KANYABAYONGA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — The refreshing scent of eucalyptus permeates the air as one arrives in Kanyabayonga, a rural town of about 61,100 inhabitants that cuts across two adjoining territories of North Kivu province: southern Lubero and northern Rutshuru. Lying in a cool, breezy valley, the town sits on both sides of Route Nationale 2 (RN2). The fresh air masks the tough times facing the community in the months since the closure of a part of this national highway in October 2022.
Towering eucalyptus trees dominate the landscape in both the highlands surrounding Kanyabayonga and the valley it sits in. But the pride of the town has always been its pineapple farms. For years, many pineapple farms in the region had production volumes higher than those of other small-scale crops such as cassava and beans. But all that has changed.
Closure of RN2
After its defeat in 2012 by Congolese and international forces, the M23 armed group resurfaced in November 2021. Today, the group has seized swathes of territory in North Kivu province, displacing civilians. Since October, traffic in Rutshuru territory has been suspended on RN2, which connects Lubero territory in North Kivu province to its administrative center of Goma. The consequences for Kanyabayonga town have been devastating.
Agricultural production has dipped significantly, with residents limited to farming only in fields close to their homes due to insecurity. This has hurt production of local crops such as pineapple, cassava and sweet potato, according to a June 2022 report by Actions and Interventions for Social Development and Management, a partner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. A report published this year by DRC’s health ministry also notes that food prices have jumped in Goma, North Kivu’s capital, since the RN2 closure due to the presence of M23 fighters in Rutshuru.
Merveille Kavira Luneghe, GPJ DRC
Pineapple farming in Kanyabayonga
In southern Lubero territory, many families from Kanyabayonga town that rely on pineapple farming as their main source of income have been left in despair. Their primary customers, travelers on the road connecting Kanyabayonga to Goma, are now few and far between. A heavy silence has replaced the banter once heard among pineapple vendors selling produce on the roadside north and south of Kanyabayonga. Making ends meet is now a struggle for many, with household income and the town’s economy taking a beating.
Isaac Muhindo Lubende, 28, is among those struggling. Lubende lost his father at a young age and was too poor to attend school. At age 10, he started transporting pineapple from farms to the trading hub of Goma in exchange for new clothes. He acquired his own farm at age 15 and started selling pineapple after his first harvest 18 months later, an opportunity that turned his life around.
“I started making some easy money and was able to provide for myself. I also bought another two pineapple farms. I used to send crates of pineapples to Goma which would sell for at least 10,000 Congolese francs [about 4 United States dollars] a small crate,” he says.
Every week he used to send a shipment worth 100,000 francs (42 dollars), a small fortune in a country where nearly 62% of people — around 60 million — live on less than 3 dollars a day, making it one of the five poorest nations in the world.
“With the road being closed, a crate of pineapples that previously sold at 15,000 Congolese francs [about 6 dollars] is now difficult to sell, even at 3,000 Congolese francs [1 dollar]. The very few customers we find today are locals or war-displaced persons who came here. Reopening the road is the only way to help us out of our predicament,” Lubende says as he walks from his farm with a big sack of pineapples on his back.
Pineapple production in DRC
According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the production of pineapple in DRC stood at 191,000 tons in 2021, making the country one of the top 10 producers of the fruit on the continent. Valued at 77 million dollars, production of the tropical fruit occupies a sizable area of the country’s land at 8,000 hectares. It lags behind only bananas; mangoes, mangosteens and guavas; papayas; and avocado. Most of the fruit is consumed locally, as DRC is not listed as one of the top African exporters of pineapple despite high production volumes.
Merveille Kavira Luneghe, GPJ DRC
The climate and soil conditions of North Kivu province make it suitable for the production of several varieties of fruit including pineapple, especially in the territories of Rutshuru (avocado, mango), Lubero (cape plum, pineapple, strawberry, raspberry, avocado), Beni (mango, pineapple, cape plum, avocado), Masisi (avocado, pineapple) and Nyiragongo (strawberry, cape plum).
With the road connecting the north to the south of the province closed off, business has come to a standstill. In the past, women vendors would run up to cars, trucks and motorcycles to sell their produce. The town’s economy was doing well with plenty of money circulating as the road was a lifeline for surrounding communities.
A large number of households were able to support themselves from pineapple farming alone. Unsold stocks of pineapple were shipped to Rutshuru territory and Goma city to be sold at a higher price.
Asha Kanyere, a pineapple vendor, says, “This road means everything to us. They can fight, but they should keep the road open. We are not a party to this war.”
Pineapple farming, a source of income for households
In the good days, Paluku Kalagho, a 60-year-old father of eight with more than 20 years of experience in pineapple farming, was highly successful. He was able to send his children to school, and some of them are married and taking care of their own families. But now with sacks of pineapples rotting on his farms, Kalagho hopes for the day RN2 will be reopened. “Things are likely to get worse for me if nothing changes,” he says.
Like other farmers, 23-year-old Neema Kahindo Miriamu decided to harvest and give away her pineapples to prevent them from rotting.
“There are no customers. When I realized that my crops would rot, I decided to bring family and relatives to the farm to give them free pineapples. While they all thanked me for it, I didn’t earn any money,” she says.
Risks of reopening RN2
Reopening RN2 is no simple matter. On March 1, the government of North Kivu province decided to reopen the road. The measure lasted no more than a day as the provincial government soon reported that suspected M23 fighters had killed a truck driver and looted all his goods. The road was immediately closed again “until further notice.”
There is a fear of risking civilian lives if the road reopens, as M23 has in the past attacked civilians, but also concerns about the group illegally enriching itself by charging taxes to vehicles.
Merveille Kavira Luneghe, GPJ DRC
But these risks are not enough to silence those who have seen the closure of RN2 upend their lives.
“Money is no longer circulating in Kanyabayonga. People are hungry. Some even dropped out of school. … They’re desperate, and there’s nothing I can do. The only solution would be to reopen the road to traffic,” says Chrysostome Kasereka Fatiri, the mayor of Kanyabayonga.
To date, the national government has said nothing about this closure despite calls by citizens and organizations to reopen the road given the negative consequences of its closure.
Marie Ngoy, a 48-year-old pineapple vendor, says she can no longer afford the weekly payments of 5,000 francs (2 dollars) that she used to pay into a tontine, a merry-go-round savings program in which members distribute weekly or monthly group disbursements to a different individual at each cycle. She, too, wants the road reopened.
Faustin Kasereka Isevalisha, the head of the Office of Economic Affairs in Kanyabayonga, says reopening the road is the only solution.
“Many households live off income from pineapple farming. The economy has fallen sharply due to the lack of demand. Households have been hit financially, leaving some families vulnerable to poverty. Reopening the road now will help to turn the situation around,” says Isevalisha.