Ivan Godfroid has dedicated the last 13 years of his career working for Rikolto to strengthen agricultural value chains in the beating heart of Africa: the Democratic Republic of Congo. In this interview, we will trace the development of the rice value chain in the DRC through his anecdotes, experiences and thoughts about the future.
I’ve been working in Africa since the 1980s, but it was only in 2010 that I moved to the eastern DRC. The life experiences of Congolese people were unlike anything I had encountered before. Driven by a desire for socio-economic self-management and determination after decades of neglect by central government and relying on a deep understanding of their local context, several grassroot organisations were emerging. This dynamic inspired and influenced our approach: wasn’t it possible to develop a strategy from the bottom up, together with farmers’ organisations as key catalysts for change?
From 2014 onwards, we co-created farmers’ cooperatives and guided them to pool resources, process and commercialise products collectively and deliver agricultural services to their members. In fact, to reach financial independence, cooperatives need to capture the added value generated by activities such as the transformation and commercialisation of high-quality products and transfer it to their members in the form of rural investments and services. At first, traders in the region were sceptical and concerned by the emergence of potential new competitors. However, quality conquers consumers, rewards producers, increases the market and creates new business opportunities for all actors in the value chains. A new awareness gradually emerged in the organisation: to have a greater impact, we needed to apply a food system approach for the benefit of farmers and consumers alike. If you want to know more about it, I invite you to read the article written by my former colleague, Charlotte Flechet.
I still remember the first time I came down to the Ruzizi Plain in the province of South Kivu. When we asked them about their challenges, every rice producer replied: “We don't have a market for our rice”. I was incredulous. Already at that time, the population of the city of Bukavu, 45 km away from the fields, was estimated at almost 1 million. Did its citizens not eat rice? The market analysis we conducted told us a different story: the market was flooded by rice imported from Southeast Asia. Local producers couldn’t compete with the low prices. Moreover, despite Asian rice being old, dry and tasteless, at least it wasn’t a tooth-breaker.
The context was challenging: a fragmented landscape of many small cooperatives (in name only), too small to be viable and stifled by market competition. We needed to foster their spirit of collaboration and convince them to join efforts to reduce production costs, improve rice quality and win over Bukavu’s consumers. To facilitate this change of mindset, we launched a call for co-investments – for the first time in the region. Two farmers’ organisations responded positively and equipped themselves with two quality rice hullers. An encouraging first step through which we won the trust of the farmers, who then later inspired the World Bank’s decision to select Rikolto as one of the implementers of the PICAGL project.
PICAGL presented an incredible opportunity for scaling up our activities and validating our approach. We invested a great deal of hope in the project, but things don’t always go as planned. The completion of administrative procedures, alongside the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, hampered the implementation of project activities, which eventually started in 2019 instead of 2016. The failure of UNOPS, the infrastructure provider, to establish new rice perimeters for farmers was a great delusion. Our insistence on including an agricultural credit component to encourage large-scale adoption of improved rice-growing techniques was ignored. And, last but not least, the new machinery for testing our mechanisation approach is arriving only now, after years of delay. Despite these big challenges, we reached encouraging results, thus proving that we are going in the right direction:
Rice consumption has evolved considerably. 50 years ago, rice was hardly ever consumed except during festive occasions. Today, rice is the second-most produced cereal at national level and its consumption doesn’t stop rising. The population of cities such as Bukavu, Goma or Butembo is rapidly growing, with up to a 10% increase per year. Unfortunately, the people rely on fragile food systems due to the following interrelated macro-level issues:
Stronger actions need to be undertaken to strengthen local food systems and develop short value chains in the fight against food insecurity. A growing urban market is a big opportunity to increase farmers’ living income while ensuring access for a large number of consumers to sustainable, affordable and nutritious rice. The opportunity needs to be seized.
Rikolto is strongly committed to the dynamic it creates. The duration of our support is not determined by the duration of the donor funding: we build long-lasting relationships between and among the actors we collaborate with. For instance, the Bralima brewery has been sourcing its paddy from our partner farmers’ organisations locally since 2010. Their business relationship has resulted in greater access to seasonal credits and better incomes for farmers. However, Bralima’s volume requirement is limited to 3,000 tons and the rice is exclusively used to produce beer. To ensure the sustainability of our interventions and provide consumers with nutritious and affordable food, we've broadened our reach, acting on several fronts:
As Rikolto, we are a partner of AfricaRice, a pan-African Centre of Excellence for rice research which has supported several African governments in formulating a national strategy for rice development. The first Congolese national rice strategy was very ambitious, but its implementation never saw the light of day due to a lack of funding and national ownership. An updated version, to which Rikolto has also contributed, has now been finalised and the same errors should be avoided. Because of a lack of political willpower at national level, as well as agriculture being a decentralised policy component, we have been focusing on strengthening linkages with provincial public institutions. Despite political instabilities, there is room for moving an agenda for change forward.
We have established strategic relationships at provincial level where implementation units for the PICAGL project were set up. Moreover, Rikolto is one of the founding members of AgriCongo, an informal network of NGOs supporting federations of farmers’ organisations at provincial level to join their advocacy efforts through CONAPAC, the national confederation of farmers’ producers. For instance, CONAPAC recently succeeded in promoting the constitution of a fund for agricultural development through taxes on imported food products in two provinces. The challenge now will be to also ensure the full implementation of these provincial funds.
The new national rice development strategy, as mentioned before, has finally been formulated. International and African experts have revised the document and given their precious input. In March 2023, several years after the beginning of the revision process, a national validation workshop has been organised, with CONAPAC representing the organised farmers’ movement. The next challenge will be to translate the strategy into a concrete action plan, make sure appropriate funding is available, including from DRC’s national budget, and take accountability for its implementation at provincial and local levels.
I have three recommendations:
Photo credits - hero image : Isabel Corthier