Republic of Congo: Central African refugees and host populations work hand-in-hand to feed the community

A market gardening project supported by the World Food Programme (WFP) is empowering refugees and vulnerable people in the Republic of Congo.

Cécile Mercier

The Republic of Congo has been welcoming Central African refugees since late 2013, when waves of conflict, violence, and destruction began to affect its northern neighbour. In recent years, the number of new arrivals begun to decline, and voluntary repatriations were facilitated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2018. But in late 2020, the Central African Republic was the scene of post-election violence that forced more than 7,000 Central Africans to leave their homes and cross the border into Congo.

Today more than 20,000 people are trying to rebuild their lives in the Likouala Department, Northern Congo.

In Bétou town, Northern Congo, a two-day drive from the Congolese capital, WFP in partnership with UNHCR and local non-governmental organizations have implemented a market gardening project which contributes to improve the food security of these particularly vulnerable people and help towards enhancing their autonomy.

Entrance to the market garden site of Bétou, Likouala Department, Northern Congo. Photo: WFP/Cécile Mercier

“Back in the in the Central African Republic, I grew cassava, maize and peanuts however now I have learnt how to grow garden vegetables which is new to me and my family who are enjoying the variety of food,” explains Martine, a refugee involved in the project.

During the first few months of the project, all 180 participants, of which 60% are women, were structured into cooperatives. They received entrepreneurial and agricultural training and provided with tools and seeds. Whilst waiting for the first harvest, WFP distributed food baskets to each participant which allowed them to feed their families as they worked on their new business venture.

After four months of hard work, the results of the project have made a real difference in the lives of both participants and the people in the isolated town of Bétou, as new products such as cabbages, carrots and cucumbers became available in the markets.

Harvesting tomatoes from the market garden site of Bétou, Likouala Department, Northern Congo. Photo: WFP/Cécile Mercier

To foster the social integration of the refugees into the host communities, the project involves the host populations who are also vulnerable due to the devastating floods and recurrent food shortages that are characteristic in this region of Congo. As most of the groups are mixed, consisting of Congolese and Central African market gardeners, both novices and experts, the six-hectare plot has become a special meeting place for Central Africans and Congolese who now work together every day to feed the community.

“We work with all our friends, both men and women of different tribes who speak different languages and in doing so we benefit from their culture and experience,” says Honoré, president of the ‘Hand-in-Hand’ cooperative composed of Congolese and Central African farmers.

Honoré fled the Central African Republic with his wife, three children and two grandchildren in 2014. The family is now well settled in Congo and grown with the birth of two more grandchildren. “Working in a group works better than working individually, we have to work hand-in-hand with everyone.”

WFP is now linking the market gardening project with six schools in Bétou that are part of the WFP School Feeding Programme. The schools receive cash transfers to purchase ingredients from local markets, including vegetables from the project, which ensures the children receive a daily meal that is safe, diverse, nutritious and above all, local.

The success of the project, along with the growing number of Central African refugees in northern Congo and the risk of cyclical flooding led WFP to launch a second phase in 2022 which supports 100 farmers in Bétou and another town in the Likouala Department, Impfondo, with the production of beans, rice and groundnuts.

Local people and authorities who have contributed to the project, particularly on the issue of extending arable land, have supported this innovative programme which beyond food security, is a powerful vehicle for social cohesion.

Initiated in 2017 by UNHCR, the gardening project benefited 80 Central African refugees, and was implemented with the local NGO ‘Agence d’Assistance aux Réfugiés et Rapatriés au Congo’. Despite promising results, the famers faced several challenges: irrigation problems in the dry season, pests such as caterpillars that destroy crops in the rainy season, and a lack of agricultural equipment and seeds. In 2021, thanks to the support of the U.S. Agency for International Development and the German Federal Foreign Office, WFP partnered with UNHCR on the gardening project, providing farmers with tools, seeds and training sessions, expanding the available cultivable area, while ensuring that local vulnerable communities were included in the project and enhancing links between smallholder farmers and other markets.

Read more about WFP’s work in RoC here.

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