Better Living in the Village<br>A Well-Balanced Development Policy in Benin

The “top-down” policy of development implemented in Benin gives an absolute priority to medium and large-sized towns, to the detriment of the rural areas of the country. Consequently, after more than four decades of political independence, the villages, where 80 percent of the population of the country still live in very poor conditions, are characterized by a low level of income due to poor agricultural practices; a scarcity of clean drinking water; electricity that reaches only 1.62 percent of village inhabitants; poor health infrastructure; and a critical lack of secondary schools.

This situation is upsetting when we consider that Benin does not have natural resources it can depend on for exports. It isn’t an oil-producer like its neighbor Nigeria. Virtually all income is generated by cash crops, such as cotton produced by rural communities.

Kemon is a small Yoruba (Nagot dialect) farming village of 4,000, located in the heart of Benin. Livelihoods in Kemon center around agriculture, and life for many of these rural farmers and their families is difficult. In 1998, nine Kemon natives, including myself, decided to do something. We founded a non-governmental organization (NGO) called Mieux Vivre au Village (Better Living in the Village). Our two major objectives are improving the living conditions in the village by modernizing community infrastructure such as roads, drinking water, solar energy, as well as building health centers and secondary schools; and helping villagers earn more revenue from their agricultural activities to ease the burden of the manual labor necessary to till their fields.

In our view, Kemon is just a starting point. We chose it because we know it very well. During a series of meetings in the village with the large and active participation of the villagers, the objectives of the NGO were shared and many residents registered to be active participants. It is our hope that any successes we obtain in Kemon will be reported via radio and television, and adapted to other villages around the country.

A couple of months after founding our organization, we helped villagers open farming cooperatives, such as a women’s garden group, an animal husbandry project (with rabbits, pigs, agoutis, and other animals), and small-scale aquaculture projects. We are also experimenting with beekeeping for honey, and ox-drawn ploughs to till the fields, instead of relying on short-handled hoes. We provided all members of these groups with specific technical skills and training on microbusiness management.

In partnership with the local health clinic, our group is working on improving children’s nutrition. We have also started a HIV/AIDS-education program to warn people about the dangers of the disease, which is becoming a serious hazard here.

Many funds for our projects are gathered from members and outside donors. Starting in just one village a few years ago, we have already expanded to eight others, and many are waiting for our services. Many people appreciate the confidence we give to the villagers to tackle their problems through a bottom-up strategy of development. Our actual achievement is not only the fruit of our own effort but also the result of the support we spontaneously received from some local and international organizations. Without any doubt, if we keep working hand-in-hand with them and with the villagers, our dream for justice in development will be a reality.

Gabriel Agbede (gagbede@hotmail.com) is a founder of Better Living in the Village.

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