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.
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.â€¨
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.”