Bukavu, Rd Congo — Just two years ago, rice farmers on the Ruzizi plain in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo were content to harvest 2.5 tonnes of rice per hectare. The adoption of new techniques has seen their output rise to between six and eight tonnes, with smallholder farmers also increasing their local market share.
Behind the startling transformation here, 100 kilometres south of Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province, is the CATALIST programme of IFDC (the International Fertiliser Development Centre), a Dutch NGO which began training producers on protecting soil quality in 2007.
CATALIST - Catalyse Accelerated Agricultural Intensification for Social and Environmental Stability - promotes a set of techniques known as Integrated Soil Fertility Management [LINK: http://ifdc-catalist.org/drcongo.php]. ISFM is a sustainable solution for food security and higher incomes, according to Bernard Assumani, the provincial inspector for agriculture. Previously, he said, farmers were typically harvesting 2.5 tonnes of rice from a one hectare plot; with the adoption of ISFM, the same area can yield 7.5 tonnes.
Smallholder farmers who spoke to IPS confirmed the programme's benefits. "The yield varies between six and eight tonnes per hectare," said Louise Zawadi, a member of the Association of Women for Rural Development (AFEDER). "With rice selling for 80 cents U.S. per kilo, rice becomes profitable."
Bigger harvests, growing market share
IFDC has spent two years working alongside eight local associations and two universities in Bukavu to roll out its programme to boost rice production on the Ruzizi plain.
Key to the ISFM approach is the use of mineral fertilisers, imported into eastern DRC from Tanzania. Two measures were introduced in 2010 to make the fertiliser more accessible: the government agreed to waive import duties while IFDC subsidised the cost of distribution. This lowered the cost of fertiliser from $1.80/kg to a dollar per kilo.
The subsidy has been discontinued, but it appears to have achieved its aims, as imported fertiliser is now more readily available in the region at a price that has settled at $1.25/kilo. Herman Mutabataba, who coordinates an association of distributors of staple foods and seeds, notes fertiliser is still more expensive on the Ruzizi plain than across the border in neighbouring Tanzania and Rwanda, where there is greater government support for farmers.
Some producers have set up associations to pool their efforts. One such smallholder cooperative, 315 members strong, harvested 86 tonnes of rice - worth 17,200 dollars - at Luberizi during the first growing season of 2011, according to coop member Mukeba wa Rusatiza. In addition to a share of these profits, producers also gained access to high quality seed varieties.
Locally-produced rice is gaining ground in a market previously dominated by rice from Tanzania and Pakistan. Large quantities of rice are being brought to market in and around Bukavu and Uvira, the province's two biggest cities. Other farmers are now supplying the region's only brewery.
The Bralima brewery, owned by international beverage giant Heineken, is an important partner in promoting increased rice production. In 2010, its Bukavu facility imported more than 60 percent of the 2,800 tonnes of rice it used for brewing beer. But Bralima committed to use only local rice, and within a year had replaced its imports with locally-grown rice - including a contract for 350 tonnes a year agreed directly with a smallholder farmers' organisation.
Access to land
The Regional Council of Non-Governmental Organisations (CRONGD) has taken a leading role in the project. Delphin Zozo heads CRONGD's involvement, and he notes that when the project started, more than half of the producers taking part were cultivating rice on small plots, often leased from their owners for a growing season.
Access to land is a continuing challenge for smallholders. AFEDER member Espérance Matumaini, from Luvungi, a village on the Ruzizi plain, complained that leasing land cost far too much.
"It costs 200 U.S. dollars to lease a hectare. As far as buying it outright, that depends on the quality of the site: that will set you back between 400 to 600 dollars," she told IPS.
Jocelyn Matabaro, a specialist in land and natural resource issues and an independent consultant for IFDC, says that the CATALIST programme has made visible changes to land use. But, she told IPS, while waiting for an overhaul of DRC's land rights system, temporary measures should be implemented at the local level to improve relations between farmers who rent land and big land owners.
Many smallholders have already invested profits from bumper harvests in purchasing farmland. Zozo said that out of a total of 15,000 producers on the plain, 12,500 have adopted IFDC's methods. And more than half of those now practicing ISFM have bought their fields thanks to the encouraging returns. The typical size of plots has also increased, with many farmers expanding the size of their operations to plots of up to five hectares.
Smallholders have also learned how to better break down their production costs. Dieudonné Shukuru, one of the 350 members of a producers' association - Organisation of Producers for Intensifying Agriculture and Development - in Luvungi, said the cost per kilo of rice had fallen from 45 to 20 cents.
According to CRONGD's agronomist, Galilée Ibochwa, there are generally two harvests per year, but he stressed the problems that access to water poses in some locations. "Many dams are aging or have not been well maintained. At these sites, we have just one growing season," he told IPS.
While ISFM has brought concrete benefits to the Ruzizi plain, farmers say there are still other obstacles to overcome: the lack of sophisticated threshers to process rice, as well as access to subsidised fertiliser and other support from the government, which allocated a meagre 0.6 percent of the national budget to agriculture in 2012.