Thursday June 27, 2013 | 01:37 PM

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the second-largest country in Africa. It is a country with huge growth potential, beset by widespread displacement and attacks on civilians by armed groups outside the government’s control. Children are at risk of infectious diseases carried by insects and unsanitary living conditions and of being recruited by M23 rebels. An estimated 2.3 -2.6 million persons have been displaced since conflicts broke out there in the 1990s.

Defiant of what might seem insurmountable obstacles, four persons from the DRC traveled to Maine earlier this month for four days of farm business training with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. The purpose of this short-course was to equip them with skills and knowledge related to farm business planning; farm product marketing; farm enterprise selection and evaluation; food processing and food safety with a goal of sustainable and successful farming. The group, joined by several recent immigrants, visited local farms, Falmouth Farmers’ Market, and food processing businesses including Winter Hill Farm in Freeport, Maine.

UMaine Extension Educator Tori Lee Jackson, one of the organizers, spoke with me about the tour.

Do you have any special stories from the tour?

Our trip to Hall Implement, a local John Deere dealer, was really fun. There was a lot of interest in tractors- something they do not have in the DRC. I took hundreds of photos of them sitting at the wheel of each model (with multiple requests to have copies of the photos sent to them at home).

Since participants are all native French speakers, it was fun to try out some phrases I retained from high school. I tried not to use them often so I wouldn’t give the impression I could understand too much of what they were saying. During the certification ceremony, after which we enjoyed some amazing African food, I pulled out all the stops. They were very entertained. It was a fun way to end the week.

With so much information being translated both ways over the course of the week, the lighter moments offered some humor and easy communication one-on-one, with no translation required.

It has been said the Congo has the potential to feed the whole of Africa, but that translating that potential into a reality will take a concerted effort on the part of policy makers. Were any policy makers involved in and/or receptive to this trip on either the U.S. or DRC’s end?

The participants from the DRC were all representatives from the largest church in the country (the Word of God). It is their goal to create a national system, via the church, to train farmers and feed the country. It is my impression that there are representatives from the government joining us next time, but I think this will become clear as we continue to work with this group.

Was there any discussion about the economic climate and leveraging of agricultural resources?

What was presented to us was that there was no real vegetable agriculture for local agricultural markets. That’s why the focus of the training was on the business of farming. How to operate each farm as a business, and then how a larger infrastructure will eventually be necessary.

What, do you think were the most important lessons the farmers learned? What about you/University of Maine staff?

The most important lessons for participants were the most basic ones: basing decisions on the market and the financial needs of individual farm families. The group was also very interested in tractors from the beginning. After talking about the need for infrastructure for fueling and maintenance, it was clear to them that buying the tractor wasn’t the only consideration for mechanizing the farm. We were able to show them draft steers and how using animals for field work might be an appropriate intermediate step.

For the UMaine educators, I think there were many lessons learned… until the training actually started, we did not realize exactly what the DRC participants had in mind. They didn’t just want some training for beginning farmers, they want to build a national food system! On day one, it was decided this would be an ongoing partnership to help them achieve that goal.

And, no matter how long you have been teaching, it is always good to be reminded of the incredible value of hands-on learning. The tours were crucial to the success of the week.

How did you choose the farms, places you visited? I’m partially wondering, because my understanding is coffee, cocoa, sugar, and cotton are primary crops in the DRC and that livestock are kept only in small numbers due to economics.

The farms were chosen for their diversity and success in their industries. We were interested in teaching concepts, not how to grow individual crops. Most of the crops currently grown in the DRC are for export. Their food supply is mostly imported. We chose farms where the producers are feeding themselves and their communities. Some of the crops and livestock may not be the same species, but how to choose which crops to grow and food safety considerations are universal.

Are there plans for another tour in the future? What are next steps, goals?

Yes! In fact, the next session will focus on post-harvest handling of crops and food preservation, and will be held in Lisbon Falls on October 28-30th. The request is for UMaine Extension to hold trainings quarterly, including annual trips to the DRC. I am also hoping to make a strong connection with the U.S. AID contingent already working there.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (Country Profile)
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations, violent attacks have increased in eastern DRC in recent weeks. It is thought this could be a response to the U.N.’s recent deployment of a U.N. brigade of peacekeeping troops to the area.

Despite the fragile political and security situation, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund believe the DRC’s economy will grow slowly and steadily with $12.3 billion in external debt relief granted in 2010 and conservative efforts by the government moving forward. Unfortunately, much of the efforts seem to be directed by a weak government at mineral and forestry contracts.

At the recent United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s conference in Rome Italy, Dr. Ibrahim Mayaki, CEO of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, said two-thirds of Africa's population depends on agriculture, and spoke of empowering small-scale farmers to become entrepreneurs so that they can sell and buy food.

According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, only 10 percent of agricultural land is used for food production, as armed civil conflict led farmers to abandon production on war-torn farmlands. 

Susan Schulman, an award-winning video/photojournalist based in London, has chronicled the plight of the village of Kimua in the eastern DRC for the past five years. In her work she has documented the desperate experience of those persons cut off from their fields for fear of being victimized by a rebel group made up of persons incriminated in the Rwandan genocide. She told me people in the Kivu Region of the DRC lack in all infrastructure and are plagued by over a decade of insecurity. “Only 3000 kilometers of paved road exist in a country the size of Western Europe, a fact which bedevils access to markets and must have other implications,” Schulman wrote. “Those who feature in my film are subsistence farmers, relying on their plantations for their own food needs, while selling off what they don't need to purchase goods, health care and school fees. Clearly this chain has been interrupted with catastrophic consequences for the population.”

International Assistance
Dozens of organizations are working in the DRC to help mediate the conflict in eastern DRC and bring awareness to the challenges there. Welthungerhilfe, a German non-governmental aid agency continues to actively assist farming efforts by promoting agriculture in fertile areas, distributing seed and agricultural implements to farm families and teaching them new and improved growing methods during training sessions.

For more farming project efforts in the DRC check out this report by the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Photos by Tori Lee Jackson.

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About the Author

Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.

When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.

In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.

Sharon can be contacted at kitchens.sharon@gmail.com or on Twitter @deliciousmusing.

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