbreak, with only the Southwest region recording more. Medical experts have declared cholera endemic in areas like Makepe Missoke in Douala and advised people to avoid drinking water, fruit and vegetables obtained from there.

18 March 2022: A chicken seller with his wares outside the Mfoundi market inYaoundé. 

“The situation is catastrophic in Douala,” says resident Peldrine Blanche. “There’s no electricity, there is no water and there is no food. After Afcon many of us were not expecting this. We expected to see the economy boom. None of us thought things could get worse. We are still dealing with Covid-19 and now we have the cholera outbreak.”

The government budgeted 13 billion francs for the organisation of the tournament, just half of what the minister of sport initially wanted. “The stadiums couldn’t bring enough money to the country. The organisers were obliged to give tickets to fans to fill the stadiums. If not, only a few people would be able to pay for tickets,” says Kakdeu Louis-Marie, an economist and senior lecturer at the University of Maroua in the Far North region. 

Louis-Marie believes the main issue now in terms of the infrastructure built for the Afcon is how to improve it and make it profitable for the country. “It is not only in the stadium that you make money during the Afcon. You also have the audiovisual fees. This is where we had to invest and we didn’t. That’s why we had low income from the Afcon for our economy.”

Interventions needed

Cameroon can change things around if it starts producing more staple foods domestically, says Louis-Marie. “When we import we can’t influence decisions in suppliers’ countries. Now that wheat and flour are expensive, there’s no way we can control things because 100% of the wheat we have in Cameroon is imported. We need the political will to solve this problem.

He also points to the violence and human rights abuses that have plagued Cameroon as the government fights separatist groups in the Anglophone regions. “Six of our 10 regions aren’t stable. Living standards in some regions are not acceptable. There is no other solution than to promote national production to be sure that people should not die of starvation.”

Cameroon’s post-Afcon struggles have been felt across the board, including among teachers. Ten teachers’ associations and unions announced a strike in late February and resolved not to teach until the government pays their salaries in full as well as allowances and bonuses that have been in arrears for years. Some teachers haven’t been paid their full salary in as long as a decade. 

Teacher Wanjah Mercy says she has to teach private classes “no matter how cheaply” to make a living wage. “It is greatly affecting my family because we no longer eat the way we used to eat. We aren’t able to add fish or meat [to our diet]. Even the corn fufu that we use to complement meals won’t be rich [in nutritional value]. You just have to manage things.”

18 March 2022: The Mfoundi food market in Yaoundé is the largest in the city.

Bambot Valentine, a resident of Buea, the capital of the Southwest region, says he started experiencing the rise in the prices of basic commodities after the Afcon. “I went to the store on a usual morning to get bread for breakfast and the owner told me she doesn’t have bread. It was strange because she always had bread. She told me she no longer orders bread because the price has gone up and customers don’t understand.

“It was very strange so I moved to the next store. But most of the stores in my area had stopped selling bread because of the increase in price. Local bread that we used to have for 300 francs now costs 400 francs,” says Valentine.

“It is greatly affecting my family and me because the cost of living has gone up.  We cannot buy in bulk like we used to. Our expenditures have been limited. We can only get half of what we used to get so it must last longer. We used to get a bag of rice since we live in a large home and consume it for two to three weeks. But right now we can only get half a bag of rice.”

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