Congo-Brazzaville (ROtC) has for many years been looking to foreign agricultural expertise to optimise its agrarian output. Delegations to woo particularly South Africa’s white farmers have been commonplace for a decade or more, as the West African country has sought to jump-start agricultural production in the name of food security. Some 10 million hectares of farmland were originally apportioned to entice foreign commercial farming expertise that could transform the country’s agricultural profile.
Largely dominated by local subsistence farmers, the Congo’s agricultural sector has yet to provide food security for the country’s 5 million-plus citizens. Across the border, the much larger Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) boasts some 80 million hectares of suitably arable land, and approximately 4 million hectares under irrigation. There are also many rivers and green assets in the region that would enable aquacultural and other commercial development. In the DRC too, subsistence farming dominates, and both countries are looking to foreigners to kick start a commercial mindset in the sector.
Notwithstanding the region’s overall fertility, the ROtC’s policies, and the DRC’s similar approach of developing Agri-Business Parks – rural hubs of agricultural expertise – both nations have yet to develop a strong commercial farming sector.
Chinese hopes might flounder in the ROtC
As an underdeveloped oil producer that also has huge potential for commercial crops, the Congo has long been attractive to China. African oil and other critical raw materials supplied to principally Shanghai, China’s massive manufacturing hub, are essential to sustain Beijing’s aggressive push for growth. The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which Beijing initiated years ago, has been the Chinese regime’s approach of “We’ll develop in exchange for extraction.” Beijing long ago recognised that in order to sustain the country’s enviable growth rate, a massive exchange overture was needed to secure raw material supplies.
The Belt and Road Initiative offered infrastructure, maritime, road and rail development, as well as loans and expertise from China, to some 65 African, South American, Middle Eastern and Pacific countries. Also called the “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) initiative, Beijing is, however, starting to feel the challenges of such an ambitious stance, with Venezuela’s current hyperinflation putting paid to repayments from that quarter to date. Although not a component of the BRI, loans to the Congo have seen Brazzaville recently seek an IMF bailout to service it’s foreign debt, around a third of which is held by China.
Word on the ground in the South African commercial farming community too is that “China is out,” and opportunities abound for commercial farmers who are happy to relocate. Brazzaville is feeling the pinch of taking Chinese loans and, along with many African regimes, is also becoming disenchanted with the true nature of Beijing’s ambitions.
Speaking off the record, Johannesburg-based agricultural agents have confirmed that the Congo is rejecting Chinese expertise and products, and seeking skills closer to home. Long the target of various African regimes’ attempts to redistribute local land to black Africans in a post-colonial era, white commercial farmers in various African nations have trekked across borders before, to apply their expertise in other countries.
The drop in the oil price in 2014 severely dented Brazzaville’s ability to service its Chinese loans. More than that, however, the mix of cultural objectives has proven challenging on the ground. Disenchanted with a Beijing that swamps its agricultural market with Chinese goods while driving projects with a foreign fervour, Brazzaville in particular is eager to correct. Beijing’s cut-and-paste approach to foreign development does come with benefits for the home country, but the sociopolitical and longer term implications are rubbing Brazzaville-Beijing relations raw. This has been mirrored in the DRC’s cobalt mining sector across the river too.
Beijing no friend of the IMF
Beijing is uncomfortable with the IMF’s typical stipulations of restructured government debt and reworked policies, fearing it will lose influence, no matter that it might at least recoup its loans. Brazzaville is uncomfortable with what it can now see as the outflow of produce in exchange for development that will still not leave a commercial farming sector behind. One South Africa placement agent confirmed: “They don’t want to see Chinese goods there even. Not a sprinkler, not a piece of pipe.”
In a first for Beijing, it might need to deal with an IMF claim to a country’s repayments, development and long term value. While Brazzaville attempts to secure IMF funding to avoid default, the Congolese regime is also actively looking to stem the soft resource-grab enacted by the Chinese. Although there has been Chinese immigration in the region, at policy level at least, relations are tense between parties.
The main subsistence crops of the region are cassava, bananas and plantains, maize, rice and groundnuts. Principal cash crops include tobacco, sugar cane, rubber, cotton, tea, cocoa, coffee and palm oil. While the trickle has yet to become a flood, many white South African farmers are finding pleasant relief free of political stigma, on fertile, cheap land in the Congo. Good rainfall and growing conditions further present as a boon to many South African farmers, being often used to less forgiving climes.
Korea, China and other hungry nations continue to secure tracts of African land to ensure food security for their own nations. Although African politics often doesn’t follow crisp, clear lines, leaders still need to be seen to act in the people’s best interest, and not swapping local food production for golden handshakes. White commercial farmers on the continent are increasingly being seen as a softer and more viable answer to long term commercial farming development in the region. Without recent ties to Europe or elsewhere, white African farmers produce locally, and stay at home, as do the dividends of their commercial farms.
Many South African farmers are heading to the Congo’s Niari Valley in the south west, a particularly fertile region, which also has greater industrial development to support commercial agriculture.