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Yangambi, located in northern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), was once a lush tropical forest landscape, home to bountiful wildlife and abundant resources that provided reliable livelihoods to the communities living in the area.

However, decades of overexploitation, economic fragility and population growth have taken a toll, resulting in a fragmented landscape that is struggling to cope with growing demand for food, energy and raw materials.

The story of Yangambi encapsulates the broader ordeal faced by many of Africa’s remaining rainforests – but as Congolese foresters Neville Mapenzi and Georges Mumbere see it, this is also an optimistic story.

These junior experts with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) are working together with local communities to break a vicious cycle: “Currently people cut down trees in natural areas to produce charcoal and food crops,” Mumbere said.

“When the fertility of the soil has been nearly exhausted, they move on to another patch and start all over again, eating away at the forest and forcing themselves to walk further and further to obtain food and fuel.”

These unsustainable activities in the Yangambi landscape are far from being anecdotal. Agricultural expansion is the main driver of deforestation, forest fragmentation and biodiversity loss globally.

Small-scale agriculture accounts for 33 percent of global deforestation, and an astonishing 84 percent of forest disturbance in the Congo Basin. Furthermore, once people have food, they need to cook it: In the DRC, wood fuel accounts for more than 90 percent of all wood harvesting.

The local staples are cassava, corn, peanuts, rice, beans, plantain and fish. Even the mighty Congo river is now so severely overfished that people struggle to make a decent catch to feed their families and generate enough income to get by. In this context, CIFOR is backing a grassroots solution that supports local entrepreneurs to turn their economic activities into green ventures.

Teach a (wo)man to fish…

The strategy is two-fold, Mapenzi explained: “We are promoting agroforestry systems to increase soil fertility, agriculture productivity, and wood fuel availability as an alternative to slash-and-burn, itinerant agriculture; and at the same time, we are helping develop new livelihood activities that can increase the local availability of nutritious food and provide households with an additional income, for example fish farming.”

The initiative is jointly delivered through three CIFOR projects – Training, Research, and Environment in the Tshopo Province (FORETS), Governing Multifunctional Landscapes (GML) and New Landscapes of the Congo (NPC), all of which are financed by the European Union.

Working with local associations and cooperatives, mostly led by women, the initiative is delivering training, technical support and inputs to make the concepts a reality.

Ongoing activities include the creation of community nurseries for growing fruit trees, fast-growing native species and acacia seedlings. CIFOR is also supporting the distribution of improved cassava, corn and peanut seeds, young tilapia and clarias fish, as well as pigs and ducks to produce manure to fertilize ponds. Eligible entrepreneurs receive inputs following performance-based schemes.

As a result, locals will have at least three sources of additional income. Fish will respond to the high demand in local markets, trees can be used to produce biomass, while crops such as cassava and corn can be transformed into flour to be sold in the city of Kisangani.

Business viability is a pre-condition for endeavors to be supported by CIFOR.

“After agriculture, charcoal production is the main economic activity in the area,” explained Mumbere. “Thus, we are working with small-scale farmers and associations of charcoal producers to integrate fast-growing trees into farms, mainly acacias at the moment but with incremental addition of local species being tested in community nurseries. In a few years they will be able to sustainably produce charcoal without destroying the forest.”

These agroforestry farms are also including species such as Rhycinodendron and Uapaca, which harbor caterpillars that are considered both a local delicacy and an important source of proteins, thus increasing availability of nutritious foods in local markets.

   A woman starts an agroforestry farm to produce sustainable charcoal. Photo: Fiston Wasanga/CIFOR

Through fish farming, “we expect participants to produce at least 10 tons of fish in 2020, and to produce twice as much next year,” Mapenzi said. While production scales up, producers and cooperatives reimburse the initial investment and, when completed, more beneficiaries are added into the scheme. A higher level of fish production is expected to further reduce local reliance on wild meat for protein intake, according to Mapenzi.

For Paolo Cerutti, a scientist with CIFOR and project leader, the proof will be determined through testing this model to see how effective it will be in preserving the Congo Basin’s remaining forests.

“Nurturing local entrepreneurship and innovation will contribute to supporting people’s livelihoods while providing improved alternatives to current models favoring overexploitation of forest resources,” he said.

   Fish farming can increase local availability of animal proteins. Photo: Fiston Wasanga/CIFOR

Capital challenges

Despite hours of hard work by Mumbere and Mapenzi, a major challenge remains: lack of access to capital for scaling the projects up to expand their impact and making much-needed investments.

Unlike many developing countries that saw a micro-finance boom in the 2000s, most rural areas in the DRC do not have any formal lending institutions that can serve small entrepreneurs. While informal mechanisms such as the creation of associations have emerged as local solutions, new ventures need more resources to become sustainable in the long-term.

“While our projects can support the launch of some activities, we are also actively seeking private investment for promising local businesses,” Cerutti said.

CIFOR currently provides seed capital, but as a long-term solution, it is planning to establish a local incubator- accelerator that will provide ad-hoc microcredit schemes funded by private capital, as well as much-needed services to support businesses.

“Initially, the incubator-accelerator will also focus on improving the technical and business skills of beneficiaries,” Cerutti explained. “But once their economic activities are consolidated and access to capital guaranteed, we are also aiming to provide legal support and other services on-demand.”

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This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
This research was supported by the European Union.
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