Congo's Underdeveloped Agriculture Sector

Published on 8th August 2016

Political discussions in and about the Congo continue to be off track. The crucial debate about how to feed the hungry is completely absent from the political agenda - from both the government and opposition sides. Once an exporter of food, the DRC now grows too little to meet even the basic nutritional needs of its citizens. Congolese are amongst the hungriest people on earth today. Food production increases at a slower annual rate (2%) than demographic growth (3%). Only ten percent of Congo’s 800,000 square kilometres of arable land (a surface area larger than France and the United Kingdom combined) is under cultivation.

Congo could feed over a billion people – or the equivalent of approximately the entire African continent. But the gap between potential and development in the agricultural sector is striking. Historically this wasn’t the case. Although achieved at an exorbitant social cost, the Belgian Congo could boast a number of real accomplishments in the agricultural sector.

- Agricultural exports represented 39% of total exports in the late 1950s, down to practically zero today.

- Congo grew more cotton than any other African country.

- It was the world’s leading exporter of palm oil following World War II.

- Unilever, the world’s third largest consumer goods company after Proctor & Gamble and Nestlé, owed much of its early success to the Lever Brothers’ palm oil concession in Bandundu Province. It was established in 1911 to provide the raw material for their soap making factories in England.

- The Yangambi agricultural research institute in the heart of the country’s tropical rainforest was a world-renowned centre of excellence in the 1950s.

- The production of quinine, the only known cure for malaria, is closely associated with the microclimate of the South Kivu highlands.

The productivity of food production has declined steadily since the early 1960s. This is the case for subsistence farming and cash crops. As Congolese agricultural capacity deteriorated, other countries have been revolutionizing their food production strategies and boosting productivity rates. It has, therefore, become cheaper to feed Kinshasa with imported rice (primarily from Thailand, Vietnam and India) than produce and transport it from the hinterland. The same can be said for Malaysian cooking oil or American chicken wings. Local production cannot compete with these cheap imports.

Reliance on imports is a major economic problem but it is an even greater social calamity because no other sector could put as many people to work as food production and processing.

Economic policies that encouraged capital accumulation through agricultural exploitation were abandoned after independence. They gave way to a lack of vision that continues today. The beginning of the downward spiral came with the wave of Mobutu nationalizations in 1973. The lootings of the early 1990s and the two wars that shattered lives and the economy from 1996 to 2001 had devastating effects on production and ranching. President Laurent-Désiré Kabila never really had the opportunity to promote agriculture because much of his time at the helm of the nation was devoted to the war effort - and making shady deals in the mining sector to pay for it. President Joseph Kabila has also focused on mining without encouraging the government or investors to give adequate attention to food production. There has also been insufficient investment in agricultural research and training. The misguided tax system privileges imports instead of local production. The inexorable disintegration of transport infrastructure and poor distribution networks exacerbate these problems.

As the country emerged from war, Congo’s international partners funded all kinds of state-building initiatives but they also neglected agriculture. With so many other urgencies to address, their focus was on reform of the security sector, economy and public finance, improved governance and rule of law and the physical rehabilitation of infrastructure. Some important donors such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the European Commission do however have specific projects targeting improved food security. Others, such as the Belgian Technical Cooperation fund initiatives that benefit farmers such as work on rehabilitating rural feeder roads. In the past decade, international partners have spent between $100 million and $150 million per year on agriculture. For reasons of comparison, the United Nations peacekeeping and stabilization operation in Congo (MONUSCO) costs $1.5 billion. 

President Joseph Kabila signed into law a new Agricultural Code in December 2011 (Loi portent principes fondamentaux relatifs à l’agriculture) which responded to a serious policy gap. Congo had lacked a comprehensive agricultural policy framework for several decades, just as it did in other sectors such as mining and forestry. In an attempt to address this policy vacuum, the Code sets outs general guidelines. Its stated purpose is to promote and increase agricultural production to ensure food security and rural development. Provisions apply to food production, training and research, taxation and customs, financing, marketing and environmental protection. It does not, however, apply to livestock, fisheries and aquaculture, which undermines its capacity to deal sufficiently with food security issues.

Application of the law is contingent upon two prerequisites. One is respect for the decentralisation process outlined in the Constitution. Agricultural policy, according to the law, must be implemented at the national, provincial and local levels, involving stakeholders from the government, civil society and the private sector. But decentralization has not been given adequate political attention and is on hold. This has direct negative consequences for the implementation of the agriculture law. The second problem pertains to the slow progress made in elaborating the law’s operational by-laws. They are needed to stipulate funding and taxation issues and rights and responsibilities of the different stakeholders. The general framework is not enough to meet targets without these by-laws.

Although the government signed the Maputo Declaration in 2003, it has devoted only between one and two percent of the national budget to the sector in recent years. The little money that is available in this envelope is largely spent on salaries in Kinshasa with minimal trickle down into the field. More than 95% of state-employed agronomists and veterinarians work in Kinshasa or provincial capitals. Like the forest and water sectors, agriculture is far from being a real priority for key decision makers in Congo today. The absence of government funding is one indicator. The fact that Parliament does not have a permanent agricultural commission is another.

On the institutional landscape, there is an overall lack of professionalism and capacity in terms of human resources and material. Government offices responsible for agricultural priorities are under-funded, under-staffed and in need of competent experts with up-to-date professional skills and vision. They also lack data management systems and basic equipment such as filing cabinets, copiers and computers, let alone Internet access.

An additional hurdle is the number of Ministries involved in managing the sector. The Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Rural Development, the Ministry of Environment Conservation, Water and Forests, the Ministry of Scientific and Technological Research and the Ministry of Women and the Family all share rural development and agricultural responsibilities. In theory, the Ministry of Planning coordinates the financing of these five ministries but is, in reality, overwhelmed with other urgencies. The problem here is that when priorities are supposed to be dealt with by multiple partners, responsibility essentially lies with none - so no one really does anything. There is an absence of coordination, tasks get passed on to someone else, disagreements arise over costs and there tends to be a generalized absence of accountability and ownership.

These priorities need to be addressed in public debate by the government and opposition politicians before they can be taken seriously.

By Theodore Trefon (PhD, Boston University)

The author  is a Congo expert specializing in the politics of state-society relations. He has devoted the past 25 years to Congo as a researcher, lecturer, author, project manager and consultant. His current research at the Belgian Royal Museum for Central Africa focuses on environmental governance.

Courtesy: Congo Masquerade

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