Small Businesses Take Off in Rural Congo, Easing Pressure on Lomako Forest Habitat of Endangered Bonobo

February 11, 2022

Living at the center of the densely forested Congo Basin, Martin Ikosa Lotala relied almost exclusively on nearby plants and wildlife for income and food for the family plate.

“If we didn’t hunt or trap, we had nothing,” Lotala says. In this poor and isolated area of Mongala Province in Democratic Republic of the Congo, home to the world’s second largest contiguous rainforest, “there were no other jobs.”

Lotala, his wife, and their six children would eat or sell the animals he killed, including colobus monkeys, macaques, and endangered bonobos, who are unique to Congo.

“We’d use the bit of income to buy soap or even salt,” Lotala told Arcus during a visit in early 2020—just as the COVID-19 pandemic was starting—in a mixture of Lingala and Lmongo, the vernacular of the local Mongo population.  

But after the government formally gazetted the highly biodiverse Lomako-Yokokala Faunal Reserve for the conservation of bonobos in 2006, villagers could no longer hunt or farm within this 3,625-square-kilometer forest. Eco-guards began patrolling the reserve; infractions were met with fines or the threat of imprisonment. With dozens arrested (for example, 68 in 2019, according to local law enforcement data), hunters soon found themselves in an untenable position.

As Lotala put it, if those animals did not die, his family would not survive.

Alternatives to forest exploitation

Recognizing the precarity of both the forest and the humans who live on its periphery, African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), which partners with government authorities to protect the reserve, in 2018 turned to Village Enterprise for help. This Nairobi-based organization has a multi-decade track record of identifying people living in extreme poverty and successfully training them to establish sustainable businesses and savings groups.

Under Village Enterprise’s Poverty Graduation model, villagers engaged in alternative livelihoods are no longer compelled to exploit forest resources: conflict with park authorities is reduced, and conservation activities can continue. According to Elekana Elie Lubucibwa—the government official known locally as “conservateur” for his responsibility to monitor activities that affect the Lomako-Yokokala reserve—the initiatives have stabilized or “created real growth” in the number of bonobos in Lomako. And, he says, the “community’s respect for bonobos is increasing.”  

Estimates suggest that a minimum of between 15,000 to 20,000 bonobos remain in the wild, according to the most recent population research, published in 2016. All are classified Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, and their dwindling populations live across four main areas of the country, exclusively south of the Congo river.

Bonobos—long-legged and pink-lipped, with a center parting in their head of hair—are physically and geographically distinct from chimpanzees, who live north of the Congo river. Together, under the genus Pan, bonobos and chimpanzees comprise the most recently diverged ape species and the closest living species to humans. A newly updated genetic sequence of bonobos, published in May 2021, will allow more accurate comparisons of them with other apes, including humans.

The road to sustainable livelihoods

Traveling from the country’s capital, Kinshasa, or from towns farther up the 4,700-kilometer Congo River in dugout canoes (pirogues) and on motorbike—often in heavy downpours, over dirt roads, and along swollen rivers—Village Enterprise managers slowly made their way to four villages along the Lopori River, near the Lomako-Yokokala reserve.

Living in mud-and-stick houses, among a few farm animals and the hum of an occasional generator, they began recruiting and training local business mentors, who were already considered respected community members.

The mentors, some of whom had previously worked as teachers at local schools, then began identifying potential recipients for entrepreneurship training, prioritizing people who lived on less than US$1.90 a day and were involved in hunting or the trade in animal meat and parts.  

The mentors organized entrepreneurs into teams of three, each with a president, a secretary, and a treasurer. Over a period of several months, they taught them business management skills, financial literacy, and the principles of saving and investing. Each group received up to $300 in seed money, plus additional business coaching as needed.

“The business owners were very eager to learn,” says Anthony Martin Omongin, a Village Enterprise field coordinator. “They actually welcomed us and told us there hasn’t been any other organization [giving] them this kind of program. So that kept motivating us amid the challenges,” which included lack of power or Internet, language barriers, and illness.

Mentors continually examined the entrepreneurs’ records and pushed them to innovate, to add value to their businesses, says Job Matseshe, at the time senior partnerships manager at Village Enterprise.

“And if you start a business that fails,” he added, “the mentors encourage you to go back to the savings group, take a loan, and start a business that profits.”

Over two years, the project worked with 240 households and established 93 sustainable microenterprises, about a third of them run by women, in four villages in the Bongandanga district of Mongala province. The program raised income of the business owners by 52 percent.

Toward the project’s conclusion, surveys of the owners showed a decreased reliance on hunting within the reserve and improved perceptions of conservation efforts, two of the project’s overarching goals.

Now, grantees can “survive without entering the forest,” says Raoul Tafua, a program officer with AWF. “They are producing on their own.”   

“Life is better”

Today, entrepreneurs trained by Village Enterprise sell razor blades, salt, beauty products, shoes, and spices—relative novelties in this area—from roadside stalls and kiosks. Antibiotics and treatments for malaria, worms, and other common ailments fill the shelves of newly established pharmacies.

“Life is better,” Lotala, the former poacher, says. “If we were going to the forest, it was because we were looking for money. Now the money walks its way to us.”

The return on the businesses has enabled owners to invest in new businesses, including roadside fuel stands or stalls that sell beignets, or kitchen sundries like sugar, biscuits, or sardines, none of which had been widely available at local markets.

Owners also spend profits on their children’s school fees and pay for medical care in cities. They buy more nutritious food and lightbulbs, to extend their hours of productivity.

Among the more successful entrepreneurs is Jean-Pierre Limbute Likolo, who first learned to use a hunting rifle in his childhood, and later supported his nine children with meat from the forest, including bonobos, whose flesh was dried and then sold through relatives, in urban markets.

Looking back, he expresses dismay and some grief over taking the life of the “intelligent bonobo.” Now, he runs a pharmacy called God Is King in the village of Ekombe and is relieved to no longer rely on the forest for his income. “Before, it was a very difficult life,” he says. “I was not living well.”

To hunt, he explains, “you have to get up very early,” especially if you’re pursuing bonobos, which stir from their nests by 4 a.m. Likolo might spend a week walking through the reserve and come home with only a pig—not nearly enough to feed his family.

In the forest, thorns cut his legs, and he was constantly on guard against poisonous snakes, aggressive mammals, biting ants, falling trees, and rangers who could arrest him. Once, his gun misfired and sent hot metal into his ribs and arm.

Sustaining his family by running a kiosk is a far more reliable and lucrative source of income, he says. “If a child is in school and you are working and your family is getting better,” he summarized, “you can only feel very happy.”

A measure of commitment

Entrepreneurs and business mentors alike emphasized the disastrous state of the region’s roads, which are deeply rutted and nearly impassable in the rain. Bridges frequently wash out; motorbikes and motorized pirogues break down.

It takes Merveille Boale Batuli—a business owner who sells cooking oil, body lotion, and clothing—three days to reach her suppliers in Lisala, an 89-kilometer journey she undertakes twice a month by foot.

“We wake up at midnight because we need to walk all night,” she says. “It’s cold and sleeping places are bad. When it rains there are no places to shelter, and there are also bandits along the way”—a particular danger for women.

Renting motorbikes and crossing the river are also dauntingly expensive. But Batuli continues to make the journey “so the business can continue running,” she says. “If I fail, I will not have anything left.”

Building forest-friendly communities

Likolo and Batuli credit consistent mentoring and their own hard work with their improved quality of life. But both suggest that protecting the forest and its wildlife will, over the long term, depend on expanding the program to many more villagers. “Because other poachers are not financed,” Likolo says. “Many other people have been left behind.”

To help them continue to grow and start new businesses, Village Enterprise and AWF secured additional funding to recruit and train a new crop of business mentors in 2021. If all goes as planned, villages near the reserve will soon host 180 brand new businesses.

Batuli, a widowed mother of three, and her family group had for many years lived in the forest, subsisting on vegetation like boiled cassava leaves and spinach supplemented by bushmeat—including bonobos, porcupines, and tortoises. Her children suffered from severe malnutrition.

But after business mentors from Village Enterprise selected her for training in 2019, the income from her shop enabled Batuli to vary her family’s diet to include fish, nuts, rice, and fruit—“things that can strengthen the body,” she says. She was also able to provide clothing for herself and her family, and send the children to school.

There were also some intangible benefits.

“I began speaking with other villagers,” she says. She joined a church and “began laughing with people.”

As for returning to the forest, Batuli says with certainty, “that desire is no longer.”

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