Urban agriculture in response to food insecurity in Brazzaville

29 octobre 2021

Indoors mushroom plant

As usual during October, mushrooms are invading the markets of Brazzaville after the first rains. Congolese people take advantage of this season to savor this gift of nature, to the delight of women who improvise themselves as mushrooms sellers. These mushrooms, highly appreciated by the population, are full of proteins and vitamins useful for preserving health, thus giving them good nutritional value. Today, this food occupies the first rank of market stables in the capital but this ostentatious seasonal abundance hides a less shining general state of the urban food system in the Republic of Congo.

According to the National Institute of Statistics and the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), food and nutritional situation in Congo has continued to deteriorate in recent years. Today, about 14.2% of Congolese households suffer from severe or moderate food insecurity and 76.6% experience uncertain food security. These data show that 88% of congolese people do not have access to adequate and sustainable food (National strategy to fight against micronutrient deficiencies 2016-2020). It is with these overwhelming statistics that the validation workshop of the roadmap on sustainable agriculture, held in August 2021 in Brazzaville, has marked the final highlight of the departmental consultations on national food systems, thus setting the scene for the food situation of congolese households and highlighting the extent of the challenges to be taken up in the definition of national food policy.

These studies have raised the proposals of local stakeholders involved in food systems, took place ahead of the World Food Forum, held in Rome from October 1st to 5. This forum, which we were able to attend virtually, was an opportunity for many international players to reiterate the pressing need to exploit the agricultural potential of cities throughout their geographic space. The world is witnessing a demographic growth unprecedented in the history of humanity which involves colossal investments in the food sector. It is now urgent to take into account the interdependence of rural and urban areas, and to invest in understanding the contexts in order to avoid the risk of not reaching the objectives.

Based on its programmatic specificity allowing them to effectively contribute to the achievement of sustainable development objectives, the Congo Acceleration Laboratory has identified local innovations with high capability to strengthen the sustainability of the Congolese food system. This is the case of the “ Congolia Mayebo ” initiative , literally in english “ Congo eats mushrooms ”, that brings together several mushroom growers who have set themselves the objective to popularize the consumption of mushrooms in Congolese eating habits by ensuring its availability in any season.    

Why is it innovative? A seasonal food and mostly harvested in rural areas, mushrooms are transported to the markets of the big cities, this way supplying all the urban consumption sector. It is therefore its approach to produce in an artisanal way and in urban areas that gives this initiative an innovative character in an almost non-competitive environment.

How does it work ? This model of urban artisanal production is based on a collaborative approach with local joineries who provide free wood chips from which the substrate necessary for the growth of fungi is produced. Futhermore contributing, at their level, to the valuation of this joinery waste. These wood chips will then be soaked in water at controlled pH and sterilized with water vapor. Forwards the phases of inoculation and incubation in a hot and dry climate, away from light. After 1 month of germination, the change to a humid and cooler climate allows production to start. On average, 2 to 3 mushroom stems for the same bag of substrate before composting. The harvest is then marketed in a short circuit to wholesalers and direct sales.

What are the advantages and disadvantages ? Mushrooms can now resist to the vagaries of the weather by being cultivated all year round. Used substrates also represent a very high quality compostable resource. Setting up in an urban area is conducive to the development of short-circuit activities to facilitate the flow of production, and makes the subsequent deployment of several production sites favorable. However, there are few references and support in this field in Congo. It is therefore necessary to be independent in the search for information and to have a good aptitude for experimentation. In addition, it requires perseverance coupled with endurance to face the risks of external contamination and input supply difficulties (improved strains, chemical inputs, equipment for measuring and maintaining asepsis, etc.). The fact remains that the market is very demanding, the economic potential of the harvest very abundant but the workers very few.

Urban mushroom cultivation is definitely a real solution to the problem of food insecurity in the city of Brazzaville and, with its low selling price, represents a very good alternative to meat for economically vulnerable populations.

The COVID-19 epidemic was an opportunity to learn numerous lessons for a country which abounds in strong potential for agricultural production but whose system depends largely on its imports and on the informal sector. Faced with the constraints linked to the pandemic, the actors of the food system have mobilized initiatives such as " Congolia Mayebo " are born to transform the threat of Congo's dependence on imports into a sustainable development opportunity to strengthen its food resilience face to external crises.   

  By Arold Akpwabot, Exploration Analyst; Accelerator Lab- UNDP Congo