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Before the threat of the coronavirus shut down the border between Rwanda and DRC, some 50,000 traders made their living by bringing goods into DRC. Today, only a few can afford to continue trading. (Archive photo.) Noella Nyirabihogo, GPJ DRC

Food Shortage Looms as DRC Border Remains Closed

Democratic Republic of Congo

Part 2 in a Series: Tens of thousands of DRC residents earn a living by trading across the border with Rwanda. Now, the border is closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus – and experts warn that an economic disaster is imminent.

GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — The once-bustling border crossing between Gisenyi, Rwanda, and Goma, DRC, has been quiet since March 21, when both countries halted traffic and trade to quell the spread of the coronavirus.

Now, tens of thousands of people who rely on one of the world’s busiest pedestrian borders for their livelihoods are struggling as the cost of food imports from Rwanda skyrockets.

“Day by day, minute by minute, I wonder what tomorrow will look like,” says Mariam Uwase, who has been a cross-border trader for more than 10 years. “We have no more food.”

More than 50,000 small-scale traders on both sides of the border support their families by transporting goods between DRC’s North Kivu province and Rwanda’s Western province.

Thanks to the closed border, a food shortage in DRC’s North Kivu province is imminent, says Pépé Mikwa, communications officer at Project de Facilitation du Commerce dans la Région des Grand Lacs, a project to facilitate commerce in the Great Lakes region of East Africa, financed by the World Bank in conjunction with government ministries.

Day by day, minute by minute, I wonder what tomorrow will look like. We have no more food.

Despite vast areas of fertile land here, there are not enough local crops to feed the population, due to a combination of armed group activity, ongoing military operations and the poor state of roads. All of these factors affect the supply of goods and produce, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a leading provider of analysis on acute food insecurity.

To bring more food into DRC, some local traders devised a group purchasing system to hire large trucks to cross the border and bring back vegetables and other basic foodstuffs. The provincial government of North Kivu negotiated with the Rwandan government to allow these trucks to pass, in lieu of endless foot traffic.

But this system excludes small-scale traders, most of whom are women.

Previously, small-scale traders could buy ample goods across the border in Rwanda with just $100 in capital. But to take part in the group purchasing system, traders need to buy in at between $300 and $1,000.

Shopkeepers are forced to pass that cost on to customers, says Zawadi Shukuru, 40, a shopkeeper in Goma, the capital of DRC’s North Kivu province.

“We have to pay the vehicle carrying the goods as well as the entry taxes,” she says.

Before the coronavirus threat closed the border, it wasn’t common to rent vehicles to move goods between the two countries. Most commerce happened on foot – typically by women who carried goods on their backs.

“The cost of renting a transport vehicle, as well as the taxes, is expensive, which explains the increase in prices on the local market,” Shukuru says.

As of July 4, DRC has seen 7,379 cases and 182 deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

While the health implications of the virus remain nebulous here, its long-term economic impact is clear and devastating, Mikwa says.

Vegetables, milk and meat from Gisenyi have become scarce at the market, says Grâce Maombi, a housewife living in Goma. When she can find food, the prices have increased considerably from earlier this year.

Maombi says she used to feed her family of five with about 5,000 Congolese francs ($2.64) a day. The same food, which includes produce and beef, now costs 8,000 francs ($4.22).

“I had to accommodate my budget with the new prices,” she says.

Others echo her experience. Before the border closed, a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of beef at a local Goma market cost 6,500 francs ($3.43). Today it costs 8,500 francs ($4.48).

High prices and mobility restrictions have also driven down demand. At the Gisenyi Slaughterhouse across the border in Rwanda, workers used to slaughter up to 80 cows a day. Today, they only slaughter three to four, says the company’s accountant, Jean Claude Nizeyimana.

Mikwa says the group purchasing system that allows large trucks to cross the border is temporary. A long-term solution is still unclear.

“People need to understand that a lot of things have changed,” Mikwa says. “The way people used to cross borders to buy anything they wanted is no longer possible.”

Germain Manga, GPJ, translated this article from French.
Noella Nyirabihogo, GPJ, translated some interviews from Swahili.

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