After 10 weeks in DRC – what do I see?
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a huge country based on the equator. It is as big as Western Australia and is 33% of the size of the USA. DRC has at its centre, a tropical rain forest with 2,000 mm of annual rainfall and it is hardly inhabited there. Congo River tributaries are everywhere, and they flow across the whole country firstly from the S towards the N, then flowing NW, then SW and then W into the Atlantic Ocean.
The eastern side of the DRC is rich in minerals and international gold and coltan theft is rife there. This region is reported as being full of hostility and murder – it keeps the potential competitors away. Many neighbouring countries and westerners are stealing minerals here, including UN officials. This is well known but it is a big story – for another day. Lack of safe and connecting roads helps ensure that the mineral theft continues. The government is poor and has a history of participating in corruption. A new day seems to have been born.
The western side of the country is mostly demarcated by the Congo River which flows into the Atlantic Ocean. The DRC is open to the ocean with only 32 km of sea frontage. There is port access here until the port of Matadi (130 km up the river). Freight from Matadi must go on road, or via an old railway system, into the 20 million strong city regions of Kinshasa. There are about 90 million people in the country and much of their food is imported.
The southern region is classified as Savannah grasslands. Here the rains are 1,200-1,600 mm annually. The soils are typically sandy loams and are very acidic (4.2 in CaCl2). There are regions of lime deposits across the country, but they can be a long distance from where they are needed. Acidity is a serious National issue restricting crop production potential everywhere.
There is another area to the NW which is on more fertile soils, and they grow mainly maize, cassava, rubber, coffee, tea, palm oil and timber. The whole country is capable of growing maize and most of these other crops. However, the acidic nature of the soils and the highly leaching soils coupled with tillage makes most crop production inefficient and not so viable.
The typical Congo farming practice is to slash and burn then crop for 2 years and then move on. It is an organic form of farming that is highly damaging to the environment and environmentalists should have no respect for it. Practically speaking though it is a bit useful as the ash (other than what is used for charcoal) feeds the soil some potassium, lime and molybdenum. These are drawn up by the tree roots from depth. But they are never replaced – just harvested from the deeper soil profile.
I am having many meetings with farmers, agronomists, scientists, agricultural managers, and politicians about what I am observing. These meetings are hopefully the start of a series of projects that I may begin in a few months as the next season starts in October. Some of these people are shocked to learn that their soils are acidic and hostile to crop roots – especially for soya bean. But the soil scientists agree with my appraisal.
Farming typically is not profitable in the DRC and several things that need to change to make it work. An inclination towards organic practices continues to deplete an already NPK deficient and highly acidic soil. Taxation laws are brutal to the agricultural sector. Therefore, DRC imports much of its food. Yet, there is 80M ha of land that could be farmed and improved with adequate and affordable lime and NPK and trace elements.
These soil issues are a challenge, and I am determined to do what I can to help make DRC less reliant on imported EU food. Ironically, this is one of the most food insecure countries in the world. Two further big agricultural challenges are the absurd view that all chemicals are evil, and that biotechnology is a trick to make their peoples infertile. When the DRC becomes food secure then they may be able to build roads and secure their own minerals and connect the country. Are you connecting the dots?
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