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Food for Thought

Congo has the agricultural potential to feed the whole of Africa, but translating that potential into reality will take a concerted effort on the part of policy makers.

the Congo has a vast unrealized agricultural capacity. Straddling the equator and spanning two tropical zones, its climate favors the cultivation of a wide range of tropical and even Mediterranean crops. More than half of the DRC's land is arable and suitable for farming. However, it is estimated that only 1 - 2 percent of the nation's farmable territory has so far been under cultivation at any one time.

Coffee beans, potatoes and leeks can be produced in the high plains of the east and south. The cool temperatures and fertile soil of the Eastern Highlands favor the cultivation of tomatoes, sweet potatoes, yam, and pumpkins and even Mediterranean vegetables such as artichokes and asparagus. So high is the agricultural yield that it is not uncommon, when the rainy season is very long, to replant immediately after harvest and get a second crop during the same season.

Subsistence farming dominates the sector, with food crops in tropical areas principally comprising corn, millet, cassava and rice. Most of the commercial crops such as coffee, cocoa, rubber, tea, palm oil and sugar cane are grown in plantations, with the production of tobacco and cotton largely in the hands of private small-hold farmers.

Since the 1960s, agriculture has been seriously neglected and at times was allocated as little as only 1 percent of the government's total budgetary spending. Moreover, the 1973-1974 nationalization or Zairianisation of most small and medium-size foreign-owned agricultural enterprises had a disastrous effect on production, which has not since recovered.

Agricultural production has grown by an average of 2 percent per year, consistently lagging population growth at an average annual 3 percent. Per capita agricultural production has also fallen far below levels achieved before independence.

In addition, agriculture has suffered from the notorious decay of the transportation infrastructure and in particular the road networks through which production is distributed around the country.

"We must have a good transport infrastructure," underlines President Kabila. "Even today, we've got people who produce food and it's thrown away because they can't get it to the market area."

Agricultural production further suffered from the steady shift of labor to the much more lucrative mining sector. Intense population displacements as a result of instability both within and outside the DRC since the early nineties have also seriously disrupted production.

In 1990, agriculture accounted for about 30 per cent of the gross domestic product and coffee was the second most important export earner generating about $250 million in foreign receipts. By 1998, agriculture's contribution to export earnings had dropped to $100 million, while the total value of agricultural imports rose to $252 million. This steep decline can partly be explained by the fact that large quantities of coffee were smuggled out of the country through neighboring countries, such as Rwanda and Uganda.

Once an exporter of food, the DRC now grows too little to meet even the basic food needs of its 52 million citizens. It is estimated that up to 60 percent of the active population has no choice but to undertake some form of subsistence farming on a micro level to meet their basic food needs.

Fish could be a valuable source of food but this is another under-exploited sector with huge potential. The lakes in eastern and southern regions are a massive reserve of a variety of freshwater species, such as the tilapia. The river Congo is another important source with major fishing ports in Kisangani and Mbandaka supplying the 6 million people living in Kinshasa.

In the early 1990s, annual catches of both freshwater and saltwater fish reached levels of about 200,000 tons. It is estimated that the sector has the potential to produce over 700,000 tons per year. Yet fish is actually imported from various African and European countries including South Africa, Namibia, Spain and Portugal. Congo must be one of the few countries in the world where fish are allowed to die of old age. So in August, President Kabila visited Namibia's renowned fishing industry in Walvish Bay in attempt to woo entrepreneurs to come and invest in the DRC's fishing sector.

Great potential for export earnings also exists in the timber industry. Approximately two thirds of the DRC's territory is covered by an equatorial forest 122 million acres in size. This represents around 6 per cent of the world's and 60 per cent of Africa's forest. Most of this forest remains intact mainly due to the lack of viable transportation infrastructure in the country's hinterland rather than as any deliberate government conservation policy.

Consequently, timber exploitation has been underdeveloped and undertaken by only around a dozen companies, predominantly foreign-owned. In 1994, only 390,000 tons of timber was harvested. Yet, as in minerals, this is a clear example of the looting of Congo's resources under the occupation of its territory. Recently, there has been reckless exploitation of timber in rebel held areas, much of which is smuggled through Uganda.

The government is trying to formalize production and control the exploitation by attracting foreign investment into the timber industry. In August this year, a $300 million deal between the DRC government and Zimbabwe was signed in what will be Africa's biggest-ever logging operation, across an 85 million acre area. Recently, a German company has also been granted a 6.4 million-acre concession and other deals concluded with Malaysian and Chinese logging companies.

Still, the decline in the agricultural sector is such that even with significant inflows of foreign investment and the adoption of adequate policies, the Government faces a mammoth task in making both the people of DRC and foreign investors regain confidence in agriculture as a viable economic activity. This requires adopting a wide range of measures including rebuilding transportation infrastructure, revisiting land policies and adopting appropriate investment regulations, all of which are currently under review.

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