These days, little positive news reaches us from Eastern Congo through the media. Maybe we can have a try then? Is it even appropriate to tell the story of the people in Kivu for whom life simply continues? Is it appropriate to talk about the farmer organizations and traders that try to shape their future? Or is all of that merely silly optimism?
VECO has been working in Eastern Congo, and mainly in Northern Kivu for decades now. Even in case of flare-ups of war, the farmer organizations remained standing and succeeded to support their members in these trying times. Since 2010, we have expanded our activity to Southern Kivu and Ituri. We are convinced that the region not only needs emergency relief for the most vulnerable, but also is in need of sustainable and structural development programs. Is that possible though in a region where the government is absent? Where barely any infrastructure is present? Where some international NGOs have installed a culture of begging and where clouds of danger hang over peoples’ heads? Co-workers Chris and Jan found out for us. They passed the city of Goma at the worst possible time – the M23 rebels had started a new offensive – but above all, they returned with a vivid story.
So where does life start for many Congolese? Exactly, with a glass of Primus. Brewery Bralima has a branch in Bukavu, the capital of Southern Kivu. The ingredients of their beer are listed on the label: water, malt, hop, sugar, and… rice. Every month, the factory processes 360 tons of rice. Until a decade or so ago, Pakistani traders took care of the import of rice from Asia. In 2006, after the big war, Brelima decided to take on its own part in the socio-economic reconstruction of Congo. Working with local rice from farmers in the region became very important. To make that possible, however, the same Pakistani traders were called in. After all, they have got the warehouses and the capital, which they give in credits to middlemen so that they can buy rice from the farmers. Today, 85% of the rice which is necessary to brew the beer comes from local farmers. The aim of the organization is to eventually purchase 100% locally.
Just don’t think Bralima simply wants to buy the local rice because of social considerations. The brewery is not the only one who has its eye on the local rice. Competition is fierce. Business kitchens from the main mining companies in the area, like Banro for instance, prepare 10.000 meals a day and rice is the main part of those meals. Wholesalers like DATCO and OLIVE, which provide all kinds of products (they even import Belgian mayonnaise once a month) to food stores and supermarkets, would love to import less rice from countries like Pakistan. And that is not just because the imported rice has to be transported by land and is thus relatively expensive. “It often takes several years for the Pakistan rice to reach our country. By that time the rice has absolutely no scent anymore and one can taste it is not fresh at all,” tells Ketal, the manager of DATCO in Bukavu. “The last couple of years, we therefore buy more Tanzanian rice, but really we would prefer to buy our local rice,” he says. DATCO purchases rice for the brewery, but also for food stores, whom they even finance to sell their products. “The consumer here prefers the taste of the local rice.”
Banks on board?
Still, there is a lot left to do for the farmers and their cooperatives. Since last year, VECO supports two small cooperatives of rice farmers (COPA and COSOPRODA) in the plain of the Ruzizi river, a vast area at the border with Rwanda and Burundi, which is extremely fit for rice cultivation. “We have mainly succeeded in guaranteeing storage space for our members” tells Béatrice, a farmer leader of one of the groups in COPA. They have built the storage space on the border with Burundi, where the customhouse officers of the EU financed custom house will be their neighbors. “Before, all rice had to be sold at a low price immediately after harvesting, because that is when everybody sells,” translates the spokeswoman of the cooperative. “Now, farmers can sell later on. We invite traders and those who want to sell, sell and those who can and want to wait, do so.” COPA also wants to involve local banks in the storing of the rice. If they are willing to hand out a loan to the farmers until their rice is sold, they would definitely be able to stretch the period of storing and in that way they would be able to get the best price for their product.
The storing of rice until the price is high enough is not the only thing they should devote themselves to. Everyone wants rice from Kivu, but everyone wants that rice to have the same quality as the imported rice as well. It should be nicely wrapped, it should not have any black spots, nor a too large amount of broken rice grains, small rocks or sand. The productivity then can still go up. Better varieties, the correct fertilization for the soil and the appropriate production techniques should lead to the production and harvest of four tons of rice per hectare for everyone. COPA as well as COSOPRODA already have some motorized plows they can let to their members to mechanize larger pieces of ground and increase the production further. At this moment, the rice grows on 3.700 hectares of irrigated fields, but the there is a capacity to irrigate the same surface again. Thus, there is definitely some room left for growth.
90% of the rice farmers in the area still isn’t a member of a cooperative or farmer organization. How can they, like Bralima, enjoy the advantage of the favorable market? Which could be the role of the local wholesalers? Companies like OLIVE have processing installations for rice in the valley. Farmers can go there to dry their rice and store it for some time. They are then expected to sell their rice to OLIVE, though. Wholesaler DATCO, together with others, would like to invest in processing that can take on the quality demands and big quantities of rice.
So what is the part of the brewery then? Are they prepared to invest in the rice farmers? So it seems. The time is ripe for everyone, from farmer to consumer, to do his part. Answering the question if that does not require the help from a well functioning government, the manager of Bralima, Camille Kassogo, says: “There has never been a government around here. You learn how to live with it. The role of the government has been taken over by companies and citizens. Surely, it would help us if there was a well functioning government…”. And the constant threat of war? “Since the development of Bralima, there has never been a day that we did not brew beer, not even during the long periods of war.”
And so we have to start looking. Looking for economic networks which rice farmers can build to grow stronger on the market. Start negotiating together for better prices with wholesale buyers and start delivering the volumes and quality asked for on the market. Brewery Bralima, the Pakistani traders and the farmers’ representatives took on the challenge to work for a more organized rice sector which will do good to everyone, the farmers as well. “And a young farmer who earns enough, does not need a Kalashnikov to survive,” one of our employees concludes.