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Congo: Farmers profit from developing local market for watermelon

Bakary Fofana’s straw hat protects his eyes from the bright sunlight, but he can’t escape the heat. From time to time, he lifts his right hand to wipe the sweat from his face. Saturday is harvest day for this 50-year-old farmer from Ignoni Plateaux, a village about 200 kilometres north of Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo.

After growing watermelon for several years in Mali, Mr. Fofana moved to Congo where he is trying to develop a wider market for the fruit. For Mr. Fofana, watermelon has many advantages. He says, “It’s a fruit that I know well. Its cycle is very short, from planting to maturity. This varies between 100 and 105 days, [or three to] four months.”

When he arrived from Mali, Mr. Fofana noticed that watermelon wasn’t widely available in Congo’s markets. When he did see the fruit for sale, he found the prices high. Watermelon was considered a luxury product, and sold for more than 1000 CFA francs ($2 US) per kilogram.

Anabelle Kouamba is a nutritionist at the Makélékélé base hospital in Brazzaville. She says Congolese eat citrus fruit such as orange and grapefruit, as well as mango and banana, but very little nutrient-rich watermelon. Mrs. Kouamba explains its health benefits, “Watermelon contains a significant amount of lycopene, a kind of antioxidant that reduces the risk of certain cancers such as prostate cancer.”

She adds that watermelon also contains potassium and vitamins A and C. These nutrients help regulate blood pressure and manage cholesterol.When he arrived from Mali, Mr. Fofana also noticed that there wasn’t a lot of watermelon available in Congo’s markets. When he did see watermelon for sale, he found the prices quite high. Considered a luxury product, watermelon sold for more than 1,000 FCFA (more than US $ 2) per kilogram. Mr. Fofana set to work to make watermelon more widely available at prices more people could afford.

Mr. Fofana set to work making watermelon more widely available at prices more people could afford. In 2011, he bought a hectare of land and planted watermelon. At first, his goal was to test growing conditions and win over his friends and family.

He harvested between 1,000 and 1,200 melons per month, initially intended for family consumption. He offered some to friends and acquaintances. His watermelons were juicy and stayed fresh for at least a week.

Over time, his friends came back asking for more. Mr. Fofana explains: “When they tasted my watermelons, people started asking me questions and they wanted me to sell them. That’s when I realized it was time to produce more and to go into business.”

Now Mr. Fofana grows watermelon on three additional hectares of land he purchased in 2015 in the village. The common practice among local farmers is to burn vegetation, which impoverishes the soil over time. Instead, he rents tractors to turn the soil and bury weeds.

After tilling, he plants watermelon seeds in the top layer of soil. The buried weeds help enrich the soil with organic matter that boosts plant growth.

Before harvesting, he rents a tractor for a day to remove weeds, at a cost of 50,000 CFA francs ($90 US). If there are no tractors available, he hires a dozen young people to weed at a daily wage of 2,500 CFA francs ($4.50 US) each. But manual weeding can take a week or more, which increases the cost of production. And sometimes caterpillars or crickets attack his fields, causing crop losses.

But Mr. Fofana does not complain. He says: “In addition to its short cycle, it’s a fruit that is easy to grow. We just have to remove the weeds and then plant…. Then we till again to remove weeds before harvesting in three to four months.”

Mr. Fofana has tripled production from 1,000 melons per month to more than 3,000. He rents a warehouse in Brazzaville where he stores his harvest before bringing it to market or directly to his customers. He also delivers to some supermarkets. He earns at least two million CFA francs ($3,600 US) per month. He uses some of this income to support his family and invests the rest in seeds and in his poultry operations back home in Mali.

Abdoulaye Diabaté grows watermelons on a hectare of land in Mbamou village, about 55 kilometres north of Brazzaville in Ignié district. He spent six months learning watermelon farming from Mr. Fofana before going into business himself.

Mr. Diabaté harvests about 1,000 watermelons per month. He earns between 500 and 3000 CFA francs ($0.90 to $5.40 US) per watermelon, depending on the size of the fruit.

He says, “If the harvest is good, I can make a profit of 2.5 to 3 million CFA francs [$4,500 to $5,400 US] after each harvest.”

Both farmers want to buy more land to grow cassava as well as watermelon. They hope to sell their watermelons across the Congo River in the larger marketplaces of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where juice factories provide an opportunity to sell even more fruit.