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May 23, 2009

Republic of Congo goes farming for farmers

by Michael Allen

The Republic of the Congo isn't exactly a hospitable place: Two-thirds of its people are crammed into sweltering cities, and it's still struggling to get back on its feet after five years of civil conflict. Plus, it rains a lot.

But for a growing number of South African farmers, it's the Promised Land. They're scrambling to get on board an ambitious venture to reclaim farmland in Congo's interior and help relieve that country of a reliance on food imports. Already some 70 farmers have booked a Congo tour and more than 3,000 have expressed interest, said Agri-SA, the South African farming group organizing the venture.

Fueling the mania were early reports the Congo was prepared to set aside 10
million hectares of rent-free land, nearly the size of Ohio. That turns out
to be an exaggeration.

"That's a stupid number," said Rigobert Maboundou, Congo's agriculture minister. "The amount of cultivatable land in Congo amounts to only 8 million hectares.... If we gave them 10 million hectares, it would mean there is nothing left for anyone else, and we have a very big number of subsistence farmers."

Still, he acknowledges negotiations are proceeding. According to a draft memorandum of understanding, Congo is willing to sign long-term leases and provide tax breaks and waivers on duties of imported supplies for approved projects.

The South Africans in turn would build infrastructure, employ locals and
instruct them in modern farming techniques. People familiar with the matter say the initial focus will be on restarting state-owned farms abandoned in 1992.

Congo, like much of sub-Saharan Africa, could use the help. Less than 25% of
the continent's arable land is cultivated. Africa's use of fertilizer is only 2% of the world average. As much as 70% of production comes from small farmers, who typically lack access to financing for seeds and equipment.

The Republic of the Congo, a former French colony bordering the larger Democratic Republic of the Congo, gets most of its income from oil. Despite heavy rainfall and fertile soil, only about 2% of its land is farmed. It imports nearly all of its food, largely from France.

Earlier this year, Congo President Denis Sassou-Nguesso approached South
Africa's envoy about encouraging South African farmers to invest in Congo,
according to Agri-SA.

South African commercial farmers, mostly the descendants of Dutch and French
pioneers who began settling the continent's southern tip centuries ago, are
renowned for their ability to coax food out of African soil. Eager for their
expertise and capital, African countries from Ghana to Nigeria have offered
them incentives to set up shop. South African farmers have turned Mozambique
into a banana powerhouse. Zambia became self-sufficient in maize after
welcoming farmers from Zimbabwe and from South Africa.

Such programs can be controversial, touching on sensitive issues of race, colonialism and land tenure. Agri-SA is addressing the concerns with a multiethnic expedition. "The farmers going to the Congo aren't just white farmers," said Andre Botha, who leads the initiative. "There's black farmers going with us...white commercial farmers...colored commercial farmers...Indian commercial farmers -- going to the Congo as South African farmers."

During a recent tour of farmland east of Johannesburg, Mr. Botha fielded
phone calls from people interested in the project. One, a mechanical engineer of Indian origins who grows hydroponic tomatoes, all but signed up to go on the spot. "You're the guy for us," Mr. Botha said cheerfully.

Some South African farmers are skeptical the venture will get off the ground and they say that, if it does, investors will be vulnerable to land invasions and political instability. "Nobody around here is going," said Lionel Hartman, a farmer in Levubu, in the northern part of South Africa. "They're not stupid."

The group says there are treaties to protect their investments. And in any case, most plan to keep their South African farms and view this move as a savvy ivdersification.

Theo de Jager, a farmer and real-estate agent from Tzaneen, South Africa, has already visited and says he has picked out plots for himself and some friends. He hopes to start palm-oil, timber and cattle operations.

"It's uninhabited. There's water in abundance and two summers," he said. "I thought of Congo as one big jungle, but most of it is savannah and grasslands."

Wall Street Journal

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