The United Methodist Church (UMC) has approved grants worth $3.5 million to promote agriculture as churches within its African conferences seek to become less dependent on Western funds.
The money is being channeled through the Bishop Yambasu Agricultural Initiative (BYAI) – a project named for John K. Yambasu, a church figurehead who died in a traffic accident in Freetown , in Sierra Leone, two years ago.
Three million dollars have already been distributed through BYAI to support projects in a dozen regional church conferences.
“The goal of this whole program is to build financial self-reliance in our annual conferences in Africa,” Roland Fernandes, general secretary of Global Ministries and the United Methodist Committee on Relief, told CT.
Launched in 2018, the initiative gained traction two years ago when Fernandes became the general manager of global ministries.
Projects supported by the initiative include rice farms and beekeeping in Liberia; fish farms in Côte d’Ivoire; maize, cassava and livestock in Angola; and pigs and market gardens in Mozambique.
“For me, it’s been one of the standout programs of the last two years since I’ve been secretary general,” Fernandes said. “That is why we are now doubling the investment. Africa is a big priority for us as an agency.
Dependence on Western funds has become a pressing concern for African Methodists as the UMC has moved to be divisive on LGBT issues. Theologically, African conferences align themselves with traditionalists who hold that same-sex sex is sinful and that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. But traditionalists in the United States also want to cut their church’s denominational giving, and progressives are likely to remain in control of denominational structures that have financially supported African churches, making future funding uncertain.
More than 70 percent of funding for African conferences comes from the West, said Kepifri Lakoh, an agricultural consultant in Sierra Leone who provides technical leadership for the initiative.
“This model is certainly not sustainable. So it was from an attempt to solve this problem that this vision was born, and the bishop [Yambasu] thought, Why not use the resources that are in Africa to actually generate income to support the church?”
The initiative is still in its infancy. Different conferences are at different stages of the granting process, and farming takes time to bear fruit. But there are already promising signs. And it’s not just in the fields.
“We went into this with the goal of conferences learning a new approach or a new way of engaging with global ministries,” Lakoh said. “We used to give grants and when they were over, they came back and asked for more. Now we have cases where we started getting entries [from crops] in Sierra Leone. These entries are reinvested in the company.
The money obtained during a first round of financing in the districts of Moyamba and Pujehun in Sierra Leone, classified among the poorest in this West African country, was used to buy seeds. In the second cycle, income from the first rice harvest was reinvested to increase production and pay for seeds, fuel and wages for a tractor driver.
During the 2021 season, farmers participating in the initiative have cultivated nearly 200 hectares (494 acres) of rice in Sierra Leone. This year they hope to cultivate 600 hectares (1,400 acres) and the project has now expanded to a third district, Tonkolili.
Ultimately, Global Ministries wants to see agricultural activities scaled up and commercialized throughout its conferences in West, East and Southern Africa.
The increase in household incomes and food security is extremely important in sub-Saharan Africa where, according to World Bank figures, 424 million people live on less than 2 dollars a day.
In Sierra Leone, BYAI’s support to smallholder farmers in communities surrounding church-owned land is a critical part of the strategy.
The conference helps farmers with seed, tillage and harvesting. In return, farmers support activities on church-run farms, helping to plant, weed and scare away birds.
“There is a community goal to increase household income, so when we plow their land, we provide them with seeds and help them harvest. All the rice and profits from these farms go 100% to the farmer groups at the community level,” Lakoh said. “We needed to ensure that the design is such that there is a symbiotic relationship between the community and the conference. This way you actually get ownership of the project at the community level and ownership at the conference level. »
Lorraine Charinda, a Zimbabwean missionary and project coordinator, leads the daily activities funded by the initiative on church-owned farms during the annual UMC conference in northern Katanga, Democratic Republic of Congo.
Charinda, whose professional background is in agribusiness and agricultural economics, said the grant they received is used to grow seeds for food crops including soybeans and maize. Maize is a staple in the southeast of Haut-Lomami province, where she is based in the capital, Kamina.
The soybeans and corn seeds they grow, she says, are adapted to local soil types and the province’s tropical climate. They should provide better yields at a lower cost than expensive imported varieties.
As part of the first phase of the project, seed was produced on one of the church’s 12 farms, which range in size from 250 to 1,000 hectares (600 to 2,400 acres).
In the second phase, which began on June 1, the seeds are cleaned, graded and packaged for sale to surrounding communities.
It will also be distributed to four other church farms to grow crops on. Upon completion of the project, they plan to grow crops and seeds of corn, soybeans and rice on the 12 conference farms, located in four districts.
Surrounding communities will benefit from cheaper inputs for their own crops and jobs on church-run farms.
The missionary said she and her colleagues were inspired for their work by the story of the diet of the 5,000 people. Like the five loaves and two fishes, the project started with something small but is working to expand into something much bigger.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, how old you are, what gender you are, but everyone will benefit eventually,” Charinda told CT.
For Fernandes, general secretary of Global Ministries, sustainability and local ownership of projects in Africa are the guiding principles of the initiative which moves away from the “colonial approach” of how the church carried out its mission in the past.
“We help them, but the program technically belongs to the local conferences,” he said. “The word we often use is ‘mutuality in mission.’ How do we both learn from each other?