Democratic Republic of the Congo: Small-scale farmers use land abandoned by wealthy owners (by Jacques Kikuni Kokonyange, for Farm Radio Weekly, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo)

| November 5, 2012

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Despite the sweltering heat, Françoise Kahindo is indefatigable. Armed with a hoe, she plants cassava cuttings deep inside mounds of dirt. She also grows bananas, beans, eggplants, and tomatoes.

Her three-hectare farm is like a piece of paradise for the 30-year-old farmer. It allows her to earn money to improve her family’s quality of life, including paying school fees for her three children. But the land doesn’t belong to her. Rather, it belongs to a businessman who allows her to use it for free.

Ms. Kahindo is a widow whose husband died three years ago. She lives near Beni in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. In this area, few farmers own land. Virtually all farmland has been purchased by wealthy businessmen.

Earning enough money to care for her children has been a struggle for Ms. Kahindo. For several years, she worked as a waitress at a small restaurant in her village. She earned 1,000 Congolese francs ($ 1.10 US) per day. With this salary, she could barely feed and clothe her children.

But two years ago, she began farming, and earning a better living. Ms. Kahindo’s farm has been so successful that she now employs youth to plow her field and harvest her crops. She sells her produce directly to consumers at the local market.

Ms. Kahindo is one of about a hundred farmers around Beni who benefit from free access to land owned by businessmen. The land was previously used for coffee and papaya plantations.  The plantations were abandoned in the early 2000s, following an attack of coffee wilt disease.

Antoinette Matabishi is another farmer who benefits from this land-borrowing agreement. She grows a new variety of bean called “pignon vert.” She proudly declares, “With the sale of my harvest, I was able to build a mud house in my hometown.”

What do the land owners get out of this deal? Antoine Mbulula is the Secretary General of a farmers’ advocacy group. He explains: “These operators benefit from the maintenance of their field, the work that the farmers do there, and from the planting of eucalyptus and fruit trees.”

Humanitarian Aid is a non-governmental organization that works in the agricultural sector. The organization was concerned that farmers could be kicked off the land at any time. To establish some form of security for the farmers, Humanitarian Aid negotiated loan agreements for periods ranging from one to three years. These agreements were signed by the farmers’ advocacy group and other civil society groups on behalf of farmers, and by traditional chiefs on behalf of landlords. The contracts ensure that farmers can use the land for the designated time period.

But even with these assurances, the farmers who are borrowing land know the arrangement is temporary. Some are already making plans for the day when they can no longer use this land. Ms. Kahindo is saving some of the money she earns from selling her crops. She hopes to save enough to someday buy her own field.