Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Elliott Wright: Food Production as a Strategy for Sustaining the African Church

Today's post is by Rev. Elliott Wright. Wright has written for and about Global Ministries for half a century and was for 20 years its public information officer. He is a United Methodist elder of the Tennessee-Western Kentucky Annual Conference. This post is part of an occasional series on food and mission.

Pair “mission” and “food,” and one set of resulting images will include church food pantries and soup kitchens geared toward feeding the poor in response to biblical mandates, notably Mathew 25. While retaining the importance of the act of feeding the physically hungry and sharing table fellowship, another understanding of the importance of food to mission is emerging in Africa today. This is the linking of the humanitarian goals of food security with an economic strategy for sustaining the work of the church in mission on the continent. This brave effort arose from the vison of and bears the name of the late United Methodist Bishop John Yambasu of Sierra Leone. The Yambasu Agriculture Initiative (YAI) is an Africa-rooted mission enterprise in collaboration the General Board of Global Ministries.

Food Production as Church/Mission Economic Strategy
Agriculture was basic to the Methodist and other Wesleyan missionary presence in Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As congregations were planted, so were fields— of grain and cassava— in central and southern Africa and parts of West Africa, often on huge tracks of land given to mission agencies and churches by tribes or colonial powers—private or governmental. Farms were endemic to such notable mission stations as Camphor in Liberia, Cambine in Mozambique, Quessua in Angola, and hectare after hectare, many hosting small holder farms, in Zimbabwe. Provision of nourishment for the mission stations and their communities was the historic role of the church lands, with holdings passing from mission agencies to indigenous entities.

Today, Yambasu said in 2019, almost every rural United Methodist church in Africa has “access to vast land resources.” Unfortunately, much of the land, he reported, “has remained unutilized. Tragically, the church is fast losing huge portions of these lands to encroachers and wealthy people who use their wealth to challenge the church’s ownership.”[1]

Food Security and Church Sustainability
Yambasu’s eyes fixed upon the land as he searched for assets to address two contemporary challenges to African United Methodism: poverty/hunger and the need of financial resources to sustain the church in Africa. Some 278 million people in African experienced food shortage in 2021, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. While the church is growing in some areas, especially the French-speaking countries of central and West Africa, American mission money has for decades underwritten much of what is today African United Methodism. The possibility of this pattern of support continuing into the future was unlikely in Yambasu’ thinking, given the US membership decline and the dissention within the denomination.

The bishop called his idea a “therapeutic strategy”—commercial farming enterprises will “end poverty in the church, employment will be created, communities will be empowered and transformed and food security can be achieved.”[2]

At first brush, commercial farming as a “therapeutic strategy” for ending hunger and funding the church hints of religious communitarianism, which has a weak track record in the annals of both faith and economics. But there is a fundamental difference. The YAI is rooted not in communal living but in service to the community within and beyond the congregation.

He saw all of the 13 UMC episcopal areas in Africa taking part, and he was in a good position to lead the way. Bishop Yambasu was president of the United Methodist African College of Bishops, vice president of Global Ministries, and newly elected chancellor (chief ceremonial officer) of the United Methodist Africa University at the time of his death in an automobile accident on August 16, 2020. The university in Zimbabwe, whose chief operational officer is titled vice chancellor, opened in 1993 with two initial departments, theology and agricultural sciences.

The bishop set forth his therapeutic strategy in two papers, one in early 2018 at a gathering of African UMC leaders considering the theme “Visioning the United Methodist Church in the 21st Century,” and the second a year later in Johannesburg at an Africa Agricultural Summit jointly organized by the African bishops and Global Ministries.

Yambasu’s proposal gained traction with his colleague bishops, and one outcome of the Johannesburg summit was a plan for Global Ministries to provide grants for self-determined, sustainable pilot projects in the various conferences. Under the leadership of Roland Fernandes, Global Ministries’ directors made an initial special allocation of $3 million in the fall of 2020 for a grant pool and would in the spring of 2021 add another $3.5 million. The project was named for the bishop following his death. Thirteen grants in a dozen conferences were funded from the first allocation, and several new grants from the second allocation will be considered by Global Ministries at its board of directors’ meeting in October 2022.

Variety of Enterprises
The first YAI enterprises differ from place to place as determined by local or regional factors. Some are crop specific, such as maize and pigs, cassava and peanuts, and fish farming. Others concentrate on vegetables and fruit, general livestock, or chickens. One conference is developing high yield seeds. Another is putting its focus on increasing the capacity of 200 farmers in raising livestock. Some locales are cultivating inherited church land, while others are incorporating other acreage. Conferences in the following countries are involved to date: Angola, Mozambique, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe. Others are expected to join.

None of the pilots are yet mature enough to provide solid evidence of long-term contributions to either food security or church institutional financial stability. The first pilot was in Sierra Leone and enjoyed a first bountiful crop of rice in February 2022, most of its Global Ministries’ grant of $200,000 going for planting and harvesting equipment.[3]

Training is an essential component in the YAI ’s emphasis on sustainable agriculture. From early in the program, Global Ministries provided a technical advisor in the person of Dr. Kepifri Lakoh, who in August 2022 became director of the program, with a base in Sierra Leone. Lakoh holds a PhD in agribusiness and was for five years director of monitoring and evaluation of Global Ministries. A number of missionaries with academic and practical backgrounds in agriculture are involved in specific places, but most participants are new to agribusiness. In the autumn of 2022, the Initiative will sponsor three two-week training sessions relevant to the work for an estimated 80 conference staff and volunteers.

The success of YAI will depend on multiple factors including weather, markets, financial and social capital, and church commitment.  Bishop Yambasu was convinced that commercial farming can resolve poverty and provide a stable economic future for the United Methodist people of Africa and their churches. It is a bold vision, but one not outside the realm of faith reflected in Psalm 144’s images of barns filled with produce and fields with sheep, or the promise of no more hunger in Revelation 7:16.

[1] Yambasu, John. “The Church and Agriculture in Africa—A Call to Action,” address to Africa Agricultural Summit, Johannesburg, South Africa, January 13, 2019. Typescript, pages unnumbered.

[2] Ibid.

[3] As reported by Jusu, Phileas, “Bishop Yambasu Agricultural Initiative Harvests First Crop,” United Methodist News Service, February 22, 2022.

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