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Congo-Brazzaville: Farmer fights poor soil to grow peppers

For Jean-Pierre Milandou, poor soil has made growing peppers an uphill battle. Mr. Milandou has been growing vegetables for more than 20 years in Kinkala, a town about 70 kilometres south of Brazzaville. The 49-year-old farmer says that, unlike cabbage, green beans, and other vegetables, peppers are highly profitable. That’s why he has persisted, despite the poor soil. Because poor soil is a significant challenge for farmers in Kinkala, many agricultural products in the local market come from Brazzaville.

With watering can in hand, Mr. Milandou stands in the middle of his rows of peppers and says: “Peppers were not grown our [local] rural area. Growing them is difficult here because the soil is not fertile. I am one of the few market gardeners to grow them today, [because I have] … the aim of distinguishing myself from my fellow farmers … This will give me an advantage because we all produce the same vegetables and have the same customer base.”

Many local farmers grow cabbage, spring onions, eggplants, tomatoes, peas, and endives. By growing peppers, Mr. Milandou believes he can attract more customers.

François Xavier Matoko is a researcher at the Institut de Recherche Agricole in Brazzaville. Mr. Matoko says peppers are indeed difficult to grow in Kinkala because the soil lacks minerals. He adds that for these pepper crops to yield a good harvest, the soil should not be acid; so using limestone along with compost will raise the soil’s pH.

To deal with the poor soil, Mr. Milandou has developed a particular technique. Using a wheelbarrow, pitchfork, and hoe, he fertilizes his fields with leaves from the surrounding trees and the ashes he gets from burning savannah grass.

He adds: “For my twenty 18-metre-by-2-metre rows [of peppers], I buy four bags of limestone powder for 10,000 CFA francs [$17 US] a bag in Brazzaville, [and] I mix them with the ashes from the grass that I picked in the savannah. I pour this powdery mixture on each row to enrich the soil before planting the seedlings.”

The peppers mature within three to four months, and Mr. Milandou harvests them every two weeks for several months. He says his fertilization technique is effective, but requires a lot of time and effort, which is why few market gardeners have followed in his footsteps.

Lydie Mboukou is Mr. Milandou’s wife, and works with him in the field. She says that, though it can be labour-intensive to grow peppers, the fruits of their labour are more valuable than growing other crops. She adds: “Every two weeks, we can pick mature peppers. Selling them gives us at least 30,000 CFA francs [$51 US] per row. If all the rows could reach maturity at the same time, we could make up to 600,000 CFA francs [at once].”

Growing peppers allows the couple to pay for their eight children’s school fees and medical bills. Mr. Milandou says they also built a house and opened a savings account with a microfinance institution. And it’s all because of peppers.