Daily Dispatch

SA farmers sow goodwill in the DRC

- By NASHIRA DAVIDS

ONCE, not too long ago, teenage boys would collect cellphones with flat batteries from their village in Malolo in the Democratic Republic of Congo and run 27km to Makabana – the nearest village that had an electricit­y supply.

There they would have the phones charged at the homes of sympatheti­c residents and run back to Malolo in the evenings. Their payment? A banana or a paw paw.

But this exhausting routine came to an end when a group of South African farmers saw the youngsters running – their hands filled with phones.

“These farmers just laid an electric line to an old woman’s house. They developed, in an hour or two, a cellphone charging bank with some 40 plugs where the local community can charge their cellphones,” said Dr Theo de Jager, vice president of Agrisa and the man who has been in negotiatio­ns with the Congolese government after it extended an invitation to South African farmers to come and work in the troubled country.

The 39 farmers were enticed to bring food security to the country.

Everything, according to De Jager, is imported there and a 6kg box of practicall­y rotten tomatoes, for example, costs about R700.

The state made 85 000ha of farm land available to the men, of whom 13 have moved to the country on

the Congo

to a “semi-permanent basis”. Thirteen others commute between South Africa and the Congo every two weeks and the other 13 are based, for now, in South Africa carrying out administra­tive work, including keeping abreast of finances and daily logistics.

The first 13 farmers – known as the “voorspan ” or advance team – arrived in Malolo in the Niari Valley just before Christmas last year.

At first they were given 1 200ha of land and had to first clear vegetation before planting maize.

They worked around the clock in shifts of eight hours and within a few months they produced a “beautiful” crop and sold it to the government for R2 400 a ton. American farmers, on the other hand, sell their maize for R3 000 a ton.

“The Americans next door [were given] 3 000ha in 1999 and they only managed to clear 300ha up to now and plant on it,” said De Jager.

In addition the South Africans planted a further 80ha of soya.

Not only have they impressed the government there, but they have also made a remarkable impact on the residents’ lives.

By fixing old pipes and pumps they have given locals the gift of tap water for the first time and they employ 200 people on the farm.

The local baker no longer sells mere slices of bread – he sells 200 loaves every day and employs the local chief, the chief’s wife and son.

Several of the farmers, said De Jager, sold their land in land claims or they had land claims submitted against their farms.

The move to the Congo has also proven to be a lucrative undertakin­g.

“The cost of electricit­y is much lower than in South Africa. Also there is no organised labour. There are no trade unions on the farms so you don’t have strikes the moment harvest time begins,” said De Jager.

Farmers including Neil Karg, whose wife and housekeepe­r were murdered on his dairy farm in Kwazulu-natal in 2010, and a former prisoner of war in Angola, Wynand du Toit, joined the community in the Congo.

Dr Pieter Mulder, Deputy Minister of Agricultur­e, Forestry and Fisheries and Freedom Front Plus leader, says South African farmers are forced to leave because they face an uncertain future.

“Maybe the two or three years listening to [Julius] Malema wasn’t a positive contributi­on either,” said Mulder.

Now, Mulder says, there is a government “appreciate­s us”.

Mulder visited the Congo earlier this month and said President Denis Sassou Nguesso and Agricultur­e Minister Rigobert Mabondou were impressed with the South Africans. He said their success was a “bitter-sweet” story because South Africa had lost great expertise.

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