Seeds of change
New investors, family farmers and the changing face of agriculture in Congo
Call it a paradox. The Republic of Congo, a central African nation of 4 million, is blessed with abundant land, plenty of rain and sunshine, and relatively good infrastructure. Yet the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates the nation relies on imports for 80 per cent of its food. Every year, Congo spends more than a billion US dollars in food imports — a large outlay for resources that could be produced domestically.
When food prices surged worldwide in 2007–2008, authorities were keen to boost local production and limit reliance on volatile international markets. Since then, Congo’s government has attracted investors with the capital and know-how to build the intensive agriculture that could stimulate domestic food supply. As in other African nations, investors were provided with access to land with long-term concessions.
A commercial farming boom in Congo
Today, a dozen years later, a contingent of commercial farming companies are established and operational. In the wide Niari and Loudima river valleys of southern Congo, tractors and combine harvesters are no longer a curiosity. Rain-fed rice, maize and other crops now grow on seemingly endless, treeless landscapes that look a lot like Kansas. Irrigation systems, hangars and silos have been built by people who have come from from all over the world — Europe, China and South Africa — to invest in farming. As these new investments pay off, a substantial increase in food production is taking place.
Farming in Congo is no quick win: it takes years to turn a profit, and some of the people who came to the country hoping for a quick buck were disappointed. Access to inputs is a challenge, and demand has been soft because of the country’s economic crisis. But make no mistake, these new actors are changing the face of Congo’s agriculture.
But what about the smallholders?
The rise of large-scale commercial farming is boosting production, while also raising questions about the future of Congo’s food systems.
First of all, the cost of land is rising in the areas where commercial farms have set up — an indicator of an agricultural boom, with impacts for local communities who also need land to grow subsistence crops.
Secondly, the farming techniques that commercial farms use involve liberal use of diesel fuel and chemicals in order to reach high yields. The new farms have replaced wooded savannas teeming with life with less diverse ecosystems.
Finally, because market signals tell them to grow grain for animal feed and brewing, commercial farms have focused on those cash crops rather than producing quality, nutritious foods for people.
The way ahead for a more food secure Congo
According to UNICEF, chronic malnutrition affects 21% of children in Congo. How could the budding commercial farming sector contribute to enhancing food and nutrition in the country?
Grow food, in addition to feed. The resources put into farming should hopefully extend to staple food crops. But that won’t happen unless there is a solvent market. Government and partners could play a part in creating a stable market for food crops through food procurement for schools, hospitals and other public institutions. Now that production is increasing, the next stage will be investments in processing. The opportunity to deliver improved nutrition to the population through fortification of cassava and other processed products should not be missed.
Bring commercial and traditional sectors together through outgrower schemes. Commercial farmers and family farmers sign a contract, whereby family farmers receive inputs, extension services and credit from farming companies; at harvest they sell them their produce. This allows smallholders to participate in the growth of the rising commercial sector. Such outgrower schemes have been implemented at scale in Nigeria for rice farming, an initiative recognized for its positive social impacts.
Build smallholder capacities. Pro-smallholder projects that strengthen their capacities to access markets could fill some of the gaps left by commercial farmers. Initiatives to support smallholders should be taken to scale, as in the case of the EU-funded program to support bean farmers in the region of Bouenza. The project has shown that farmer groups are able to produce commercial surpluses and enter formal markets. They should be given a chance to contribute to making Congo more food secure.