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Tackling food insecurity in DR Congo and Ethiopia

According to the 2019 Global Report on Food Crises, 14% of the world population in 2018 ‘experienced acute hunger, or required urgent food, nutrition and livelihood assistance’. Most at risk are people living in areas where there are conflicts, climate shocks or economic problems. Together with Geert Haesaert from Ghent University (UGent), Robert-Prince Mukobo from the University of Lubumbashi, and Karen Vancampenhout and Addisu Fekadu Andeta, both from the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven), we look at two of the world’s most food-insecure countries, DR Congo and Ethiopia, and on how VLIR-UOS projects in these countries have been able to make a difference.

 

Fungi for better crops in DR Congo

About 70% of Congolese people live in rural areas and directly or indirectly depend on agriculture for their income. Farmers in the Katanga region, for example, face many chal- lenges: they often do not have access to mineral or organic fertilisers, the fertility of the soil continues to degrade, and they do not have the financial means to counter these problems, with a sometimes disastrous impact on agricultural production.

“Food security is the basis of development in DR Congo.” When Robert-Prince Mukobo tells us about his motivation to work on food security in his home country, he does not beat around the bush. “The productivity of Congolese people in all areas of life depends on their ability to be food secure.” The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations confirms that being food secure is important, as food insecurity impacts a country negatively in many ways, resulting, for example, in lower economic growth and productivity and a higher prevalence of disease.

As an agronomist, Mukobo is well-placed to function as the go-between for Congolese farmers and crop researchers. Reviewing research findings, he helps recommend food production solutions to local farmers. During his quest to improve food secu- rity in DR Congo, he has also participated in two VLIR-UOS research projects, during one of which he completed his PhD.

To develop resilience to food insecurity, people need better resources

A symbiosis in two parts

In 2015, Mukobo joined forces with Geert Haesaert from Ghent University as part of a VLIR-UOS TEAM project to increase farmers’ production of corn and vegetables in the Katanga and Lubumbashi region by improving soil qual- ity. The soils in the hinterland of these regions are low in nitrogen and phosphorus, two essential nutrients for plants. Phosphorus makes the plant mature faster and is particularly important in promoting root growth. Nitrogen is even more vital to crops as it is key to plant growth, development and reproduction.

Mukobo and Haesaert aimed to increase the productivity of corn and vegetable (green beans and onion) crops by using arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) as biofertiliser.

AMF penetrate the crop plant’s roots, creating a symbiotic association that stimulates the plant’s uptake of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, improves the acquisition of water and increases a plant’s resistance to patho- gens. The use of this fertiliser is also sustainable in the long term, as it is affordable for local farmers and they only have to apply it to the soil once to have the mycorrhiza sustain themselves afterwards. “With very small interventions, we managed to increase crop yields by 10 to 20%,” says Haesaert. “Families can produce more food, go to the market and create financial added value for their families.”

The productivity of Congolese people in all areas of life depends on their ability to be food secure

Yielding more crops and knowledge

The impact of VLIR-UOS support is not only coming from the AMF project. “A former project on plant breed- ing resulted in new maize varieties that are now on the national Congolese variety list,” Haesaert explains. “The University of Lubumbashi breeds these varieties, intro- duces them to the market and receives a small compensation in return. This means that it is not only the farmers involved in the project who benefit, but a much bigger group.” Mukobo emphasises the importance of universities in tackling food insecurity: “The role of universities is crucial as they are the best placed to collect information about problems that limit food production. They also have the capacity to develop solutions adapted to the local context. To develop resilience to food insecurity, people need better resources such as solutions  resulting from high-quality university research.”