Bernard Njonga gingerly steers his Toyota Land Cruiser through the evening rush hour traffic in Yaoundé, the capital of the West African nation of Cameroon. The heat is oppressive and Njonga, who hasn't been able to figure out how the air-conditioning works yet, has his windows rolled down.
Suddenly someone knocks on the car door, giving Njonga a start. A stranger stands at his window, sticks his arm into the car and shakes Njonga's hand, thanking him profusely for his courage and for everything he has done -- for Cameroon and for its farmers. Njonga smiles awkwardly. There have been many changes in his life recently.
Once an ordinary official at a farmers' association, he now makes television appearances and gives radio interviews and there are always a few men standing outside his office. Every time Njonga leaves and enters the office they reach for their mobile phones to report to their bosses. Njonga is convinced that the men work for the government. He greeted them once, just to see what would happen, but got no response.
Njonga has earned the gratitude of strangers and attracted the government's attention because he triumphed over adversaries many believed were invincible. His biggest adversary was the country's President Paul Biya who has ruled Cameroon for the past 25 years. Biya is essentially a dictator who allows the country's parliament to exist as his personal applause machine.
Njonga forced the president to fire an allegedly corrupt minister. This alone was a sensation in Cameroon -- a non-politician, a civilian, changing the composition of the cabinet. For Cameroonians it was unheard-of.
But more significant than the fact that it could happen was how it happened -- not through intrigues or political action, but through public pressure and protests by a people that suddenly discovered some of its power and took to the streets. Njonga had unintentionally created Cameroon's first extraparliamentary opposition, in fact, the first true opposition in the country.
Njonga's second adversary was Europe, the world's biggest economic power, which uses Africa as a place to dump its garbage and other unwanted products. Njonga fought to make sure that this could no longer happen in Cameroon. This too was a spectacular victory, a real triumph. It catapulted Njonga, an educated farmer, from the narrow world of Cameroon onto the stage of international politics. In his own country, he is now seen as an expert on the consequences of globalization. He showed his fellow Africans how to defend themselves against a system of global trade in which they usually end up the losers. He now travels to places like Sao Paulo and Hong Kong to attend conferences on the consequences of growth and the limits of globalization.
Njonga's rise to prominence began with a campaign against European chicken legs. The legs were being sold in the markets in cities and villages, and their mere existence was driving Cameroonian farmers to despair, because the imported poultry was ruining their business, making it virtually impossible for the farmers to sell their own chickens.
The legs were imported from abroad and sold in Cameroon at dumping prices. One kilo went for about 800 West African francs, or €1.20. The domestic chickens, which were only sold live, were twice as expensive by the kilo. The farmers had good reason to be upset.
Many of them had invested in their chicken farms in recent years. They had taken out loans and built coops, hoping to benefit from structural change in Cameroon. Families were steadily moving from rural to urban areas, searching for work and a better life. They left behind their farms and the ability to feed themselves with the grain, milk and meat they had produced. Commercial chicken farms were developed to help meet the increased demand brought about by growing urban populations.
Fridolin Mvogo is one of these farmers, but instead of only investing in chicken coops and structural change, he invested in globalization. He believed in going with the times, said goodbye to the common chicken and, together with a neighbor, bought 2,000 brand-name chickens, bred and genetically optimized by global breeding companies.
These animals are only remotely related to the ordinary backyard chicken. Mvogo's "Hybro" brand chickens are highly efficient feed conversion machines that convert 1.65 kilograms of feed into one kilogram of body tissue. They even outperform pigs. It takes them only 35 days to grow to slaughter size and their meat is juicy. From the perspective of a farmer who wants to produce as much meat as possible in as short a time as possible, the brand-name chicken is superior to the common chicken in every respect.
When Mvogo decided to invest in these high-performance chickens a few years ago, chicken legs were already being sold in Cameroon. They had started appearing on Yaounde's markets, but there weren't enough of them to keep Mvogo awake at night. He was convinced that they would disappear sooner or later. But they didn't.
In fact, their numbers increased from year to year, primarily because of the efforts of a company that had discovered Cameroon as an easily accessible and unsaturated market for cheap chicken parts. The name of the company, headquartered in the Dutch town of Dordrecht, is Kühne & Heitz. Its employees were responsible for about 70 percent of Cameroon's poultry imports. This was a good business for Cameroon's meat dealers, but a disaster for Mvogo. Realizing that he couldn't sell his chickens, he, like many other farmers, called up Njonga, the General Secretary of the Cameroonian farmers' association SAILD. They wanted Njonga to get rid of the foreign chicken legs and they didnt care how he did it.
The farmers had no idea what they were asking Njonga to do. Not only was he up against a company in faraway Holland, but he was also dealing with consumers, who set a disastrous chain reaction in motion that begins in European and American supermarkets and ends in the markets of Cameroon.
Taking on the Global Market
It is an uninterrupted popular referendum, a global plebiscite that takes place in the world's supermarket coolers. With each product they pull off the shelves, consumers determine the production and living conditions of chickens, turkeys and geese, as well as the marketing of their meat in a networked world. The object of consumer desire in Europe, the United States and all other affluent countries is the breast fillet, free of bones and low in fat. The remainder of the animal is practically unsellable in these industrialized countries.
Seeking to satisfy consumer desires, poultry breeders create strains with giant breasts. This sector of the global poultry market is dominated by just three companies. One of them, Aviagen, owns the Wesjohann chicken farming dynasty in the German state of Lower Saxony. Its model, "Ross 708," comes complete with a detailed manual, which explains how the complicated interactions among light, air, feed and water must be managed in coops, which are sealed off from the outside world, to get the optimal performance out of a chicken.
Once one of these chickens is ready for slaughter, it is killed, cut into pieces, packaged and sold, and its limbs are then shipped around the world. Its feet end up in Thailand, the innards in the former Soviet Union, the wings in China and the legs in Japan, Mexico -- and Africa.
The consumer's aversion to buying whole chickens and cutting them up themselves keeps a giant cycle of trade moving. Chicken farms in the European Union alone ship 225,000 tons of chicken parts each year to the former Soviet Union, 144,000 tons to Africa, 170,000 tons to the Middle East and 50,000 tons to the Far East.
The price at which the unwanted European meat is sold in the target country is determined not so much by production costs in the countries where it is produced as by the costs of disposal when it cannot be sold. In most cases, the producer has already earned his profit with the sale of the breast fillets, so that the rest of the bird can be sold at a price sufficient to cover costs. As a result, a kilo of meat can be shipped for €0.80 and sold -- thousands of kilometers from the country of origin -- for €1.20.
In Cameroon, Njonga was being asked to stop this invasion of the chicken legs. But how? Cameroonians weren't exactly being forced to buy the imported meat.
Njonga needed an argument, a fact, anything that would deprive the imported chicken of its competitive advantage. He also needed an adversary. He wanted to emotionalize the debate, achieve a ban on chicken imports and, most of all, send a signal for Cameroon and the whole of Africa.
Njonga was tired of Africans being seen as constant victims, not only abroad but amongst themselves. Njonga wanted to prove that the allocation of roles in the globalized world is not some god-given decree, and that it is possible to change circumstances.
But it would have been impossible to do any of this alone. He needed helpers he could trust. He chose three people: Yvonne Takang, young, and ambitious; Bertrand Djami, a former auto mechanic and now the editor-in-chief of Farmers' Voice; and Jacob Kotcho, also ambitious but more levelheaded than Takang. All three worked for SAILD, the farmers' association. And all three moved to ACDIC, a sister organization founded by Njonga to make his campaign a success.
The acronym ACDIC stands for the French phrase Association Citoyenne de Défense des Intérêts Collectifs, or "Citizens' Association for the Defense of Collective Interests." It was a name Njonga found compelling. The inexperienced team's next step was to mobilize the people.
They knew that the customs office had the information they needed about their adversaries, and they also knew that this was classified information and they knew the name of the man was in charge of protecting the files. Njonga sent an attractive, sexy woman, a friend of Takang, to see the man. She told the customs officer that she needed the information for a cousin who was studying economics abroad. The customs agent told the woman that he might be able to help, but that he wanted to get to know her better first.
Then Djami, editor-in-chief of Farmers' Voice, embarked on a second attempt. He lived near the harbor in Douala, the country's commercial capital, and knew a few customs agents. He talked to one of them in a bar. The man responded: Perhaps I can help. But you'll have to pay first.
The four activists had to ask themselves if they could do this. Was it acceptable to expose a corrupt system through corruption?
Njonga's response: "Yes. Those who are too moralistic achieve nothing, at least not in Cameroon." Njonga paid €7,000 for the lists, which were handed over at night in a car. The money came from the farmers' association.
The four now knew the names of the suppliers abroad and the buyers in Cameroon. They could also prove that there was corruption in the Ministry of Animal Husbandry, and they recognized that the corrupt officials were either amateurs or extremely sure of themselves. When they searched the import certificates under country of origin, they found the entry "High Seas."
In an effort to ruin the reputation of the imported meat, Njonga had 200 chicken legs inspected by the Centre Pasteur in Cameroon. This would be the next, logical step in Germany, but not in Cameroon, where private individuals are not responsible for inspecting food products nationwide. This explains why the study disappeared shortly before completion, so that Njonga had to make do with an abridged version he managed to obtain from an employee at the institute. According to the report, 83.5 percent of the chicken legs were no longer suitable for human consumption. This was the fault of merchants who had transported the frozen meat around the country without refrigerating it.
Njonga was overjoyed. He had what he needed. It was time to launch his campaign, and he was determined to make a big splash.
He had flyers printed up depicting skulls and next to them the warning, printed in red: "Mortal Danger!" Below was a picture of chicken legs. The country's chicken importers were not amused, especially not the influential ones, men like Emmanuel Nana.
Campaigning Against the 'Chickens of Death'
Nana is bald, corpulent and given to vague statements. He describes himself as someone involved in both the import and export businesses. It is said that he owns a café that he often frequents, owns the block where the café is and owns much of the neighborhood surrounding the block.
When asked about the poultry trade, Nana says: "A good business!" and stares dolefully into his glass of tea.
According to Nana, he imported several thousands tons of frozen chicken legs. Like many other importers, he threatened Njonga and argued with him. He says that he tried to convince Njonga to agree to a compromise, a gradual reduction of imports. "That way," says Nana, "everyone would have won." Njonga would still have been the farmers' savior, the government would have protected the people and the importers would have been able to continue doing business for a few more years.
But, says Nana, Njonga never wanted to discuss these things and was only interested in salmonella, the health of the people and chickens of death. Nana snorts contemptuously. Chickens of death, he says under his breath.
Has he ever hired thugs to beat up Njonga? "No," he responds, "I am a businessman, not a criminal."
The months of the campaign are nothing but a hazy memory for Njonga, a seemingly endless succession of short nights, villages, presentations, questions and answers. But his efforts paid off. Hundreds attended his meetings, even in remote locations, and they would often last until deep into the night. Everyone had something to say.
The debates were heated, because these evenings were not just about chickens, but about the ability to be heard -- by the government, the importers, the exporters and Europe. They were about the opportunity to change society, at least when it came to one issue. They were about democracy.
Njonga organized demonstrations and protest marches. The media took up the story, and even the government-owned press was unable to ignore the campaign. In interviews, Njonga denounced the machinations of the importers and corruption in the Ministry of Animal Husbandry, but he never criticized the president. It was a smart move.
There were men and women who wanted Njonga to censure the government. They wanted more than a Cameroon free of European chicken legs. Instead, they wanted a new Cameroon and they sought to use ACDIC as their tool. But Njonga, careful not to incite a rebellion, refused to comply. He had other goals. He wanted his campaign to be a general course in democracy for Cameroonian society, one that would transform the country into a debating club.
And that was exactly what happened. The president left him alone, because he too stood to benefit from Njonga's campaign by portraying himself as a liberal and a true democrat.
The debate over the pros and cons of imported chicken legs soon spread throughout the country, to the parliament, the streets, the markets, even to weddings and funerals. No one could avoid the issue. Everyone had an opinion, and the majority made it clear that it no longer wanted foreign chicken legs in Cameroon.
In the end the president added his opinion to the mix. Biya condemned the machinations of the importers, doubled the duties on imported poultry, waived the sales tax local farmers had paid on their chickens and added it to the new import duties. As a result, the imported meat became as expensive as the local meat. The president also fired the Minister of Animal Husbandry.
These steps were enough to turn the tide, with the market economy taking care of the rest. The dealers were left with their inventories of chickens, the importers gave up and the import business collapsed. Today Cameroon is virtually free of chicken legs, and whole, live chickens -- the ones that do not require a cold chain -- are being sold in the markets once again.
Njonga has won his fight. With only a handful of helpers, he achieved something that is normally reserved for nations: to shut down a national market and immunize it against globalization. ACDIC has also won. It now has new members and new targets -- tomatoes, onions and rice, imported and unnecessary, as Njonga believes. The tenor of the new campaign is that Cameroon can take care of itself. Not it's time for another success story -- for Njonga, for Cameroon and for Africa. Whether it will happen remains uncertain, because the market operates under its own laws, an experience Njonga has also made.
Kühne & Heitz, the former main importer of poultry into Cameroon, now ships fish to the country. The chicken legs have ended up in Ghana, where the flood of imported legs threatens the livelihood of both domestic chicken farmers and beef farmers, whose customers are choosing cheap, imported chicken over more expensive, local beef. Njonga has already visited the cattle farmers to help them organize their resistance movement, and farmers in nearby Congo are also interested in his expertise.
Chickens are a luxury item in Cameroon once again, as costly as they were before the crisis. Consumers are irate. The chicken farmers are complaining that, like Fridolin Mvogo, they are now dependent on brand-name chickens.
Mvogo is having trouble jumpstarting his production once again, because these chickens are now a scarce and expensive commodity. Demand for the chickens far outpaces supply at the country's hatcheries. Mvogo must be patient. He has no alternative, because he wants what everyone else wants: to be one of globalization's winners one day.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan