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Research on Congo’s basic crops

A first step towards producing more and better

14 February 2011, Kinshasa/Rome -  "What is there that I don't need to do?" Dr. Stefan Hauser of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) asks. Hauser, the scientific supervisor of the agricultural component of an EU-funded FAO operation in support of agricultural and forestry research in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, draws a picture of a land of plenty but - paradoxically - one where most people do not have enough to eat.

With 80 million hectares of arable land, DR Congo's agricultural potential is enormous. But only ten percent of it is being used, and the total is declining. The surface cultivated for a staple crop like cassava has declined from 2.4 million hectares in 1991 to 1.9 million in 2001. An estimated 75 percent of the Congolese population is underfed.

Agricultural research, Hauser's own field of experience, does not fare much better. Of the 32 research stations the country had at the time of its independence in 1960, only 9 remain operational. They are, moreover, poorly equipped, Hauser says, and more importantly, understaffed. The National Institute for Agronomic Study and Research (INERA) has 63 researchers, of whom only a handful at PhD level.

In this context, Hauser explains that IITA, in concert with FAO and Congolese authorities has chosen a "pragmatic" approach:  to use existing infrastructure, rehabilitate it and prioritise research on the basic pests and diseases of Congo's staple crops, such as cassava and plantain. A first step towards rebuilding the scientific capacity that will enable Congo to produce more and better food and, eventually, to reduce undernourishment.

Enemies of the white fly

"There is a void in Congo," says Tony Bakelana in Mvuazi, a village in the southwestern Bas-Congo province, hosting an INERA research centre. He is one of the 24 students - five PhDs and 19 MScs - enrolled in agricultural research projects under REAFOR, the French acronym for the EU-funded FAO operation.

REAFOR, Bakelana says, has blown "new life" into research. Bakelana, studying for an MSc, does research on role of the white fly as a vector for Cassava Mosaic Disease and Brown Streak, viruses that pose lethal threats to cassava yields, using plant specimens he has harvested from five experimental sites throughout the province.

In Mvuazi's laboratory, he has analyzed the levels of resistance of the different cassava varieties used and by the end of 2010, when he defended his thesis, Bakelana had made a significant contribution to identifying those natural enemies of the white fly that can be used instead of pesticides to stem the spread of viruses.

Flowers

Late in the afternoon, the laboratory's rooms are softly lit by the fading sunlight. Standing next to an open file cabinet drawer, in which a 1942 study on the vegetation of Congo's national parks can be seen, Germaine Vangu talks about the ‘stagnation' of agricultural research over the past decades.

Vangu, an associate researcher at INERA since 1992, is busy taking extracts of plantain to check on the presence of worms attacking their roots. It's only a small part of her wide-ranging PhD study to evaluate the entire system of plantain production in Bas-Congo. The study, she hopes, will contribute to a renaissance of the crop, wiped out from the province over twenty years ago by a pest, Black Sigatoka Disease.

The next day, standing in a field between four lines of buckets, Vangu declares: "I am from here." This, she says, explains why she was devastated by the disappearance of plantain. It meant so much for the people, she adds, both as a cash crop and as food to put on the table. "People said it was due to a curse, because our farmers were making too much money from plantain. But it was a plant disease."

Six weeks earlier, Vangu had planted plantain together with vetiver, in a different way for each bucket, which meant varying the depth of their respective roots. She hopes to be able to determine if the proximity of vetiver can help diminish the incidence of worms, without provoking yield losses that, she suspects, are caused by both plants' roots vying for the same nutrients and water.

Watching her measuring the height of plantain plantlets on a tiny field amid the savannahs of southwestern Congo, this African giant, whose problems are as huge as its possibilities, one cannot help but wonder what brought a woman like Germaine Vangu to agricultural research. Looking up, she smiles and says: "It is simple. I have always loved flowers." 

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