Made in Congo
“A child that has just learned to crawl wants to learn to walk. We know the project will end in August 2019, but we want to continue what we have started with you.” Those were the carefully chosen words of Jean-Paul, president of the Makaya-Makaya farmer group which is located in Congo’s fertile Bouenza region. Group members, sitting in the generous shade of a spreading mango tree, offered silent nods of approval.
The Makaya-Makaya group have been selling their prized local yellow beans — a smaller version of the well-known butter beans — to the World Food Programme (WFP), since 2017. Thanks to an innovative program involving the Ministry of Agriculture, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the European Union, the beans are distributed to local schools where they are cooked and served to children as a nutritious meal.
During my first visit here 18 months ago, the farmers were reluctant to speak with me. At the time, the farmers I met with seemed weary of city people and their big promises. Hence, the project got off to a slow start. WFP initially had a hard time purchasing the amount of beans needed for school meals, it was as though the farmers did not believe we would actually pay them. But now, after years of working together, farmers have began delivering an ever-increasing quantities of beans. In a country known for exporting oil, such agricultural prowess is promising.
Family farmers and a tide of food imports
It’s estimated that Congo imports 75 to 80 percent of its food, running up a staggering import bill that exceeded a billion US dollars in 2017 alone. These imports are a missed opportunity for Congo, a country blessed with abundant fertile land and a favorable climate. Some large-scale farming companies have recently begun to operate in Congo, but we believe that family farmers can also contribute.
“There are plenty of beans here.”
Our bean project supports 200 small farmers in Bouenza. WFP provides seeds, new knowledge to agricultural practices, and a market for farmers. WFP has also guided farmers on how to obtain legal status and open bank accounts.
The farmers I met emphasized how important it is to pay them promptly. “There are plenty of beans here,” says Eugenie, head of the ‘Femme Debout’ group. Her house is packed to the rafters with containers of all types — bags, buckets, jugs — full to the brim with green and white beans, ready to be taken to market. Just outside, heaps of beans in their husks are drying on tarps. Eugenie points out the small purple bean people call faute à mari, ‘the husband’s fault’, because they are a less preferred and cheaper variety. “If you pay us quickly, you will see that you can buy even more from us,” she tells me.
WFP will now be buying much more from Congo’s farmers. We’re now in the process of purchasing 200 metric tonnes of beans- a record amount. We hope, in time, to phase out bean imports entirely for our programs, and rely on family farmers instead. We also hope to work with farmers so that they sell us other crops, including cassava, Congo’s main staple. Family farmers can help feed Congo, too.