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Congo cocoa April 24th, 2016 by

Pink jerkin ferments cacaoThe Democratic Republic of Congo is high on everyone’s list of failed states, with problems most acute in the east. Yet a closer look reveals pockets of success that suggest a rosier future than that revealed by frequent, grim news from Goma and beyond. I have been visiting cocoa farmers in the northern parts of North Kivu since 2004 and during the latest trip I saw further signs of how this crop is bringing about positive changes.

DRC is and will remain a tiny producer of cocoa on the world stage, but the money earned by farmers in North Kivu is hugely significant. Agriculture is the mainstay of Beni, whose major town of the same name bustles and throbs with life. The loud cheers from a nearby bar told me in advance of reading the latest update from the BBC online match report the latest goal in the Real Madrid football match. Satellite TV has arrived in town, as has Wi-Fi. Mobile phone coverage has improved dramatically in rural areas, where once we relied on a single mast in Beni ville.

There are now several fancy hotels and a modern factory on the outskirts producing beer and soft drinks. It is a radical change in a region whose history of conflict would still deter most businesses. At Nobili, the last major village before reaching Bundibugyo on the Ugandan border, there are now two motorcycle dealers. Inexpensive Chinese motorbikes abound in Beni ville and on the roads to Butembo, Komanda and surrounding villages. In farmer meetings I saw that more had phones and sensed that people looked healthier and wore better clothes compared to earlier visits.

Loaded up on motorbikeOf course these are just impressions based on fleeting glances. Smarter shops in Beni ville, more motorcycles everywhere, satellite TV and wider mobile phone coverage are hardly
robust indicators of widespread social and economic improvements. But there’s no doubting that progress has occurred and no denying the significant contribution of money
earned from growing cocoa.

There are few other sources of major income that people can rely on in Beni. Papain, the dried latex from papaya, is traded internationally, as is vanilla and coffee, slowly recovering from coffee wilt disease but displaced by cocoa in importance. In Lubero territoire to the south, where cocoa planting is still low, farmers earn a useful income from quinine bark. But none of these other commodities comes close to cocoa in value or potential to lift households out of poverty and give greater certainty to a more secure future.

And this is only the beginning. More and more farmers are catching on to the idea of growing cocoa and others are expanding cocoa plantings. Yields are still improving. Soils are fertile, the climate well suited to cocoa and the threat of pests and diseases is still relatively low.

Towards Basimba factoryBut anyone familiar with agriculture will know that the one predictable thing about the future is that it is unpredictable. North Kivu is still a fragile province, with social tensions that will take a long time to ease. Looking back over the last 12 years I am surprised and delighted by the positive changes I have seen. The popularity of chocolate – still a legal indulgence – is on the rise, and farmers in Beni are responding.

There will be glitches and setbacks ahead, but it is a real pleasure to see how agriculture is transforming a region rich in potential but supposedly weak in exploiting it. Growing cocoa can and is making a real difference to many people in North Kivu.

Read related blogs

Out of the shade (on cocoa and neighbour trees)

Eating bark (on quinine bark)

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