* Drive to modernise agriculture in mining giant
* Plan to create jobs, feed population and diversify economy
* Farmers say they, not foreigners, should be helped
By Peter Jones
KINSHASA, July 16 Democratic Republic of Congo
has launched its first agricultural business park, the initial
step in a plan to use its vast tracts of arable land to produce
food, create jobs and wean the economy off its dependence on
Congo has 80 million hectares of arable land and some 70
percent of the population works in farming but most are involved
in subsistence agriculture and the country spent $1.5 billion on
food imports last year.
The programme hinges on Congo overcoming its reputation for
being one of the trickiest business environments and reversing
the current trend for agriculture's contribution to the economy
declining as the mining sector expands.
"This initiative has potential to create durable growth and
limit the vulnerability of an economy that depends on natural
resources and fluctuations of international markets," Jean
Chrysostome Vahamwiti, minister for agriculture and rural
development, said on Tuesday at the launch of the 75,000 hectare
Bukanga Lonzo park, 240 km (150 miles) east of Kinshasa.
The government hopes foreign and local farmers there will
produce a range of vegetables - including corn, beans and
cassava - as well as meat and fish to be mainly sold in
Kinshasa, which is home to some 10 million people.
The government has spent $83 million setting up Bukanga
Lonzo, where South African firm Mozfood & Energy carried out
feasibility studies and a South African consortium called
Africom has been handed the management contract.
President Joseph Kabila has pledged to radically reform
agriculture in his country, which is rich in minerals and
fertile land but has endured decades of misrule and slipped into
a series of conflicts since the 1990s.
Kabila attended the launch, driving one of the tractors due
to be used to work the land, but he did not make any comment.
Congo's per capita agricultural production has been in
decline since the 1960s and 70 percent of its population lives
on under a dollar a day, according John Ulimwengu, senior
adviser for agriculture and rural development in the prime
"The objective here is to liberate ourselves from this
dependence on imports," he said, adding that some investors had
expressed interest but no deals have been signed yet.
Congo's economy is due to grow by 8.7 percent this year,
extending a post-war revival as investors tap into the potential
of the Central African nation, but the expansion is largely
fuelled by the eastern-focused mining sector.
Bukanga Lonzo, in the west, is meant to create 5,000 direct
and 12-15,000 indirect jobs. Similar sites are due to be rolled
out in each of the country's 11 provinces.
However, small farmers said the government should focus on
helping those already in place rather than handing large swathes
of land to foreign investors.
"The problem is that the huge percentage of people who work
the land must be supported," said Victor Nzuzi, a farmer and
activist. "We just need to give them the means. This initiative
only serves the investors."
Ulimwengu said small scale farmers had a role to play, for
example in selling produce to the business park, but Congo's
priority had to be to modernise the sector as a whole.
(Editing by David Lewis and Alison Williams)