The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the second largest country in Africa, after Algeria, but unlike the arid north African state, the DRC is endowed by nature with forest that covers two-thirds of the country, including the second-largest rainforest in the world (after Brazil’s), and 66 million acres of agricultural land, fed with ample supplies of fresh water from rainfall, rivers and lakes.
With this rich natural endowment and a climate ideal for most agriculture, the DRC has the potential to be an agricultural powerhouse for Africa.
Already it has about a half of all Africa’s forestland, which is being exploited for timber. But the key to achieving the ambition of becoming a major exporter of agricultural products is to transform the bulk of activities in the sector from subsistence to commercial farming.
USAID estimates that the agriculture sector currently employs 62 percent of DRC’s men and 84 percent of its women, who produce 42.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, estimated as $63.27 billion in 2015 (PPP).
However, the bulk of this work is subsistence farming, with only 300,000 people engaged in commercial farming. (The high percentage of the population engaged in subsistence farming is typical of many African countries.)
According to the World Bank, 103,238 square miles or 66,072,320 acres (11.6 percent of DRC’s 905,600 square miles, or 580,160,000 acres, of territory) is agricultural land, usable for crops and pastureland. Of this area, 30,790 square miles (19,725,440 acres), or 3.4 percent of the total territory, is arable.
But it is estimated that only 10 percent of the DRC’s agricultural land is currently being used, due to a range of problems, from conflicts in the east to lack of investment and inadequate infrastructure for commercial farming and transport to markets.
In the conflict areas, people have been driven from their farms and livestock has been killed or stolen. Many young men have been drawn to mining, where investment is increasing and job-creation expanding.
Cassava is the most widely grown crop in DRC, with plantain, corn, rice and yams also common. The tropical climate and plentiful water mean that fruits, including mangos, oranges, guavas, papayas, avocados and bananas, grow very well.
Overall, the main products of DRC agriculture are coffee, sugar, palm oil, rubber, tea, cotton, cocoa, quinine, cassava (manioc, tapioca), bananas, plantains, peanuts, root crops, corn, fruits, and wood products.
Of these, only coffee, cocoa, rubber, palm oil and tea represent significant exports from the agriculture sector, and much food is imported. In fact agricultural production has dropped 40 percent since 1990, underscoring the need for development and investment in this sector.
The government of DRC President Joseph Kabila, headed by Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo Mapon, is working to change this situation, with plans to greatly expand commercial agriculture.
In a 2013 interview with Voice of America, Prime Minister Matata Ponyo said: “I have been busy working in order to make agriculture a priority sector not on a small scale, but into an agro-based industry.” He added that the DRC is ” in partnership with experts who are coming from all over the place, even from Harvard University, to help us to set up agro-industrial machinery that will be capable of facing the future challenges.”
In the interview, he noted that the DRC continues to depend on food imports, whereas it could well be a major exporter of agricultural products and food.
“Agriculture can also help us resolve the issue of macroeconomic stability because today we spend about $1.3 billion to import food stuffs,” he said. “So, if we produce everything we consume today, we are capable of saving $1.3 billion per year.”
The premier also noted that the government aims to use agriculture to boost employment among youth.
The agricultural potential is clear. The DRC has fertile soil and ample freshwater supplies. It lacks agricultural support programs and sources of investment funding. It also lacks the critical infrastructure, especially road and rail networks needed to get agricultural products to markets or to processing centers.
To address the apparent deficiencies in the sector, the government adopted the Agricultural Development Strategy (ADS). This strategy focuses on six priorities for the 2004 to 2013 period: 1) financing for the rural sector; 2) rehabilitating and maintaining infrastructure, including rural roads and water access; 3) improving the fiscal environment for agricultural development; 4) technical advisory services for producers; 5) relaunching agricultural scientific research; and 6) guaranteed access to land.
This program was followed by the National Agriculture Investment Plan (NAIP), which focuses on five areas for investment, both domestic and international, and brings together initiatives in the sector. It is designed to be the national structure of agricultural development from 2013 to 2020.
The NAIP priorities are: 1) development of vegetable value chains; 2) development of the livestock sector; 3) development of fisheries; 4) creating agriculture enterprise clusters; and 5) establishing standards and quality control for agricultural products.
Ultimately, it will be private business interest in agriculture that will transform this sector. Given its abundance of natural resources critical to agriculture, the DRC is a natural destination for investment in this area.
The main challenge will be creating the necessary infrastructure to support investment, primarily the transport networks to get agricultural products to market.
The Congo River itself is an important waterway for commerce, and has long been used extensively for that purpose, although the Livingstone Falls block access to the sea. Together with other rivers and lakes, the DRC has some 10,000 miles of waterways.
However, the limited land-transportation infrastructure will require massive investments to enable DRC agriculture to be competitive. There are currently less than 2,000 miles of paved roads and 2,200 miles of railway lines in all of the DRC.
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