Rice, Mackerel, beer, Vin rouge, carton Tomate, huile, bag of salt, onion, garlic

With this message, I knew that two months of negotiations had come to a close. What started out as exploratory conversations with the village of Bindalema turned into a fully-fledged agreement on land transfer.

The ownership of land in Cameroon is very contentious. Most land has not been registered, and the land claims are often contested and linked to complex family and clan relationships. The 1974 land act places specific restrictions on communal land so deep consultations, across generations are needed to transfer land titles.

Where most people in the west rely on a system of formal addresses to describe the orientation and boundaries of a property, Cameroon has to make do without it. The government tax authorities recently issued a tender to develop a national addressing system. To this day most urban businesses have to make do without a formal address.

As an example, this is the formal address (as per letterhead) of our lawyers:
Street 5N.111| 100 m opposite Carrefour supermarket Bonamoussadi|
1st floor of the building directly opposite the open space|
Bonamoussadi – Douala – Cameroon

Historical abattoirs or markets still define localities. Even historical events can become the defining marker of your location: “Three-car accident corner”, for instance, in Yaoundé!

So in July, Augustine started scouting for the perfect plot of land to build our test and training site. The negotiations were very tricky because our needs did not necessarily meet the needs and objectives of the community.

Folabi Esan, Ferdi van Heerden and Augustine inspecting the site. The best wireless internet in all of Cameroon!

As a piece of communal land, the income would be shared, but the family who historically farmed that patch would get more than the rest. This particular family did not have the high status some other members had so there was quite a bit of jealousy about them getting more money than others who felt entitled (due to status) to more.

This process of internal agreements and alignments stretched the negotiations out over two months!

Village council meeting after village council meeting was called (and we had to pay for the ‘inconvenience’ of each one).

Old cons and scams were relived in detail. The land deal where the buyers ended up extracting diamonds from the plot instead of growing crops, the promises of jobs that turned into dusty, dilapidated buildings. We, and in particular Augustine, had to have thick skin and broad shoulders to carry the weight of all this disappointment of disillusioned generations.

And now, here we are. The final touches agreed regarding the ceremonial gifts that should be included in the final ceremony. Mackeral and red wine, garlic and salt. A festival where the village and their diaspora can talk late at night about the details and twists in the most exciting drama that has come to town in decades.

And why? Why did we agree to this mind-numbing slog through traditional councils rather than simply going to an estate agent?

For the final counting of the cash, we insisted the local women be present to count and verify how much money went into the community coffers. Augustine supervising the count.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. It takes a community to build a business. If we wanted the area farmers to be fully invested in our success, they needed to view us not as an extractive “grasshopper.” We are good neighbours, and we are here to drive industry change from the farmers’ perspective. Their voice will echo through us because they are now as invested in us as we are in them.

What next?

This delay in land transfer gave us more time to focus on the design and construction planning of the facility. As soon as the ink was dry on the land deal we started measuring the soil to understand the weight-bearing capacity and nuances of the topography.

Laptops in the bush

It is a complicated process. The weight-bearing capacity of the soil determines the concrete mixture you’ll need. As our facility will accept 11 tonnes of beans a day, this is no trivial matter. 60 -100 tonnes this high up on a slope can quickly sink into the soil if you have not calculated correctly. The structural integrity of the fermentation “steps” can also decay if we don’t have the right kind of foundation and flooring.

The bean flow has greatly influenced the design of the “in-between” spaces.

What looks like a €2000 saving now, could be a fatal decision once the facility is producing between €10 000 – €12 000 dried cocoa per day. Any stop in production then, due to sunken foundations or cracked structures, can cost us the business.

The roads to the site are still in an atrocious state. We recently learnt that the contract that went to a Chinese contracting firm has been suspended. We don’t know when the road will be improved but until then we can count on the support of our neighbours to get us through the tough and muddy patches.

What looks scary and unnavigable, is currently one of the main access arteries to Cameroon’s (the world’s third largest Cocoa producer’s) second biggest cocoa region. This is Africa, this is communal improvisation and collaboration.

So now the hard work begins. As Folabi, one of our investors said, there is a vision buried under the ground and we need to bring it to life. The potential is there and now we have a whole community to link arms with and raise the dream with us.

We forgot our hardhats on that day!

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