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Car ferry crossing the Kasai River in Bandundu Region


Cassava truck on a dirt road in Bandundu Region

Throughout the 1980s, nearly 65 percent of the work force was engaged in subsistence and commercial agriculture, and the sector accounted for approximately 32 percent of GDP. Because of the various economic distortions since independence, such as exchange controls, price controls, overvaluation of the currency, and the smuggling out of cash crops such as coffee, agriculture's contribution to the economy was usually undervalued in official reports.

Zaire has the potential to be a net exporter of agricultural produce, but, as in other economic sectors, the country has never lived up to its potential. Indeed, as of the 1990s, Zaire was not even self-sufficient in food production. The agricultural sector has suffered as a result of the dislocations from Zairianization, an inadequate infrastructure for the transport of agricultural produce and an inadequate banking system, both of which have also affected other sectors of the economy, and inattention from the urban elite, resulting in few rural ventures and limited funds for investment.

Small-scale subsistence farmers primarily grow four staple food crops--rice, corn, cassava, and plantains--together on small scattered plots. Women generally handle food production, transport to market, and sale. Traditional slash-and-burn clearing methods are used, and the only capital inputs are hand-held tools and seed raised on the farms. Land clearing is labor intensive and thus has limited the areas under cultivation.

The average growth rate of the food supply in Zaire fell from 4.1 percent a year in the late 1960s to 1.8 percent in the 1970s compared with an estimated population growth rate of about 2 percent in the 1960s and approximately 3 percent in the 1970s and 1980s. Rural areas continue to provide much of the food for urban areas, but food imports have been increasingly important for the swelling urban population, with considerable illicit traffic crossing the borders, such as corn brought in from Zambia and Tanzania. By many accounts, Kinshasa subsists mainly on imported food: wheat, corn, flour, and canned and dried fish.

There is much disparity between official and unofficial estimates of food imports. In 1985, for example, official estimates placed food imports at 157,000 tons, while unofficial figures were estimated at 393,000 tons. In 1986 Zaire imported 170,000 tons of wheat and 64,000 tons of flour, up from 156,000 tons and 31,000 tons, respectively, the preceding year. The 1987 bill for imported wheat was estimated at US$33 million in July 1987 prices. Wheat and flour imports were estimated to total 220,000 tons in 1990.

Zaire's agricultural potential is greatly underutilized. By some estimates, as little as 1 percent of the land is under cultivation. Compounding the problem, government expenditures on the sector are inadequate, amounting to only 1 percent to 2 percent of government outlays, most of which goes to government administration.

Under the colonial administration, coercion was frequently used to keep production up. Nonetheless, extension services and supplies for small farmers were far superior to the postindependence government's ability or efforts. Agricultural buying offices have frequently been sources of corruption and are unable to provide small shareholders with adequate fuel, spare parts, buying stations, or bonuses-in-kind, such as the salt or sugar that were sometimes provided by the colonial administration. The poor transportation network is one major obstacle to increased production. Small farmers raise crops primarily for their own subsistence because of the difficulty of transporting goods to market. Middlemen who provide transport can reap huge profits.

In the 1950s, many agribusiness enterprises, or corporate plantations, were established, especially in the Bas-Za´re and Kivu regions. There was livestock raising and food processing, and cotton, wood, and rubber were produced and used in local manufacturing. However, full vertical integration in such areas as cotton production and textile manufacturing did not materialize.

The 1973 policy of Zairianization resulted in agricultural stagnation, as many enterprises were stripped of their assets or abandoned. In addition, price fixing, a colonial legacy used to hold down prices in order to restrain urban wages, led to some profit in the import sector but discouraged production of food crops. Adjustments in producer prices under the stabilization plans were limited; the government felt that higher food prices would cut incomes in the urban areas. Donors advised the government to direct scarce resources to maintenance of the existing road system, development of a delivery system for tools and seeds, and provision of credit. They also noted that long-term investment in infrastructure development, technological research, and institution building were needed. But the Zairian government failed to act on this advice, and the stagnation of agriculture, which dated back to 1959, thus continued. In 1993 some observers predicted an impending agricultural crisis as a result of the failure to plant crops in areas such as Nord-Kivu in which ethnic violence had occurred.

Data as of December 1993

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