Mbuji Mayi, DR Congo — Mechanisation was expected to transform agriculture in the Democratic Republic of Congo's central province of East Kasaï. But a project to offer tractors for ploughing land has fallen flat.
Meanwhile, many households don't have enough to eat because agricultural production in this mineral-rich province is too low.
Ghislain Mudila, a smallholder farmer with a half-hectare farm near Lupatapata, north of Mbuji Mayi, the capital of East Kasaï, accuses politicians and the provincial administration of promising to make tractors available to everyone, but in the end distributing them to big farmers who already enjoy ample financial resources.
"They promised us tractors, but they are only serving themselves; why bother?"
He said he continues to provide for his family thanks to his hoe, inherited from his father.
Mudila had expected the promised tractors would be available to help him plough his plot for free. He said that would encourage smallholders to progressively abandon the hoe, because they would all like to cultivate larger plots and produce more.
Back in 2007, the provincial governor proclaimed agriculture the "priority of priorities". The announcement was greeted warmly by farmers, who saw this as a new beginning for the agriculture and livestock sectors, which had declined steadily for three decades, following the liberalisation of artisanal diamond mining in 1982.
Many of East Kasaï's residents abandoned farming, attracted by the easy profits promised by mining precious stones. Today, in the province's major towns and cities, everything is bought at the market, and prices are high, said Antoine Mpoyi, a resident of Mbuji Mayi.
The national government wanted to modernise agriculture in this province, and in 2009 bought 100 tractors. But three years later, production of staple foods (maize, cassava, rice and black-eyed peas) in East Kasaï fails to meet the needs of the province's six million people.
According to the provincial ministry of agriculture, the province required some 6.9 million tonnes of food in 2011, but the total harvest that year was only 6.3 million tonnes.
Despite the deficit, some of this output was exported clandestinely to neighbouring provinces, creating shortages, aggravating food insecurity, and driving up prices in local markets. For example, the price of maize has remained high over the past year - around 80 cents a kilo.
"The provision of tractors has not been well managed," said Felly Muambayi, from the Project for the Rehabilitation of the Agricultural and Rural Sectors. "Their arrival coincided with the preparations for the 2011 elections and politicians seized on the programme as an opportunity to campaign."
He told IPS that only 60 of the 100 tractors were still operating, with the rest lacking spare parts. "They should have been given directly to the real beneficiaries instead of going through the members of parliament, and traditional and religious leaders."
The Rural Agriculture Management Council, charged with managing the tractors, criticised the involvement of politicians in the distribution process. "Proper procedure was not respected," said coordinator Isidore Tshibanza.
He proposed the prior identification of real users, the strengthening of their capacities, and the signing of performance contracts for better results.
"They charged me 35 dollars per hectare to rent a tractor, besides the charge for the tractor operator and his assistant. I also had to pay for 40 litres of diesel at 2.50 dollars per litre. It was too expensive for me," Mudila told IPS.
"We are in a diamond-rich province where people have lost sight of how agriculture works," said Tshibanza. "It makes no sense to want to have access to the tractor service for free. The tractors have to be maintained and their parts replaced."
He suggested smallholders need to be encouraged to group themselves into cooperatives. "That would reduce costs. People have to be re-educated about agriculture before trying to mechanise."
In fact, the terms under which the tractors can be accessed exceed the resources available to smallholders practicing subsistence agriculture.
The provincial minister for agriculture, Roger Tshilombo, has just ordered that all the tractors be recalled and allocated afresh. He conceded that they have not improved agricultural output as hoped. Once they've been recalled, the tractors will be immobilised while waiting for reassignment for the growing season which begins in August.
An agriculture ministry report published in 2011 suggested that increasing the average size of farms would be the best way to reduce food insecurity in the province.
According to this report, 18,400 hectares of arable land have been handed over to farmers since 2009. But production has fallen short of demand due to poor rainfall, a lack of agricultural inputs and technical means, and soil degradation. The province has more than two million agricultural households.
The provincial government intends to channel its energies towards agroforestry, reforestation, the regulation of bush fires and finding quality fertilisers to benefit producers.
Bavon Mbuyi, a local politician, told IPS: "We believe that if the government had better policies, agriculture would be attractive to many people. They would shift from subsistence farming to industrial or commercial agriculture and do worthwhile business in the province."