KANYABAYONGA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO — The refreshing scent of eucalyptus permeates the air when one arrives in Kanyabayonga, a rural town of about 61,100 that straddles two contiguous territories of North Kivu province: southern Lubero and northern Rutshuru. Located in a cool and windy valley, the city is located on both sides of National Route 2 (RN2). The fresh air masks the difficult times facing the community in the months since the closure of a portion of this national highway in October 2022.
Towering eucalyptus trees dominate the landscape both in the highlands surrounding Kanyabayonga and in the valley in which it sits. But the pride of the city 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 reemerged in November 2021. Today, the group has seized swaths of territory in North Kivu province, displacing civilians. Since October, traffic in the Rutshuru territory has been suspended on RN2, which connects the Lubero territory in the North Kivu province with its administrative center of Goma. The consequences for the city of Kanyabayonga have been devastating.
Agricultural production has been significantly reduced, with residents limited to farming only in fields close to their homes due to insecurity. This has hurt the 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 released this year by the DRC Ministry of Health also notes that food prices have skyrocketed in Goma, the capital of North Kivu, since the closure of the RN2 due to the presence of M23 fighters in Rutshuru.
Merveille Kavira Luneghe, GPJ DRC
Pineapple cultivation in Kanyabayonga
In the southern Lubero territory, many families in the city of Kanyabayonga who depend on pineapple cultivation as their main source of income are desperate. Its main customers, commuters on the highway connecting Kanyabayonga to Goma, are now few and far between. A heavy silence replaced the banter once heard among pineapple vendors selling roadside produce north and south of Kanyabayonga. Making ends meet is now a struggle for many as family income and the town’s economy are taking a hit.
Isaac Muhindo Lubende, 28, is among those fighting. Lubende lost his father at a young age and was too poor to attend school. At the age of 10, he began transporting pineapples from the farms to the Goma shopping center in exchange for new clothes. He acquired his own farm at age 15 and began selling pineapples after his first harvest 18 months later, an opportunity that changed his life.
“I started making easy money and I was able to support myself. I also bought two other pineapple farms. I used to send boxes of pineapples to Goma that sold for at least 10,000 Congolese francs (about US$4) a small box,” she says.
Each week he sent a shipment worth 100,000 francs ($42), a small fortune in a country where almost 62% of the population — around 60 million — lives on less than $3 a day, making it one of the five poorest nations in the world.
“With the road closed, a box of pineapples that used to sell for 15,000 Congolese francs (about $6) is now hard to sell, even for 3,000 Congolese francs ($1). The few customers we find today are either locals or war displaced people who came here. Reopening the road is the only way to help us out of our predicament,” Lubende says as he leaves his farm with a large sack of pineapples on his back.
Pineapple production in DRC
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, pineapple production in the DRC was 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, the production of tropical fruit occupies a significant area of the national territory of 8,000 hectares. It only lags behind the bananas; mangoes, mangosteens and guavas; papayas; and avocado. Most of the fruit is consumed locally, as the Democratic Republic of Congo is not among the top African pineapple exporters despite high production volumes.
Merveille Kavira Luneghe, GPJ DRC
The climatic and soil conditions of the 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 (plum, pineapple, strawberry, raspberry, avocado), Beni (mango, pineapple, plum, avocado), Masisi (avocado, pineapple) and Nyiragongo (strawberry, plum).
With the highway connecting the north to the south of the province closed, business has come to a standstill. In the past, women vendors would run to cars, trucks, and motorcycles to sell their wares. The town’s economy was doing well and a lot of money was circulating, as the highway was a lifeline for the surrounding communities.
A large number of households were able to support themselves only by growing pineapple. Unsold pineapple stocks were sent to Rutshuru territory and Goma city for sale at a higher price.
Asha Kanyere, a pineapple seller, says: “This road means everything to us. They can fight, but they must keep the way open. We are not part of this war.”
Pineapple cultivation, source of income for households
On good days, Paluku Kalagho, a 60-year-old father of eight with more than 20 years of experience growing pineapples, was very successful. He was able to send his children to school, and some of them are married and raising their own families. But now with sacks of pineapples rotting on his farms, Kalagho waits for the day when RN2 reopens. “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.
“This road means everything to us. They can fight, but they must keep the way open. We are not part of this war.” pineapple seller
“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 pineapples for free. While everyone thanked me, I didn’t make any money,” she says.
Risks of the reopening of RN2
Reopening RN2 is not easy. On March 1, the government of the North Kivu province decided to reopen the highway. The measure did not last more than a day, as the provincial government soon reported that suspected M23 fighters had killed a trucker and looted all of his property. The road was immediately closed again “until further notice.”
There are fears of endangering civilian lives if the road is reopened, as the M23 has attacked civilians in the past, but there are also concerns that the group could illegally enrich itself by taxing vehicles.
Merveille Kavira Luneghe, GPJ DRC
But these risks are not enough to silence those who have seen their lives turned upside down with the closure of the RN2.
“Money no longer circulates in Kanyabayonga. People are hungry. Some even dropped out of school. … They are desperate and I can’t do anything. 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 not said anything about this closure despite calls from 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 5,000 francs ($2) weekly payments she used to pay in a tontina, a merry-go-round savings program in which members distribute weekly or monthly group disbursements to a different person each cycle. She also wants the road to be reopened.
Faustin Kasereka Isevalisha, head of the Economic Affairs Office in Kanyabayonga, says reopening the road is the only solution.
“Many households live off the income from growing pineapples. The economy has fallen sharply due to lack of demand. Households have been hit financially, leaving some families vulnerable to poverty. Reopening the road now will help change the situation,” says Isevalisha.