DAKAR (Reuters) – In 2014, Democratic Republic of Congo officials trumpeted the launch of 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 – into use 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 had 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 percent of the world’s unexploited arable land but struggling to feed its surging population, Africa has become the latest laboratory for governments, development agencies and researchers trying to lead a new green revolution.
But 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 billboard partially obscured by overgrown grass 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, Congo’s economy minister Joseph Kapika said that Bukanga Lonzo “completely failed.” The minister blamed the South African company that had managed the park and said it had left “in bad faith.” He added that the 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’s 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 had incurred more than $50 million in losses at Bukanga Lonzo.
The company said it and the government spent more than $250 million combined on the project plus a related market and fertilizer factory but the park had produced at most 15,000 tonnes of maize in total – a fraction of the 350,000 tonnes annually forecasted by next year in marketing material.
The economy minister, in the interview, 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. LIMITED SUCCESS
With a food-import deficit running into the tens of billions of dollars and a spiraling numbers of undernourished inhabitants, Africa is casting about for ways to boost agricultural productivity.
Some countries, including Nigeria and Tanzania, have turned to agro-industrial parks — concentrations of large farms, processing factories and related infrastructure – modeled after similar sites in India, Brazil and Vietnam.
But 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 that can make this work at sufficient scale,” said Patrick Guyver, who has 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 said it committed last year to 101 million euros for an Ivory Coast project and that it 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, in emailed responses to questions, said Bukanga Lonzo had not failed and could still be resurrected. He added that 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 planned in central and southeastern 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, according to Ulimwengu and other officials involved in the project. Some people urged the 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., whom 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, also said they were under pressure to produce results quickly and that political considerations sometimes prevailed over economic ones. Matata, who was 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 said he continues to support the agro-industrial approach and lays most of the blame for Bukanga Lonzo’s difficulties on political instability in Congo that has scared off investors. RED FLAGS In early 2014, the Congolese government signed a five-year contract with Africom, whose subsidiary was partnering with the government on a fertilizer factory in southwestern Congo. The government invested a total of $161.2 million in Bukanga Lonzo as well as a market in Kinshasa intended to sell the produce and the fertilizer factor, according to Africom. Africom said it 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 that 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 the high costs of providing warrantees and spare parts in Congo and also misunderstood the nature of some of the promised work. Ernst & Young declined to comment.
In early 2016, the 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, Africom’s CEO.
After September of that year, the government stopped paying Africom altogether, he added.
Additional reporting by Patient Ligodi; Editing by Cassell Bryan-Low
Land grabs: Officials in Mubende district are colluding with economically powerful and politically connected people to grab local communities’ land.
By Witness Radio Team
Justine Nakachwa (not her real name) had never thought of losing land she and her family had happily lived on for decades. Her dream of owning farmland had come true.
The land passed down to generations of descendants from the late 1970s was now being claimed by a renowned businessman. She got staggered.
“I was shocked by this news because I have spent most of my life here. Am wondering how he could acquire the land without the knowledge of the whole village.” She painfully revealed this while speaking to a Witness Radio-Uganda reporter.
The sixty-year-old is one of the community members of over 800 smallholder farmers in the three villages; Biwaalwe, Kabaale, and Kyagaranyi in Kanyogoga parish, Butologo sub-county in Mubende district currently facing eviction by Tubikaku Uganda Limited, a company owned by City businessman Desh Kananura.
The smallholder farmers have been practicing subsistence farming on this land to earn a living since the 1970s.
Intending to secure ownership and legalize it, they conducted a search and due diligence, which revealed that the land had no encumbrances. In 2012, they applied for a lease. Sadly, the Mubende District Land Board declined to grant their request and instead awarded the lease of 906.4 hectares to a ghost company Tubikaku Uganda Limited.
The economically powerful and politically connected to grabbing the downtrodden land with the assistance of land board officials is rapidly growing in Uganda. With the aid of district land boards, cartels are increasingly disposing of smallholder farmers. This practice is now predominant in many districts in the country, especially Mubende district.
It is alleged that the District Land Board has previously leased people’s land to tycoons without following proper legal land acquisition procedures.
Seven years ago, a community’s land in Lwebigajji village in Mubende district of 226.5 hectares were grabbed by a local investor with the help of district land board officials. The community had lived on their land for over 30 years.
When the community showed interest in acquiring a leasehold on the land, the district land board of Mubende hurriedly offered the title to one Deo Semwogerere Mutyaba, a local businessman, who does not even own a decimal on the land.
Consequently, over 2000 families were affected. “In 2014, we requested the Mubende district lands board for a lease on this land, got surveyed using our efforts and resources, however upon returning the leasehold title in 2015, it had Semwogerere’s names as the owner of the land.” Grace Nantubiro, one of the community leaders said.
Samuel Wambi Mamali, a local businessman was also helped by the Mubende district land board officials to allegedly steal local community’s land covering three villages. These include Kyamukoona, Kijojolo, and Kalagala in Mubende District that have been occupied by locals for decades. The villages accommodate over 800 families.
The villagers indicated that Maamali fraudulently acquired a lease title he never applied for, did not consult community members on the land, nor at parish, or sub-county land committees that should have advised and guided on whether the land was lawfully being occupied and cultivated.
The few listed cases above are among several cases of grabbed land by wealthy and politically connected people in the Mubende district. The trend of district land boards facilitating land grabs has left many local and indigenous communities landless.
A community of over 300 smallholder farmers conned as their land is sold to a local investor without their consent.
By Witness Radio Team
As foreign agribusinesses take over Kiryandongo communities’ fertile land, other local investors are also eyeing the remaining land occupied by the poor families in the southwestern district of Uganda to grab their land.
A community of over 300 smallholder farmers in Ranch 22, Nyamuntende village in Kiryandongo district is being evicted by a local businessman Maseruka Robert who claims ownership of the land some have lived on for decades. Mr. Maseruka connived with some leaders in the community to grab land from the poor.
The evictions that started in August this year have caused the displacement of over 50 households so far on land measuring over 2000 acres without consultations or being fairly compensated. Crops belonging to residents, and houses were razed.
When evictions by multinationals soared in Uganda, the community acted swiftly to protect the interest on the land and avert a land grab. And in 2015, they applied for a lease of 49 years on the land from the Kiryandongo district land board which was granted to them.
However, unbeknownst to them, schemers would take advantage of this opportunity to grab their land. Earlier, the residents whose land is located on Ranch 22 Block 8 Bunyoro Ranching Scheme entrusted Wilson Sikhama, Ochema Richard, and a few other community members as their leaders in 2016 during the requisition of the land.
According to the residents, initially, the application processes unfolded as they had planned, however, Sikhama and Ochema allegedly connived with other people not known to the community to drop the names of some of the community members whom they had entrusted and replaced them with Julius Isingoma, Gerald Tumusiime, Messanger Gabriel Wabwire, Musokota William John and Simon Mwesige.
Residents further added that the land was titled in the names of the seven people who excluded the villagers. In 2019, when the community expected the location forms of the land per person, they understood that the land they had acquired was sold to one Maseruka Robert without their notification by Sikhama and the group.
In the same year 2019, the community ran to court seeking its intervention to regain the ownership of their land. The community was led by one of their own Mbabazi Samuel. In a blink of an eye, Mbabazi allegedly reached an agreement with the aforementioned group. On the 22nd of October 2020, he allegedly sold the said land to a group of people (Mr. Sikhama’s group) at One Hundred Million Shillings (100,000,000 equivalent to USD 26,483.79) without the approval of the community he represented.
After completion of the sale, the group of schemers sold the land to Maseruka who is now evicting the community.
In our interview with Maseruka, he failed to explain how he acquired the land but, insisted that he wanted the community to leave his land. “These people should leave my land because I want to use it, this is my land.” He maintained.
Some of the evictees whose houses were destroyed had relocated to their neighbors’ homes for fear of what would befall them. A 42-year-old widow and a mother of 10 said Maseruka’s accomplices destroyed her house leaving her destitute.
“These people wanted to give me 700,000/= (185.39) for the 15 acres of my land. When I resisted, they began destroying what they found including my house. They told me the money they were giving me was enough for me to vacate.” She explained.
The chairperson of the affected community, Mushija Caleb said his people are being forcefully evicted because they refused the peanuts given to them as compensation. He reiterated that his people don’t want to leave their land.
“They should not think of compensation irrespective of the amounts they are willing to offer because people are not interested in surrendering their land,” he added.
A self-claimed landlord who caused the imprisonment of six community land rights defenders on false charges was aligned before the court and charged with 28 counts.
By Witness Radio Team
A magistrate court at Mubende has charged a self-claimed landlord with 28 counts plus murder. Naava Milly Namutebi caused the arrest of six community land rights defenders, falsely accused them of murder, and got imprisoned for three years without trial.
Naava’s appearance before the court followed shortly after the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) dropped murder charges against six community land rights defenders. These include; Tumusiime Benjamin, Bagirana Innocent, Habana Domoro, Miyingo Gerald, Byangaramani Charles, and Byekwaso Fred.
Naava was charged along with Bulasio Musoke, Richard Mugagga, Henry Kaaya, among others. They were not allowed to answer any charges as the court had no power to make legal decisions and judgments on charges read to them.
The prosecution alleges that Naava and others still at large, committed offenses in areas of Mubende and Kampala districts between 2006 and 2021.
From 2012 to date, Naava got help from the senior army, police, and other public officers in Mubende orchestrated violence and committed human rights violations/abuses while forcefully evicting over 4,000 people off their land.
The land being targeted measures 3.5 square miles covering villages including Kirwanyi central, Kirwanyi East, Kirwanyi West, Nakasagazi, Kituule A, Kituule B, Kibalagazi A, Kibalagazi B, Kakkanembe, Bukyambuzi A, Bukyambuzi B, Kisende, Mulanda, Kituule central, Kirwanyi A, and Butayunja in Kirwanyi and Kituule parishes in Butoloogo Sub County in Mubende district.
Naava and others accused were remanded to Kaweeri prison until 19th/July/2022.
Witness Radio Milestones2 weeks ago
Witness Radio Uganda wins the best CSO land rights defenders award at the National Land Forum Awards.
Witness Radio Milestones1 week ago
The Executive Director of Witness Radio Uganda talks about the role played by Witness Radio in protecting communities affected by large-scale agribusinesses in Kiryandongo district in an interview with the ILC.