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About ten miles north of Korhogo, the fourth biggest city in Côte d’Ivoire, my Helen Keller Intl colleagues and I spot a small, weathered sign for Zienkolo. We turn off the main road onto a rugged red dirt track that leads through cotton fields and scraggly brush to a village of less than 700 people. We are here to visit a community garden that has flourished with the help of Helen Keller’s technical training and educational outreach.

Our arrival is later than anticipated — just past eleven a.m. This is the hour when most of the women who tend the plots go home to prepare lunch. Still, we find a few women whose work keeps them longer in the fields. They are busy watering heads of cabbage and pulling sweet potatoes out of the ground.

We speak with three of them: Fatoumata Soro, Mariam Tio, and Mawa Soro.

Fatoumata Soro, Mariam Tio, and Mawa Soro
From left to right, Mariam Tio, Mawa Soro, and Fatoumata Soro show off their community garden.

Fatoumata is the president of the women’s association that revived a dilapidated garden here in 2002, after rebel groups wrested control of parts of the North, including Korhogo, from the Ivorian government. The conflict and political instability lasted for nearly a decade. In the meantime, access to food and commodities was severely impacted. So, Fatoumata and some 65 other women in Zienkolo started their own garden plots to provide for their families. Whereas before, the women only irregularly cultivated grains, now they could grow cabbage, lettuce, onions, carrots, zucchinis, and cucumbers.

Says Mariam, a member of the founding group, “When I come to work in the community garden I feel joyful because I know that what I am doing will give me something in return. I get food for home and surplus to sell. I use some of the profits for my family and give some to the women’s association to improve the garden.”

Small Additions Make a Big Difference

The gardeners got a boost in 2017, when Helen Keller approached them with an opportunity. Helen Keller offered training and support to help them improve their families’ diets and nutrition.

Malnutrition is a pressing problem in northern Cote d’Ivoire, where almost half of the population lives in poverty. The issue is particularly pronounced in the district of Savanes, where Zienkolo is located. Too often, women cannot afford the travel or expense associated with accessing diverse and nutritious foods. They also simply haven’t learned how consuming a diverse diet can make the difference in their families’ lives.

Help families improve their nutrition

That’s why Helen Keller started a healthy nutrition program in Southeast Asia and West and East Africa. We call it Enhanced Homestead Food Production. The program integrates good agricultural practices, training, education about nutrition and hygiene, and women’s empowerment. It takes more than simply a green thumb and hardy seeds to grow healthy food. It takes knowledge of the different food groups and their benefits, an understanding of hygiene practices that prevent disease, and the literacy and accountancy skills to confidently manage a bank account. Implementing these elements in tandem has proven a highly effective way to increase women’s capacity to produce and prepare nourishing food for their children. But it doesn’t do just that — it increases their confidence as well.

Mariam Tio inspecting her plot of cabbage
Mariam Tio inspects her plot of cabbage.

A few elements of Helen Keller’s cross-cutting approach:

  • Supplying seeds with much needed micronutrients to build immune systems and good health, that can be grown during multiple seasons and produce fruit and vegetables for home cooking and for sale
  • Distributing fertilizer and crop protection products, and training gardeners how to use them in environmentally sustainable ways
  • Holding culinary demonstrations that provide step-by-step instructions for preparing nutritious meals from produce, livestock, and market-bought foods
  • Training community-based literacy instructors and organizing literacy classes (in which 41 women from Zienkolo have participated thus far)
  • Providing financial aid to gardening groups so that they become established and open bank accounts in microfinance institutions, allowing them to purchase items like seeds

Custom-made Programming

While the basic healthy nutrition program tenets are the same across sites, from Bangladesh to Mozambique to Cote d’Ivoire, we tailor programming to ensure that our support meets each community’s specific needs. So, for example, in Zienkolo, we proposed combining the individual garden plots into one communal plot of about six acres, and we supplied a perimeter fence to keep stray animals out. This and other program innovations have markedly increased the Zienkolo group’s productivity and profit.

Fatoumata standing in the shared garden
Fatoumata Soro, president of the women’s association that revived the garden, which now grows abundant with fruit and vegetables.

Says Fatoumata, “Since we started the shared garden, we saw the difference in quantity and quality, especially with the new techniques that we learned. Now that we are together, it’s permitted us to have more money, to feed our children, to not always have to ask for money from our husbands.”

These days, the community garden flourishes year-round — even during the dry season — with a wealth of different crops. The women grow not only cabbage, lettuce, onions, carrots, zucchini, and cucumbers, but also green beans, tomatoes, chilis, peppers, eggplant, okra, orange-fleshed sweet potato, corn, bananas, cassava, and papaya.

A Simple Approach that Saves Lives

We only have time for a short tour of the community garden before we must head back to town.

So, I am left with an important question. How am I going to find a unique angle for this story, when I’ve barely gotten to know these women and when they’ve said much the same thing as I’ve heard in gardens that I’ve visited in Mozambique, Senegal, and Vietnam?

Then I realize that the sameness is the story; the healthy nutrition program model consistently works to improve lives. Helen Keller shares supplies, training and education, and community members build something powerful and lasting. They earn more money, gain more control over their own lives, and improve their children’s health.

As we are leaving, the women hand us a huge sack of papayas, cassavas, cucumbers, and sweet potatoes. We protest that these fruits and vegetables are for the children, but the women insist. Mawa says, “By the grace of God, we have more than enough to give.” And so we gratefully accept the women’s bounty, knowing that it is a gift that feeds us all.

Helen Keller Intl’s healthy nutrition program in northern Cote d’Ivoire is generously supported by Latter-day Saint Charities.

A portrait of Ruth Fertig

Ruth Fertig is Helen Keller Intl’s Multimedia Content Producer. She has had the pleasure and the privilege to document the impact of Helen Keller Intl’s work across three continents. In her travels to Vietnam, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, and Mozambique, she has been endlessly inspired by her dedicated colleagues and the people and communities they serve. She is honored to convey their stories and experiences to Helen Keller supporters far and wide. Ruth has worked with Helen Keller since 2018 and is based in New York City.