Congolese soldiers learn self-sufficiency in food production AFRICOM, Borlaug Institute partner in agricultural initiative

KISANGANI — The adage attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that “an army travels on its stomach” is as true today as ever, according to participants in the Camp Base Agricultural Initiative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The goal of this agriculture initiative, led by the United States African Command of the U.S. Department of Defense and the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture, is to show a battalion of U.S.-trained Congolese soldiers how to become self-sufficient in food production.

The site for this unique initiative is Camp Base outside Kisangani, the third-largest city in the Congo. The program began in October 2009 after receiving an initial year of funding, and key activities are anticipated to continue through October 2011.

Joey King, who administers the initiative, is chief of staff for the Borlaug Institute, part of the Texas A&M System and a key partner in the initiative. King said African militaries often cause instability in communities they are supposed to be protecting due to their need to poach food and other resources.

“It is important that these forces have systems for provisioning their own food even while operating in remote rural areas,” he said.

Initiative efforts on the site will be focused on three general agricultural groupings – main crops, vegetables and livestock/fish farming. Cleared camp land will be prepared for agricultural production and for hands-on demonstrations of farming methods and techniques.

“Agriculture is a powerful tool in helping communities and countries prevent conflict and maintain stability,” said Dr. Ed Price, director of the Borlaug Institute. “Increasing economic and social stability through food security is the first priority of this initiative. The second will be to help the battalion build food stockpiles which they can draw from during a deployment.”

Initiative coordinators hope to enable the battalion to produce two to three months of provisions to use during deployment to conflict and post-conflict zones.

Price said providing the capability for the battalion to produce its own adequate, sustainable food supply would help “negate the need for the soldiers to raid local communities for supplies, increase their military effectiveness and improve the security of the area.”

A large amount of land has already been cleared and is being prepared for agricultural development. In addition, dozens of soldiers from the 9th Military Region, along with “farm manager” candidates, are receiving ongoing agricultural education and training and hands-on experience.

One local agricultural engineer has been hired to help develop an educational curriculum for vegetable production and fish farming, plus to give hands-on training and provide oversight for camp agricultural efforts. In addition, a Congo-born Belgian, who has spent most of his professional life in the republic and is fluent in French, Swahili and Lingala, a regional Bantu language, has been hired as a technical consultant for the initiative.

Beau Davis, who lives in Kisangani, is the Borlaug Institute’s in-country manager for the initiative. Since the initiative’s inception, he has been working with U.S. State Department and Department of Defense personnel, representatives of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the republic’s Ministry of Agriculture, the University of Kisingani, International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, cassava producers and processors, and other individuals and organizations to develop and implement the initiative.

Most of his day-to-day contact, however, is with the soldiers supporting the initiative and individuals being trained as “farm managers” to provide more long-term initiative oversight.

“The 9th Military Region had a lieutenant serving as director of agriculture for this region,” said Davis. “He used to operate a farm outside of Kisingani and was eager to work with the Borlaug Institute on the CBAI. His commanding general promised him a company of 50 men to support efforts by the initiative.”

A separate agriculture unit was established, and soldiers from that unit provide the majority of the manpower toward camp agricultural development efforts, he said.

“While members of the unit are vital to fulfilling the short-term initiative goals, their military responsibilities may take them away from Kisingani after Borlaug Institute and AFRICOM initiative support ends. That’s why we’re also training a core group of 10 individuals who can be permanently based in Kisingani and serve as farm managers to sustain the initiative into the future.”

Davis said some of the criteria set for potential farm managers were that they be “relatively young, educated, intelligent, motivated and have strong leadership potential.”

“They will be in place as manager-trainers with knowledge they can pass along to soldiers and their families who will be stationed at the camp for years to come,” he said. An initial five hectares (about 12.5 acres) have been cleared, plowed and are being planted with maize and cassava. A second five hectare plot, has been cleared for vegetable production and fish farming. The first fish pond is under construction in an area which is spring fed, so it will not require a motorized pump.

“While some of the land we’ve been clearing had been farmed in the past three years, most was covered by thick vegetation and secondary forest,” Davis said. “Battalion commanders have provided us with about 100 soldiers to help with the clearing.

Davis said there are daily competitions to recognize the hardest-working platoon, and the best platoon from each company is awarded with a package of sought-after items by the soldiers, including soap, shoe polish, razor blades and phone cards.

Preparations now are being made for planting half a hectare (about 1.25 acres) of tomatoes and half a hectare of amaranth, a local variety of spinach, and corn seed and cassava cuttings have been ordered for later planting. The rest of the initial site will be used for crop variety trials, including improved varieties of vegetables and maize. Peddle-powered pumps and portable sprinklers will allow for daily watering of seed beds and vegetable plants during dry months, enabling year-round production.

Davis said the “main crops” portion of the initiative will focus on maize and cassava as these are the staples of the region’s diet. Rice, cowpeas, groundnuts and other crops may be rotated in for future seasons.

“Cassava is the mainstay of the soldier’s diet and can be produced in excess of their needs, so any excess can be sold to procure food items not produced by the initiative.”

Davis said while most varieties of cassava require 12 months for harvest, some seven-month varieties will be planted to meet battalion food needs more quickly.

“Vegetables to be grown on site will include onions, peppers, tomatoes and plantains, and livestock production will be focused on goats and pigs, and there will be fish farming,” he said.

Davis added that nitrogen-fixing varieties of native lucenia and acacia trees also may be planted at the camp since their leaves can be used as a food source for livestock. The trees could also be used to line driveways and camp boundaries and for sustainable charcoal production.

“This unique effort is not only a pioneering effort on behalf of AFRICOM, it provides a model that can be duplicated across the African continent,” Price said. “The results of this initiative will bolster regional stability through improved food security and foster goodwill within the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the region at large.”

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Soldiers in this photo are part of the Agricultural Company of the Democratic Republic of the Congo's 9th Military Region. They support the Camp Base Agricultural Initiative led by the U.S. military's African Command and the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture. They are being trained and mentored on how to maintain long-term agricultural production on base -- main crops, vegetables and fish farming/livestock. (Photo courtesy of the Borlaug Institute)

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