A woman carries bananas at a plantation in Caxito, Angola

Angola’s blooming banana plantations offer new hope for farming

After decades of civil

war destroyed Angola’s fertile farmland and a booming oil
industry pushed out all other commerce, Santa Rodrigo wondered
how she could ever bring up her five children in the poverty
that surrounded them.

Angola’s government spends more on its military than any
other department, and is often criticised for failing to answer
the needs of its population – there are many like Rodrigo –
while industries like manufacturing and food production have
collapsed.

So the result of an investment in 2005 to irrigate the land
where Santa Rodrigo lives – Caxito, around 60 kilometres from
the capital Luanda – is being seized upon by observers and
economists as a success story they hope to see repeated.

Banana plantations are thriving again in the tropical plains
of Caxito, to such an extent that Angola, which imports 90
percent of its food at a cost of $5 billion a year, has finally
been able to stop importing bananas.

And Rodrigo has a job, one of 9,000 Angolans employed on the
plantations. It’s a rare case of agricultural progress in a
country where only 30 percent of land is cultivated.

“It was very difficult before the bananas returned. No one
had jobs, we struggled to eat,” said Rodrigo, 34, slashing down
the yellow fruit that hangs in bulging clusters beneath a canopy
of giant green leaves.

“It can’t just be oil in Angola. It has only helped the rich
people get richer,” Rodrigo added.

Like most projects in Angola, Caxito’s renewal has been paid
for with the Chinese money that began pouring in after Beijing
and Luanda agreed huge oil-for-infrastructure deals in 2004.

As a result banana production in the Caxito project has
risen from 76,000 tonnes in 2012, to 247,000 in 2013, not only
ending banana imports but also allowing exports to neighbouring
Democratic Republic of Congo. A new processing plant there will
soon produce banana chips, sweets and turn leaves into
packaging.

“This project has made a huge difference to the region, not
just the jobs but it provides food and companies have helped
with schooling and healthcare,” said Joao Mpilamosi, President
of agriculture firm Caxito Rega.

DEVASTATED

Under Portuguese rule, Angola was the world’s third largest
coffee producer and exported sugar, cotton and rubber.

But 27 years of civil war devastated the farmland across the
southern African country.

Ten million land mines were scattered across its terrain and
infrastructure was destroyed. By the time the war ended in 2002
the government’s priority was its 50 billion-a-year in oil
sales, which swiftly took a stranglehold on Africa’s third
largest economy.

Agriculture still accounts for only 10 percent of GDP while
crude oil exports, around half of which go to China, account for
around 95 percent of foreign exchange revenues.

Other farming projects are in the works, however.

A 100,000-acre farm around 300 kilometres east of Luanda
owned by public-private partnership Biocom is due to produce
260,000 metric tonnes of sugar by 2018, ending imports.

Biocom is owned in a partnership between state-oil company
Sonangol, a government investment fund, Brazil’s Odebrecht and
Damar, an Angolan company owned by Vice President Manuel Vicente
and top state security officials.

DEEP PROBLEMS REMAIN

Despite pockets where farmers are flourishing again, Angolan
agriculture still has major problems to overcome.

The government had to slash a third off its budget and seek
$10 billion in foreign loans after a glut in global production
caused oil prices to halve and cost the country a big drop in
oil revenue.

This means already paltry investment in agriculture may slip
further still.

On top of this external investment remains tough to attract.
Angola is still one of the world’s most difficult places to do
business due to bureaucracy and corruption, while weak
infrastructure pushes up costs.

The country ranked 181 out of 189 economies in the World
Bank’s ease of doing business survey.

Some feel Angola will only be able to feed itself properly
if the government changes its spending priorities.

President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos is often criticised for
continuing major military spending, the highest in Africa, at a
time of peace and when government revenues have dropped. His
opponents say the military is used to extend his 36 year rule.

“We should acknowledge the government has made progress in
agriculture but they must do much more,” Angolan economist
Manuel Jose Alves da Rocha told Reuters.

“With oil revenues down, agriculture spending is falling
while defence has not been cut.”

Farmers in areas like Caxito are hoping dos Santos diverts
more oil funds away from defence and into industries that
support job creation in the war-wrecked country.

“It’s better we grow bananas,” said Bellita Pasqoul, 20,
tossing bunches of fruit into water troughs.

“We can’t eat the oil.”

(Aditional reporting by Herculano Coroado; Editing by Sophie
Walker)

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CAXITO, Angola, May 19 (Reuters)

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