In 2014, Democratic Republic of Congo officials trumpeted a sweeping initiative they said would solve food shortages in one of the world’s poorest countries.
The plan: to transform land covering more than 17,900 square kilometres of the central African nation – more than half the landmass of former colonial master Belgium – for industrial-scale agriculture to boost food production.
That summer, President Joseph Kabila inaugurated an 800-square kilometre plot in western Congo called Bukanga Lonzo, the first of 22 planned projects across the country to produce everything from maize to sunflowers to poultry.
Three years later, the pilot collapsed. Activity on site ground to a halt after the South African company brought in as a co-investor and to manage the park left, saying it hadn’t been paid by the Congolese government in nearly a year.
With more than 60% of the world’s unexploited arable land but struggling to feed a surging population, Africa has become the latest laboratory for governments, development agencies and researchers trying to lead a new green revolution.
Experiments like Bukanga Lonzo serve as cautionary tales for those in search of quick fixes, showing how weak investor interest, poor infrastructure and byzantine land regulations can stymie Africa’s agricultural potential.
These days, police guard the park entrance, where a partially obscured billboard still displays the insignia of a hand cupping a stalk of wheat.
Congolese officials acknowledge the project’s collapse but express hope the pilot and the broader initiative can be revived.
In an interview, economy minister Joseph Kapika said Bukanga Lonzo “completely failed.” The minister blamed the South African company managing the park and said it left “in bad faith.” Government plans to re-launch the park with a focus on livestock.
The company, Africom Commodities Pty Ltd, disputes Kapika’s claims about what went wrong. Africom chief executive, Christo Grobler, said the problem was high costs and an unreliable government partner that would change its mind from day to day about the project’s direction. He said the company incurred more than $50 million in losses at Bukanga Lonzo.
It and government spent more than $250 million combined on the project plus a related market and fertilizer factory but the park produced at most 15,000 tonnes of maize in total – a fraction of the 350,000 tonnes annually forecast by next year in marketing material.
The economy minister declined to comment on the cost of the project. Congo’s agriculture ministry declined to comment. The portfolio minister, who oversees state contracts, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Park officials declined to be interviewed or grant Reuters access to the site. Kabila’s deputy chief of staff did not respond to a request for comment.
With a food import deficit of tens of billions of dollars and a spiralling numbers of undernourished inhabitants, Africa is casting about to boost agricultural productivity.
Some countries, including Nigeria and Tanzania, turned to agro-industrial parks — concentrations of large farms, processing factories and related infrastructure – modelled after similar sites in India, Brazil and Vietnam.
Efforts in Africa so far have met limited success, according to a 2017 report by the United Nations.
Some specialists in agricultural innovation say industrial scale farming can work but the approach in Africa is often flawed. “No one’s figured out the model to make this work at sufficient scale,” said Patrick Guyver, who consulted on agriculture projects across Africa.
The African Development Bank is nevertheless accelerating a push for projects such as Bukanga Lonzo, for which it provided about $1 million to finance a feasibility study.
The bank committed last year to 101 million euros for an Ivory Coast project and is due this year to consider funding for three others. It held a conference in Tunis in February to discuss new projects in Ethiopia, Togo, Mozambique, and elsewhere.
African Development Bank spokesman Chawki Chahed said Bukanga Lonzo had not failed and could be resurrected. He added in general such projects “are complex and so their development and design are gradual.” He said the Bank plans to spend $2.2 million on feasibility studies for three more agro-industrial parks in central and south-eastern Congo, without specifying when the studies would begin.
“PEOPLE ARE STARVING”
A key proponent of Congo’s plan was John Ulimwengu, an advocate of industrial-scale agriculture in Africa and a fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington D.C.
In 2013, Ulimwengu was advising Congo’s then Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo and pushed for a pilot project to produce food for export and domestic consumption. Some people urged government to do further research before embarking on the Bukango Lonzo initiative. That included Calestous Juma, a professor of farming innovation at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., who Ulimwengu briefed on the project in a January 2014 meeting, both men told Reuters. Juma has since passed away.
The prime minister insisted on moving more quickly, according to Ulimwengu. “I remember the prime minister telling us, ‘I am a politician. I made some promises to the population. While we are doing this, people are dying, people are starving,'” Ulimwengu said.
Gloria Mangoni, who worked in the prime minister’s office at the time, said they were under pressure to produce results quickly and political considerations sometimes prevailed over economic ones. Matata, replaced as prime minister in late 2016, did not respond to a request for comment. In a recent speech, he blamed Bukanga Lonzo’s problems on the site’s poor soil quality.
Ulimwengu continues to support the agro-industrial approach and lays most of the blame for Bukanga Lonzo’s difficulties on political instability in Congo scaring off investors.
In early 2014, the Congolese government signed a five-year contract with Africom, whose subsidiary was partnering with government on a fertilizer factory. Government invested a total of $161.2 million in Bukanga Lonzo as well as a market in Kinshasa meant to sell produce and fertilizer, according to Africom. Africom invested $91.3 million in those projects.
The following year, in 2015, audit firm Ernst & Young raised red flags in a report commissioned by the finance ministry. Ernst & Young said prices the park paid for equipment from Africom’s sister companies were “excessively higher” than those offered by competitors and promised infrastructure had not materialised, according to the report. In a response to Ernst & Young reviewed by Reuters, Africom said the audit firm failed to account for high costs of providing warranties and spare parts in Congo and misunderstood the nature of some of the promised work. Ernst & Young declined to comment.
In early 2016, government fell behind on its monthly $4.8 million payments to Africom to manage the park as low prices for Congo’s main exports copper and cobalt ate into public finances, said Grobler.
After September of that year, government stopped paying Africom altogether, he added.