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How Congo's Countryside Became A Field Of Dreams For Urban Youths

Sowing the seeds of change
Sowing the seeds of change
Jacques Kikuni Kokonyange

BENI - In the early morning hours, John Kasongo Muhowa, a tractor driver from North Kivu agricultural cooperative, is clearing the undergrowth, plowing up weeds around a two-hectare (5-acre) field where peanuts and corn will be planted. Twenty or so young men from the nearest town are waiting in line to use the tractor, one after the other.

Young people like these are leaving town in droves to move out to the country. There, the new tractors will make it possible for them to cultivate huge fields, under the guidance of local farmers' associations. It's a movement with great potential: the young people are happy with their new life in the countryside, and the local agricultural output can keep increasing.

On Highway 4, which was paved recently and stretches from North Kivu to Oriental province, Jean-Marie Masinda, an agronomist from farmers' trade union Sydip, is supervising the field where the group of young men is working.

One of them, Reddy Muhila, comes from a village east of Beni. Like his workmates, this 26-year-old now owns a large field in which he grows rice, corn, manioc and papaya trees.

“My whole life has changed. I used to be obsessed with the idea of leaving, but now I own my own shop. I make between $60 and $70 per bag of rice, and I can easily afford healthcare for my children. I was even able to build a concrete house near my field,” he says.

Urban exodus

As the region has become safer, some youths who had fled to urban centers such as Oicha, Beni or even Butembo are coming back to the country to farm. Some villages around Beni have seen their population rise quickly over the past two years. “We are witnessing a real wave of migration from urban to rural areas. It is interesting to see a larger number of people working in the fields,” notes Bozzi Sindiwako, head of the Rwenzori district, where many young men own manioc fields or banana and papaya tree plantations.

Farmers, long suffering from the lack of a clear agricultural policy, are now starting to use modern farming techniques. This has made farming very attractive for a new generation of Congolese youths, who are arriving from the cities in droves.

For the new arrivals who have not been able to obtain land from local tribal chiefs, farming associations kick in to help, buying old fields and handing them over to new settlers.

“We have been granted this concession to farm for the next two seasons thanks to the Women’s Farming Association, which has taken responsibility for us,” explains Mbusa Nziteghi, a plantation owner in Nguite. “This season alone, we harvested more than two tons of paddy rice,” she says.

Besides new tractors and machines, farmers here also use new inputs, fertilizers and seeds. Agronomists from the government agriculture service, farmers' associations, and the National Coffee Association are also on hand to provide them with help and advice.

The tractor revolution

At the end of 2009, the government gave about 100 tractors and cows to the provinces, as part of the 2010-2012 agricultural development program. This has led to an agricultural boom.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, these 60-horsepower tractors can plow several hectares a day. In Beni, the tractors were given to the best-managed farmers' associations and trade unions.


Since the tractors' arrival, associations, churches and NGOs have been desperate to use them. Their members buy gasoline and contribute to the maintenance fees. According to local agronomist Bwanakazi Mukawa, users buy 30 liters (8 gallons) of gasoline and pay a $10 fee per hectare. Users then have to give one bag of corn or peanuts in return, after the harvest.

Trade unions have succeeded in managing the fleet of tractors. “We have just launched a campaign to raise a fund for farmers. We want this initiative to work," says Françoise Kabindo, national delegate of the Farming Mothers for the Sydip union. "Our long-term goal is to buy (better) tractors that can be used on irregular ground and sandy soils.”

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Society

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum

-Analysis-

SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.


It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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