Congo-Brazzaville beckons local farmers

Farmers Weekly (South Africa) | 6 April 2009

More than half the population of Congo-Brazzaville has been wiped out by HIV/Aids and more than 99% of its food is currently imported. It has formally asked Agri SA to help it establish a primary agricultural sector. Dr Theo de Jager, deputy president of Agri SA, recently went there to negotiate the terms of a contract. He spoke to Glenneis Erasmus about the opportunities and challenges in that country.

What does the memorandum of understanding between Agri SA and the Congo entail?
Congo-Brazzaville offers free irrigation land to South African farmers exclusively for 99 years. Six government farms of 135 000ha in the Niarri Valley and another 10?million hectares have also been made available.

Farmers will also get a five-year tax holiday and be exempt from import taxes on equipment and agricultural inputs. This means you’d be able to import a John Deere tractor for cheaper than you can buy one in South Africa, as you won’t have to pay tax or import duties on it. Profits can also be taken out of the country at any time to any place. The Congolese government, in return, wants the country to be food-secure within the next five years.

What is the state of food security in the Congo?
Congo-Brazzaville imports 99,9% of its food. It’s mostly past its sell-by date or unsuitable for the French market so it’s “imported” or dumped at exorbitant prices. Poor-quality imported tomatoes sell for around R100/kg, while beef sells for around R185/kg. The quality of the beef is so bad that no South African would consider eating it.

There are around 10?000 cattle, 36?000 sheep and 30?000 goats in the country. The cattle aren’t farmed in the conventional sense of the word, as the locals are afraid of them. When our delegation approached the cattle for inspection, the agriculture minister told his bodyguards to shoot them if they attacked us.

No chicken, egg and dairy products are produced either. Most of the cassava and bananas grow wild.

The locals can’t afford the imported food and they live off cassava produced locally. Since they don’t eat maize, there are no issues like in South Africa about using maize as feedstock for biofuel production. We could produce two harvests in the Congo, as the country has two summers a year.

What markets are there if most of the Congolese are poor?
The average income of Congolese workers on the mines and in government employment has grown significantly. Over 35% of these people’s income is spent on food due to the high cost of imports. With local production, the country would have better, more affordable produce. A huge expat community, working in the mining industry, would welcome better food.

The rest of Africa also has great opportunities – Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is just across from Brazzaville on the southern side of the Congo River, has more than 8,5?million people. That’s twice the entire Congo-Brazzaville population and the export opportunities are huge. Europe and our other traditional export countries would still be an option with exports primarily via the Pointe-Noir harbour.

Many African countries are notorious for bribing tourists and foreign visitors. How will the Congo prevent this from happening to South Africans?
Farmers will get a letter from the Congolese government saying that they are guests of the president. There will also be an emergency number they can call if they feel they’re being treated unfairly. In addition, farmers will get special number plates so that they can be identified easily.

The Congo-Brazzaville has been disrupted by civil war and political instability in the past. How will South African farmers be protected?
There’s a bilateral agreement between South Africa and the Congo which stipulates compensation for expropriation. In such a case, the renter has to be compensated for investment in infrastructure and loss of income and must receive another piece of land with equal production and income potential as the one that was lost.

The agreement also protects South African investments and stipulates compensation in the case of losses due to war, armed conflict, riots and so forth.

What if the government is taken over by a new party which doesn’t honour this agreement?
The chances of this aren’t very good as the ruling party represents the majority. It has also formed a coalition with the main opposition party. A new government would have to honour the agreements signed by the previous government. South Africa would also be able to contest reneging on the agreement at the international court of The Hague if necessary.

What about protection against dumping and cheap imports?
We were actually surprised by the strong stance the Congo took in this regard. The country understands the importance of protection if it wants to establish a sustainable industry. It has asked Agri SA and future farmers to become involved in developing a strategy to protect the agricultural industry in terms of phytosanitary requirements and import tariffs.

Describe the infrastructure.
It’s very poor, but the government has approached our government to help fix the railway line between Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire where most of the people live. The Congo River can also be used for transportation. Most of the roads in the northern parts of the country are non-existent so it’s better to fly between certain towns.

The World Bank and UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization have pledged to help with the establishment of new infrastructure and the development of new markets. The Chinese are constructing a huge hydraulic power generation plant, and MTN is investing in telecommunication infrastructure.

Do you see this as a way for white farmers to escape the difficult political and economic challenges in South Africa?
There are some farmers who’d leave South Africa to establish themselves in the Congo and in other African countries due to land restitution, rising production costs, low protection and other political factors. But I see the Congo and other African countries as an opportunity for farmers to expand and diversify. Producing in other countries will not only help to spread risk, but increase markets. For example, banana farmers in Mpumalanga, who also have orchards in Mozambique, are currently generating higher profits there due to low labour and input costs.

Contact Theo de Jager on 082 332 2110.
Original source: Farmers Weekly

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