The DR Congo government has decided to create 20 agro-industrial parks to tap the country’s huge agricultural potential and to address the challenge of food security. The challenge is a difficult one.
According to the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, the DRC could be the food basket of Africa and even of other parts of the world with a potential to feed 3 billion people. The country boasts from 80 million hectares of arable land, most of it untapped, which offer opportunities for wide range of cultures, owing to the diversity of climates and the abundant rainfall which allow two crops per year. In addition, the Rd Congo provides enough pasture for at least 40 million heads of cattle and its rivers and lakes represent a potential of 700,000 tons of fish, says the Minister of Agriculture Jean-Chrysostome Vahamwiti.
But the sad reality, recognized the Minister in front of officials from the European Union and from the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group, NGOs and businessmen at a conference organised during the first quarter 2014 at the ACP headquarters in Brussels is that since independence, the per capita food production has gone down by nearly two thirds and the trend is even worse for livestock products. Cassava yields for instance are twice lower than the Central African average and the plantain yield is six times lower than the regional average. At independence, the country was a net exporter of food, whereas according to government forecasts, in 2014, food imports will rise up to US $ 1.5 billion as against 200 m. only for agricultural exports. And the gap is widening. The country is increasingly relying on foreign supplies to feed its population, although 70 percent of the population is involved in farming activities.
It is against this background that the government launched this year a programme aiming at the creation of 20 agro-industrial parks to address the national food security challenge, explained Jean-Chrystostome Vahamwiti who invited European and other agribusinesses to join the experience and develop farms in this framework. The parks are the main axis of the 2013-2020 Agricultural Investment National Plan for which a US $ 6 billion budget has been earmarked. The strategy was designed by the South African consultant Mozfood & Energy Ltd which has established a list of the 20 agro-industrial parks whose surface reaches in most cases dozens of thousands hectares including one in Bumba (Equator province) whose size tops at 110,000 ha. In addition, Mozfood has made a business plan for each one. Four pilot farms were selected: one in the Ruzizi plain of South Kivu, another in the Maniema province and two others in the Bandundu province. All these parks have a Special Economic Zone status and will be managed as public private project under a minimum ten years lease. According to the government, there will be a fair share of the land for commercial exploitation and for local communities. These parks are the main axis of the 2013-2020 Agricultural Investment National Plan for which a US $ 6 billion budget has been earmarked.
Mozfood has already set production targets of 140,000 t of maize, 80, 000 t of soya and 300,000 t of cassava for the 75 000 ha Bukangalonzo pilot farm in Bandundu, which should start producing. Several partners are already identified such as Caterpillar, Massey Ferguson, Michigan Equipment Company Tractors and the South African fertilizers producer Triomf.
The entire scheme will be managed by the SociÈtÈ des Parcs Agro-industriels (SOPAGRI), which is supposed to bring together private investors, multilateral institutions and small farmers. It aims at developing commercial farms of 1,000 ha in average within the parks, at supporting the nearby local farmers and at develop capital intensive cooperatives. SOPAGRI is supposed to distribute seeds, fertilizers and equipments to the local producers and offer services such as the storage of the food products. The company is also considering to build processing factories and commercialisation networks, build irrigation schemes, rent equipments, supply spare-parts and to organise credit for the farmers.
In order to attract investors, the government offers incentives including tax holidays and exonerations on import duties for inputs and equipments. But it also admits the need to improve the legal framework for land ownership. This matter is probably the most sensitive for foreign investors since Articles 16 of the new Agricultural law which was promulgated in December 2011 says that owners of agricultural concession must be Congolese citizens or legal entities which must be at least 51 percent owned by the Congolese state or by Congolese
citizens. The legislation was criticized by the Fèdèration des entreprises congolaises (FEB) which includes representatives of a number of Belgian agribusiness firms who warned that such law will inhibit future private investment in the country. Confronted again with those
critics, the Congolese minister admitted that Article 16 posed problems but he said that the law will be changed in order to accommodate foreign investors. Another problem is overlapping of community land and commercial farms but also of farm land with oil, forest and mining concessions.
A main challenge is competitiveness. The country is landlocked and lacks infrastructures, which makes it difficult for Katanguese farmers for instance to compete with their Zambian neighbours who have been exporting maize to the DRC for the last three decades. Even if land ownership and land use problems are solved, past experiences in the region show that even skilled farmers from abroad may be faced with difficulties in developing projects. Last February, the South African press reported that the 28 farmers who had settled in 2011 in the Niari Valley of the neighbouring republic of Congo were facing all sort of problems and were highly indebted. Accordingly, the first two harvests did not meet expectations due to various factors, such as the worst drought in 37 years, infestation by insects unknown to them, and management problems.
Sceptics also highlight that the proposed model may which relies on GMO seeds and mechanized agriculture may create too much dependence and indebtness for Congolese farmers. The 500,000 members strong small farmers association Confèdèration nationale des producteurs agricoles du Congo (Conapac) is concerned that the initiative may transform peasants in mere employees of the future large estates. Conapac’s chairman, Mathusalem Paluku Mivimba fears that the agro-industrial parks programme may provoke massive displacement of peasants. He also considers that there should be more reflection on the kind of agricultural model which is promoted. In his opinion, de facto, cashcrops such as tea, coffee, cocoa and palmoil have better chances to be developed than food staples. If one wants to encourage food security, small farmers should rather be empowered to process their products, says the Conapac. There are also fears among peasant associations and communities that the agro-industrial parks may pose a land grabbing threat and accelerate the process of acquisition by the national elite including former ministers and army generals of large plots of land which has already started.