KISANGANI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — It’s noon, and Marie Jose Lombo’s six children sit around a big platter of food: rice, beans and “sombe” (cassava leaves), a common meal in most DRC homes. The children know they must wash up, so they can literally dig right in. It’s not that they lack forks – the family doesn’t – but they all know that this type of food tastes best when eaten straight from the hand.
“They’re hooked on my cooking,” Lombo says, smiling. “They’ll eat it all, and you’ll see that there will be nothing left on the plate. I’ve mixed it with some pieces of meat, to make it taste great.”
But as the children eat, Lombo’s smile fades. Tomorrow, she says, she’ll have no rice at all.
It takes four cups of rice to feed her children well each day. In 2017, that would have cost 1,200 Congolese francs (about 75 cents). Now, those same four cups cost 2,400 Congolese francs (about $1.50).
Lombo says she earns 3,000 francs (about $1.90) each day selling vegetables.
The price of rice soared in recent months because the roads that connect communities in Tshopo province, whose capital is Kisangani, to the rest of the region have deteriorated to the point that it now takes three to five days to travel just 58 kilometers (36 miles). The roads aren’t paved, so each rainy season deepens their grooves. Months ago, that same trip took one day – already a lifetime compared with journeys of similar lengths elsewhere in DRC.
The roads have made it difficult to bring even locally produced rice into Kisangani, let alone rice grown farther afield.
Local transportation officials say they are responsible for smaller, regional roads, but the central government is obligated to keep up the main roads.
“It’s no secret that many roads in Tshopo province have deteriorated, and this holds back development in the province,” says
Dany Mongo, an official at the provincial government’s transport agency.
Tshopo province produces just under 130,000 tons of rice annually in two harvests, says Tambwe Madard, the province’s deputy coordinator of agriculture production.
That’s about the same output as the entire country of Rwanda, according to the U.N.’s agricultural division. Rwanda is a much smaller country, but its transportation infrastructure is far more reliable.
If Tshopo province could easily move its rice, harvests could feed a significant portion of the country, Madard says.
Elysée Mongo Amisi, a rice seller in Kisangani, says she gets her supply from small villages just beyond the city’s urban center. But even those smaller roads are increasingly unpassable.
“Roads we once relied on to travel to villages to buy rice are in pathetic condition today,” she says.
She says she’s forced to charge 130,000 francs (about $83) for a bag of rice she once would have sold for 75,000 francs (about $48).
“Otherwise, we can’t earn a profit,” she says.
People who sell rice in the markets, in turn, pass along those high prices. Aminata Lomalisa, 30, says she now sells a single cup of rice for 600 francs (a little less than 40 cents) – up from 300 francs a few months back.
People who need the rice to feed their families say it has become unaffordable.
“The amount of rice I could afford three months ago is no longer the same today,” says Solange Ndembo, a 43-year-old housekeeper.
These days, she says, her eight children aren’t getting as much food as they used to.
It’s a “serious concern for us parents with many mouths to feed,” she says.
Ndahayo Sylvestre, GPJ, translated the article from French.