Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

Congo Farm Project
Congo Farm Project

The goal is to produce a self-sufficient village where villagers can live a peaceful productive life, safe from the strife of war and trouble.

by Alexander Petroff

FROM STARVATION TO SUSTAINABILITY

It was April 2006. After years of imagining and studying and training in every way I could think of about how to start a self-sufficient village, I was about to actually start. I had even set up a non-profit organization, Working Villages International, and raised a little start-up money. Still, up to this point, it was all just a dream. But now, I was finally at the turning point between dream and reality. I was at day one, standing outside an old burnt-out Belgian plantation house, donated to us by the progressive young chief of the village of Luvungi. My Congolese friend and I had told him that we would need to hire some workers to help clear the land around the compound, and to put a new roof on the building.

Congo Farm Project

A village chief donated an old burned out Belgian plantation house for WVI’s headquarters.

We could pay the workers only about $2.00 per day, but that was good pay in a region where there annual income was $100 and unemployment was 98 percent. I thought we should be able to attract at least 20 workers. Then, I looked out to see a crowd of about 800 eager villagers, each one with their own hoe. They were ready to work!

Congo Farm Project

WVI’s refurbished headquarters. Villagers were originally surprised at plans to install a grass roof.

Thus began WVI’s Ruzizi Valley Project in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where 10 years of war had left over 4 million people dead, plunged the country into anarchy, and just about completely collapsed the economy. Before the war, the Ruzizi Valley, located in eastern Congo, along the Rwanda border had been known as the “rice bowl of Congo.” It is located practically on the equator, with rich soil, and a relatively cool climate because of its high altitude.

Clouds of moisture evaporating from Lake Tanganyika, 40 miles south, collide with the Mitumba Mountains to the north, delivering ample rain, except during the summer dry season. A farmer’s paradise! Congolese refugees back in Maine had told me they learned of the Ruzizi Valley at their high school in Kinshasa (1000 miles from Ruzizi), “One bean plant can grow 5 pounds of beans!” Before the war, the Ruzizi Valley was covered with farms and dairy cows.

But now, practically all that was gone. When Rwanda solved its problem of genocide by pushing the Hutu fighters into Congo, Congo was severely destabilized, and Ruzizi bore the brunt of the fighting because it was right on the Rwanda border. Its farms were wiped out, and most survivors fled to the cities. Nine different countries became involved in “Africa’s First World War.” Unfortunately, their real goal was not to save Congo, but to exploit its reserves of gold, copper, diamonds and the coltan needed for cell phones.

The violence and collapsed infrastructure left the population starving. Even though many local people had been killed or driven off the land, there was a U.N. camp in the Ruzizi Valley, and that attracted refugees who were driven away from other places. The population was quite mixed ethnically, but they were all starving equally.

Two years before I started the project in Congo, I had spent my junior semester abroad, working at the Namalu Ox Hire and Ox Training Center in Uganda, and writing a paper on economic development for college. One constant problem when I was in Uganda was poisonous snakes. Karamoja was a dry province, and when anyone mixed up concrete, half a dozen poison snakes would shoot out of the grass towards you, hoping to get some moisture from the concrete. I worried about having a similar problem in Ruzizi.

I asked Chief Ombeni, “What’s the snake situation here?”

He replied, “There are no snakes.”

“But how can that be? This is exactly the kind of place that snakes like.”

“In the war, the people were hungry, so they ate all the snakes.”

“Yes, but, if you have no snakes, then you must have a rat problem.”

“No, they ate them also.”

The miracle of WVI’s Ruzizi Valley project is that we have been able to take these same starving people, and give them the training and the opportunity to produce their own food using sustainable methods. Now, after 4 years, the 600 villagers who work for us, and their families, have an ample diet and are eating much better quality food than the average American. How did we do that?

Congo Farm Project

Corn is popular in the local diet.

STARTING WITH AGRICULTURE

In my college travels to different non-profit groups in Uganda, I saw innumerable projects where a school or orphanage or hospital had been built. The services were important, but they depended on a constant flow of cash from Western countries. So once the Western overseers pulled out, you could see numerous ramshackle projects where the cash flow had dried up.

Another weakness was to set up a project to be fully dependent on foreigners for the day-to-day leadership of the project. The most effective projects, like the Namalu Ox Hire and Ox Training Center where I worked, carefully cultivated leadership personnel by selecting and training the most qualified individuals from the local population. This model was more sustainable because it created better loyalty from the local population, made people more receptive to the training, and encouraged local initiative.

I saw the drawbacks of relying too much on Western cash and Western project leaders. Instead, I wanted to develop my project in such a way that it requires less outside funding – not more; and less outside leadership – not more – as time went by.

Thus, I decided to put my first emphasis on agriculture and to find local leadership to manage day-to-day operations, if at all possible. Looking back over the last few years, I’m convinced that agriculture was the best choice to avoid the pitfall of long-term economic dependence on the West. By providing start-up capital and training, we can get people launched on a path of economic development that can keep going even after we pull out. And, I made it clear from the beginning that we would definitely leave: After ten years, we will move to another village: you will be on your own.

That way, based on their own economic power, people can build social services like schools, health care facilities, and care for orphans. These won’t be as fancy as services funded by Western donors, but instead of collapsing when the donor base leaves, the local services they start can continue because they will be founded on the local economic base.

LOCALIZED ECONOMICS = VILLAGE SELF RELIANCE

Africa is strewn with the wreckage of 60 years of failed development programs. Practically all of them have been based on producing something for export, something for the global economy. Even farming is no better than mining, if it is just going to be to sell overseas. There is no profit for local farmers, especially small farmers, because they have to compete with agribusiness farmers abroad who have an unfair advantage due to government subsidies and economy of scale. Any remaining profits for small African farmers are eaten by the skyrocketing price of shipping.

I was amazed to learn that according to US government statistics, the biggest component of food aid to foreign countries is actually the shipping costs, not the grain or milk. Working Villages is also not interested in selling fair trade coffee or making different craft items to be sold in U.S. boutiques. These simply can’t provide widespread economic benefit in the communities that produce them. The global economy is a failure and it will continue to be more of a failure as oil gets more expensive. So what is the alternative model?

The alternative is to build a local economy focused on providing for local needs. Gandhi called it “Swadeshi.” I call it simply “Village Self Reliance.” The idea is not to make one agribusiness CEO a billionaire while everyone who works for him struggles to scrape by. Instead, the idea is to give a village full of people a chance to make a decent living by using local land and local materials to produce food and goods that their neighbors actually need. This idea is so simple that it’s difficult for many people to understand, because they have been taught all their life that “free market” international trade is the miracle that will solve all economic problems. But, ultimately what we want at Working Villages is many locally owned, small farms and workshops that work together to provide for each other to build a community.

Congo Farm Project

“MUZUNGU NYASI”

When I started my village in 2006, I set up a Congolese friend as project manager. The Ruzizi Valley has vast tracts of scrub land, and we worked hard organizing everyone to clear land and dig up the soil to plant a 60 x 100 foot garden. Villagers were enthusiastic workers. However, they suddenly became skeptical when they found out that I planned to put a grass roof on the dilapidated plantation house the chief had given us. They expected us to simply drive to the city of Bukavu and purchase a tin roof, like all the other foreign non-profit organizations they had seen. They thought I must be crazy.

Behind my back they began to call me “Muzungu Nyasi.” “Muzugu” means “white man” and “Nyasi” means “grass.” “Grass-man.” But really, it meant “Crazy-man.”

But I had learned thatching at Fox Maple school in Maine, and it was important principle to make sure everyone had a chance to earn a little money. We paid villagers 25 cents apiece for bundles of grass, and 50 cents apiece for bundles of matetei bamboo. As they soon realized that they were going to be the benefactors of this policy, they decided that “Muzungu Nyasi” was not so crazy after all.

However, the name stuck. Only now it became an honorable title. (Even a year or two later, if I visited the chief of a neighboring village, my translator would introduce me, “This is Muzungu Nyasi.” “Oh, Muzungu Nyasi! We have heard about your work. When are you coming to do a project in our village also?”) Also, amazingly, our workers had so much determination that they built a half mile road to the project – using only hand tools – in just three days.

The villagers were grateful for work, but we had so many prospective workers we couldn’t afford to keep them all. We set up a policy. For one week, we would hire the first ten men and the first ten women who showed up for work each day.

It was important to hire men, because unemployed men could become lured by various militia groups and cause violence and instability, but it was also important to hire women, because many of them were the head of household since their husbands were killed in the war.

At the end, we hired the best of the best, and these men and women became our core workers. They learned quickly and were hard workers. (Over time we expanded our work force, as we were able to raise more money. These excellent workers set a strong example, which was a great benefit as we brought new workers on board.)

I had to return to the US to graduate from Hampshire College in May, and to raise more funds. According to my previous plan, I relied heavily on my Congolese project manager. He was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the project, but unfortunately it turned out that he had no real managerial ability. I could only be in Congo for a few weeks at a time and whenever I was away, he was not able to develop the project in a focused manner. After about a year, he left the project for some more exciting endeavor. Building a farm project was not for him.

That left me with no one to manage the project. I needed to get back to Congo, to find new management, but there was a huge outbreak of instability and widespread fighting preceding the national elections (the first in 40 years) so I had to wait. Week by week, I grew more worried, wondering if my project had been destroyed during the fighting.

Congo Farm Project

Fiston Malago, the manager of WVI’s Ruzizi Valley project, is a trained agronomist.

NEW MANAGEMENT

SmallFarmersJournal.com is a live, ever-changing subscription website. To gain access to all the content on this site, subscribe for just $5 per month. If you are not completely satisfied, cancel at any time. Here at your own convenience you can access past articles from Small Farmer's Journal's first forty years and all of the brand new content of new issues. You will also find posts of complete equipment manuals, a wide assortment of valuable ads, a vibrant events calendar, and up to the minute small farm news bulletins. The site features weather forecasts for your own area, moon phase calendaring for farm decisions, recipes, and loads of miscellaneous information.

Spotlight On: How-To & Plans

Posts

Driving Fence Posts By Hand

Where the soil is soft, loose, and free from stone, posts may be driven more easily and firmly than if set in holes dug for the purpose.

Pulling A Load With Oxen

an excerpt from Oxen: A Teamster’s Guide

Blacksmithing with Pete Cecil Building a Fire

Farm Drum #29: Blacksmithing with Pete Cecil – Building a Fire

Lynn Miller & Pete Cecil talk about Blacksmithing basics, and Pete demonstrates building a fire in the forge.

How To Prune

From Dusty Shelves: Pruning Guide from 1917

Barn Raising

Barn Raising

by:
from issue:

Here it was like a beehive with too many fuzzy cheeked teen-agers who couldn’t possibly be experienced enough to be of much help. But work was being accomplished; bents, end walls and partitions were being assembled like magic and raised into place with well-coordinated, effortless ease and precision. No tempers were flaring, no egomaniacs were trying to steal the show, and there was not the usual ten percent doing ninety percent of the work.

Delivery Wagon Plans

Delivery Wagon Plans

from issue:

While the low down delivery wagon is an improvement, the objectionable features are increased. But with all those objections the low down wagons increase every year. Their convenience outweighs all other objections. They are handy for country delivery and are fitted up inside to suit either grocers, bakers, butchers or milk delivery, or a combination of the four.

Harvesting Rainwater

Harvesting Rainwater

by:
from issue:

Collecting rainwater for use during dry months is an ancient practice that has never lost its value. Today, simple water collection systems made from recycled food barrels can mean a free source of non-potable water for plants, gardens, bird baths, and many other uses. Rainwater is ideal for all plants because it doesn’t contain dissolved minerals or added chemicals. One inch of rain falling on a 1,000 square foot roof yields approximately 600 gallons of water.

To Market, To Market, To Buy A Fat Pig

Within so-called alternative agriculture circles there are turf wars abrew

How To Prune a Formal Hedge

How To Prune A Formal Hedge

This guide to hedge-trimming comes from The Pruning Answer Book by Lewis Hill and Penelope O’Sullivan. Q: What’s the correct way to shear a formal hedge? A: The amount of shearing depends upon the specific plant and whether the hedge is formal or informal. You’ll need to trim an informal hedge only once or twice a year, although more vigorous growers, such as privet and ninebark, may need additional clippings.

The Milk and Human Kindness Making Camembert

The Milk and Human Kindness: Making Camembert

by:
from issue:

Camembert is wonderful to make, even easy to make once the meaning of the steps is known and the rhythm established. Your exceptionally well fed, housed and loved home cow will make just the best and cleanest milk for this method. A perfect camembert is a marvelous marriage of flavor and texture. The ripening process is only a matter of a few weeks and when they’re ripe they’re ripe and do not keep long.

The Farm & Bakery Wagon

The Farm & Bakery Wagon

by:
from issue:

The first step was to decide on an appropriate chassis, or “running gear.” Eventually I chose to go with the real deal, a wooden-wheeled gear with leaf springs rather than pneumatic tires. Wooden wheels last forever with care and are functional and look the part. I bought an antique delivery wagon that had been left outdoors as an ornament. I was able to reuse some of the wheels and wooden parts of the running gear.

Chicken

The Best Chicken Pie Ever

by:
from issue:

She has one more gift to give: Chicken Pie.

A Pony-Powered Garden Cart

A Pony-Powered Garden Cart

by:
from issue:

One of the challenges I constantly face using draft ponies is finding appropriately sized equipment. Mya is a Shetland-Welsh cross, standing at 11.2 hands. Most manure spreaders are big and heavy and require a team of horses. I needed something small and light and preferably wheeled to minimize impact to the land. My husband and I looked around our budding small farm for something light, wheeled, cheap, and available, and we quickly noticed our Vermont-style garden cart.

Basil Scarberrys Ground-Drive Forecart

Basil Scarberry’s Ground-Drive Forecart

by:
from issue:

I used an ’84 Chevrolet S-10 rear end to build my forecart, turn it over to get right rotation, used master cylinder off buggy and 2” Reese hitch, extend hitch out to use P.T.O. The cart is especially useful for tedding hay. However, its uses are virtually unlimited. We use it for hauling firewood on a trailer, for pulling a disc and peg tooth harrow, for hauling baled hay on an 8’ x 16’ hay wagon, and just for a jaunt about the farm and community.

Starting Seeds

From Dusty Shelves: A WWII era article from Farming For Security

How to Grow an Acre of Potatoes

How to Grow an Acre of Potatoes

by:
from issue:

Heretofore potato production in this country has been conducted along extensive rather than intensive lines. In other words, we have been satisfied to plant twice as many acres as should have been necessary to produce a sufficient quantity of potatoes for our food requirements. Present economic conditions compel the grower to consider more seriously the desirability of reducing the cost of production by increasing the yield per acre.

Farmrun On the Anatomy of Thrift

On the Anatomy of Thrift: Side Butchery

On the Anatomy of Thrift is an instructional series Farmrun created with Farmstead Meatsmith. Their principal intention is instruction in the matters of traditional pork processing. In a broader and more honest context, OAT is a deeply philosophical manifesto on the subject of eating animals.

Plans for Hog Houses

Plans for Hog Houses

by: ,
from issue:

Missouri Sunlit Hog House: This is an east and west type of house lighted by windows in the south roof. A single stack ventilation system with distributed inlets provides ventilation. Pen partitions may be of wood or metal. This plan takes the place of the original Missouri sunlit house since many farmers had difficulty in building it.

Journal Guide