We’re sending you to the DRC

By September 6, 2017 Conservation, Partners

Written by Violah Kishoin, Innovations Coordinator

In part one of this two part series Violah shares her experience conducting a feasability study for Village Enterprise in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This is part one of a two part series about our feasability study in DRC.

“We are sending you to the DRC”, whispered my director, Ellen Metzger, one evening, for a moment I was not sure what to feel about the news. I was both nervous and excited; nervous because all the sad stories I grew up hearing of DRC flashed in my mind. For a very long time DRC has been synonymous with conflicts and Ebola outbreak, the thought of visiting this country was nerve wracking. At the same time, I was excited for this opportunity to see and to “validate” what I had learnt about DRC in my environmental science lectures back in college as well as to finally visit the “Rumba land.” Rumba, born in the DRC, happens to be one of my favorite music genres and the thought of visiting its “source” was thrilling. Until then all these were just stories, they say seeing is believing and that is exactly what I was set to do; to see and believe.

“They say seeing is believing and that is exactly what I was set to do; to see and believe.”

Earlier this year, the Arcus Foundation engaged Village Enterprise to conduct a study in the TL2 (Tshuapa-Lomami-Lualaba) region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to determine the feasibility of establishing our one-year Graduation program there. As a result of extensive efforts from the Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation, this biodiversity hot spot recently became Lomami National Park, the DRC’s first new national park established in over 10 years. Lomami is home to many flora and fauna, including the bonobos. Closely related to common chimpanzees, bonobos are the closest existing genetic relative of humans. Unlike the common chimp, bonobos are found only in the DRC and are endangered as a result of conflict in the region and poverty in the region, which fuel bushmeat hunting. Bushmeat (the meat of wild animals) hunting is a major activity around this region. One of the primary factors that drives bush meat hunting is poverty. Due to lack of market access for farm produce and livestock, people hunt as a source of income as buyers travel from Kindu town to purchase the meat. To address this, Village Enterprise is assessing the feasibility of implementing its ultra-poor graduation model in the region, which would contribute to reduced bushmeat hunting and support the conservation of wildlife species in the region.

Bonobos (image courtesy of BBC)

Bushmeat hunting is done for both consumption and economic purposes. Therefore, one objective of the feasibility study is to assess the existing economic landscape and activities of the bush meat trade and its value chain, and to assess poverty, market opportunities and viable value chain linkages in the area. Another goal is to assess the viability of implementing an Ultra-Poor Graduation Program as well as to identify and meet possible partner organizations in the region.

The first phase of the feasibility study was a trip into this region to investigate for ourselves. Peter Dema, our Uganda Country Director, and I recently journeyed there on a fact-finding mission.

We embarked on our 16-day journey to TL2 region in Maniema province. Due to ‘complex’ flight schedules to DRC, we had to drive from Kampala to Goma. The 12 hour journey seemed short as we had a thrilling adventure traversing through western Uganda and Rwanda. These countries are endowed with scenic views; western Uganda is renowned for huge banana plantations and Rwanda for beautiful rolling hills.

The following day we flew out of Goma to Kindu town. Officials at the airports were not so friendly to us, perhaps because we didn’t speak their language (French). We were expected to pay bribes at every clearance desk. This experience did not deter our quest to meet community members deep in the forest where they live.

In Kindu town, we were hosted by the Lukuru foundation. They work in TL2 region and are focused on promoting wildlife conservation through trainings and outreach programs. We met some of their staff including Dr. Terese Hart (Director of the Lukuru foundation) and Idephonce Mulembe (fish pond project manager). Idephonce worked with us throughout the entire visit helping us to identify villages to visit, draw the field visit schedules and mobilize transport. We are grateful to the Lukuru foundation for being supportive and for their contribution towards the success of the trip.

In our pre-trip planning, we had been advised to expect a 6–12 hour motorbike journey to the villages. For us, it seemed impractical and unheard of, where in the world does one use more than 6 hours to travel 120 km stretch? We would soon realize that it was true; the roads (paths) are generally in poor conditions and almost impassable, and to add salt to the injury, it was rainy season. At some point, we had to walk for more than 5 km wading through mud and crossing numerous streams. It actually took us close to 12 hours to arrive to our first village. I have never felt so tired in my entire life like that day, and, as I lay down in my tent that night all my bones were aching. It was an excruciating experience.

Violah‘s boda (motorbike) driver loads his motorbike onto a canoe to cross a river

We were able to visit 6 villages: Kakungu, Tchombe, Kilima, Bueni, Dingi, Bafundo and Makoka in the Balanga East sector. We held focus group discussions (FGD) in all 6 villages. Each FGDs consisted of 5–10 members, with each groups consisting of local leaders (chiefs), women, and other opinion leaders, in order to get a varied perspective from all categories of people. The discussions were centered on understanding the economic, political, social, and cultural situation in their communities, and more importantly, to understand the bush meat value chain (who is involved in this trade and the profit margins realized by these actors).

These villages are very remote and rural. They lack basic infrastructure and basic amenities. For instance, the roads are generally impassable and in poor conditions, the most convenient means of transport is a motorbike, but again the nature of the roads make it hard for the riders to freely and easily access the villages. Most of these villages don’t have access to medical and education facilities, they are often forced to walk for long distances (e.g. up-to two days) in order to access essential services. A majority of the community members survive on subsistence agriculture as they don’t have access to markets to sell their produce, hence the poverty rates are very high. The lack of market access is also a predisposing factor to bush meat trade. Unlike agriculture, bush meat hunters have a ready market since the buyers travel from Kindu town to buy the meat. As a result hunting is perceived to be a “sure” way of generating income.

The 7 days in the villages were full of adventure and invaluable learning experiences, from tenting in the camps, to meeting new people, learning new languages and sampling the DRC cuisines. Cassava is the staple food in DRC, we had an opportunity to eat cassava leaves commonly known as sombe for the first time. Contrary to the belief back home in Kenya that the leaves are poisonous, they were actually very delicious. Days went by quickly and soon it was time to head back to Kindu. As I packed my bags, I couldn’t help but think about all the ordeals that these people struggle with as they live through each day. In one of the FGDs, a lady narrated to us of the pain she went through after losing two of her children to malaria. If only they had a medical facility nearby she wouldn’t have been forced to walk for two days in search of these services. Her children died even before arriving at the hospital. Nevertheless, she was hopeful that one day the government will “remember” them and build these basic infrastructure and facilities so that they could lead decent lives just like the rest of the people in the world.

Back in Kindu, we held meetings with the government officials and some NGOs operating in Maniema province. We wanted to understand what the government is doing to reduce bushmeat hunting and trade and also understand the laws that have been put in place to check the hunting menace. For the NGOs, we were interested in understanding what interventions they do and whether any of them had experience in implementing microenterprise development program, to assess whether there are potential partners in the region.

Finally, it was time to go back home. Initially, this three-lettered word DRC would shake me up to the core perhaps because of the negative publicity it had received over the year. But our trip totally changed my perception about this country. DRC is not all about conflicts, Ebola, and other problems. A visit to the village reveals how people are hospitable and they yearn to develop themselves and their community if only they are empowered. It is our responsibility to step out of our comfort zones and lend a hand to people languishing in abject poverty. I learnt a lot of lessons from this trip. Before, I used to complain about poor infrastructure in Kenya, but not anymore. Not after surviving in the forest without any means of communication and the 12 hour motorbike ride.

Village Enterprise is currently in the analysis phase of the study. We traveled to Kinshasa, DRC’s capital city, in late August to assess the partnership landscape. Though we have not fully determined Village Enterprise’s role in the mitigation of bushmeat trade along the Lomami Park, we are excited to have the opportunity to fully examine our program in this new and very difficult context. Final feasibility results will be submitted to the Arcus Foundation this fall. Be sure to stay tuned for part two of this series about our time in Kinshasa!

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