The field of rice that Francis Paramina has just harvested just outside the village of Paoua in north-western Central African Republic, may not look too impressive, but it could signify a crucial turning point in the life of this 30 year old farmer.
The small plot he has farmed measures about 100 metres by 30 metres, a third of a hectare. The rice was harvested last month and new shoots have grown along with grass.
This is the first time Francis has cultivated any crops since 2006 when a conflict between rebels and government forces around Paoua drove he and his family away from his home in the village of Kounhoro. 'My house was burned and looted during the fight between the rebels and the army,' he said. 'We lost everything; our tools, our seeds, all our possessions. We were left with nothing, not even the possibility to farm.'
Francis Paramina grew the rice with a group of 15 other people. They harvested seven bags a total of 565 kilogrammes. 'We have a good water supply here, but I'm still surprised by how well the rice grew.'
The unprocessed rice, known as paddy rice will sell for up to 350 francs a kilogramme (around €0.50). Once it is dehusked it will fetch perhaps 500 francs (€0.70) 'Even with 16 of us,' said Francis, 'we will have enough to eat and will make good money. I will invest in animals, perhaps a pig or some chickens.'
It is the first time Francis and the group he belongs to has grown rice. This is one of the most fertile parts of the country and at one point was known as the breadbasket of CAR. The cultivation of rice has been so successful that in the next planting season they will plant two hectares of rice, potentially multiplying the yield and eventual profits by six times. In the meantime, they will experiment with other crops including beans and a variety of vegetables.
It is a new departure for this community which is trying to rebuild following three years of insecurity. The village chief, Elie Feninye believes the success of the rice growing experiment will encourage people to once again take up agriculture.
'Many people in this area are still afraid to return to live in their houses. The people of Kounhoro come to their houses during the day, but then hide in the bush at night for fear of being caught up in any fighting.'
Along the road between Bossoanga and Paoua, there are numerous deserted villages. Houses scarred by gunshots remain empty, their contents looted long ago. Road blocks manned by rebel groups are to be found at the entrance and exit of most of these villages; as long as the peace agreement signed between the rebels and government holds, there should be no renewed fighting.
Francis Paramina and his group have been encouraged to start planting crops again as part of a €1.2million project financed by the European Commission Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO) and implemented by the NGO Première Urgence. More than 7000 farming families in the area are benefitting.
According to Muriel Cornelis, the head of the ECHO office in CAR's capital, Bangui, the project will help people to return to a normal life. 'Many of these communities have relied on food aid provided by the international community. Now, some farmers are able to grow enough food to feed their families and in the future if there is no insecurity and the infrastructure of the country improves they will be able live independent and productive lives.'
Farmers like Francis Paramina are optimistic that if the peace holds they will be able to increase the variety and amount of produce they grow, produce that will secure their livelihood but also help in the wider reconstruction of a country still recovering from conflict.