In war-ravaged eastern Congo, farmers are finding new ways to improve their lives despite regular militia raids and army roadblocks. A local farmers’ organisation is helping communities grow a steady supply of crops, from strawberries to sweet potatoes. Technical advice and small loans are benefiting everything from villagers’ nutrition to better homes and education. Marc Wegerif reports:
The road winds its way up the steep slopes of the hills just south of Lake Kivu. We pass women carrying large sacks of charcoal and agricultural produce, trudging the dusty road towards the markets of Bukavu. The ageing and battered four wheel drive bumps and rattles along the mud road. We’re here to see the work of Union des Paysans pour le Développement Intégré (UPDI – Peasants Union for Integrated Development), a local organisation which supports over 14,000 members.
We start in the village of Ludaha. The road ends abruptly and we have to walk the last kilometres down the hill to the fields, passing neat homesteads and woodlots used for firewood and building materials. In the valley, small fields are divided by irrigation ditches full of water. UPDI helped to get advice for the farmers on building the irrigation and drainage network, and supported the farmers to carry out the work themselves.
Now a wide variety of crops are growing in the fertile soil, with the available water enabling the farmers to plant all year around. One farmer, Gistavo Matabaro, showed me his onions, aubergines and carrots. Another farmer, Chambo Mwapugula, showed me her fields of lenga-lenga, the nutritious local green vegetable also known as amaranth. We find Baguma Kilose, the President of the local branch of UPDI, in the fields. He calls other farmers to join us and we sit on a grassy slope just above the fields to discuss how their farming is going.
Better houses and children in school
The farmers are proud of what they have achieved and the improvements this has brought over the last ten years. They explain how they have managed to build better houses and send their children to school. The challenges they face are typical of farmers I have met in other countries in the region. Access to fertiliser is limited; they are using manure and compost, but their livestock are limited so the manure is too. Access to good seeds and pesticides is also difficult. Baguma picks up a caterpillar that was crawling up my leg and explains how these are eating the sweet potatoes, and they have found no pesticide that will stop them.
One of the main concerns is markets for their produce. Buyers come from Bukavu, but they offer low prices and do not buy all the stock. Transporting the produce to Bukavu is difficult – they have no vehicle in the village, and they are harassed by the soldiers at checkpoints who demand payments or take some of the produce. A few bunches of carrots or a few hundred Francs may not seem much, but it adds up with the number of checkpoints and eats into the small profit margin that the farmers start out with. This is one of the issues that UPDI is continuing to take up on behalf of the farmers. They have managed to stop this “taxation” in some areas, and they will continue to work on the problem for this and neighbouring villages.
In the village of Buhanga we go to the house of Gilbert Mushambarhwa. Just behind his house is a farmyard containing the animals that he has mastered the art of breeding over the years. As he shows us his seven sheep he explains how he started with guinea pigs and when that was going well he sold enough to buy rabbits. Later, with some help from UPDI, he got his first sheep. He sells some when he needs money for his children’s education or farm expenses and it was the sale of sheep that helped him buy his first cow. Now he has five cows and the sheep, and still breeds the rabbits as well. The guinea pigs operation has been handed over to his children.
We go out of the yard to look at Gilbert’s fields. They are in steps cut into the steep hillside with ditches dug along the contours of the hill to catch the water before it runs off and causes erosion. Each step has different crops. The big surprise is to find a field of strawberries that turn out to be delicious. Beyond these neat fields, Gilbert is growing fodder for the animals and a tree plantation where the slope gets even steeper.
Better production has also led to improved women’s health
Before leaving, we visited Furaha Bembe, President of the Buhanga farmers’ collective that is also part of UPDI. She looks after her family through the production of a variety of crops, and also provides leadership to the hundreds of UPDI members in the surrounding villages. Furaha explains how loans from UPDI have helped farmers to buy inputs and that this, along with the farming advice, has helped improve the production. One of the important benefits, she argues, is the improvement of women’s health in the village, as they now have access to a wide variety of fresh vegetables and staple foods. We also benefited, leaving her home with a gift of sweet potatoes.
Despite the wars and continued instability in the DRC (the last militia raid in the village of Ludaha was a month ago), these farmers, through their own organisation and with a little assistance, are steadily improving their lives. They are hungry for new ideas and new crops. Their hard work deserves better returns and this will require more accessible and affordable inputs as well as much better access to markets. UPDI and the national and regional farmer organisations they are part of, which Oxfam also works closely with, are vehicles through which these farmers in a corner of DRC are taking up these challenges.
UPDI is a partner organisation of Oxfam Solidarité (Oxfam in Belgium)