“A Land of Many Potentials” is how DR Congo’s investment promotion agency touts the mineral-rich nation of 80 million people, just weeks away from crucial elections.
Yet the business community’s wish list is frighteningly long in a country that is synonymous with corruption, according to its Transparency International profile, which ranked it 161 out of 180 countries last year.
The gap between potential and the current state of affairs poses a daunting challenge for whoever succeeds President Joseph Kabila in the December 23 presidential poll.
Major progress is needed on all fronts from agriculture, electricity, roads, customs tariffs and fiscal policy to tackling endemic corruption.
Business leaders say people are crying out for a savvy leader in a country ranked 176 on the Human Development Index by UNDP.
“He must learn to manage the country like a business. We have excelled in political politics rather than a realistic economic policy producing wealth,” businessman Yves Kabongo told a recent investment forum as the nation approaches the end of the Kabila era that has stretched almost two decades.
The next head of state must “avoid making political arrangements and instead choose expertise”, insisted Alain Kahasha, managing director of the Congolese branch of Indian telecoms operator Airtel.
DR Congo is blessed with an abundance of mineral riches and fertile land but is one of the world’s poorest nations. Annual economic output totals just $457 dollars per person — or $1.25 per day.
Economist Al Kitenge said a change in mindset is required.
“It’s time to think beyond the golden age of the mines,” he said.
The mining and export of cobalt, as well as copper, tantalum and gold, have been the biggest creators of wealth in the country.
But those riches have been a factor fuelling devastating conflicts and had “a perverse effect on all sectors”, said Kabongo.
He said country needs instead to focus on agriculture, which could help provide jobs for many more than the mining industry ever could and help reduce hunger.
The government estimates that a vibrant agriculture sector could provide jobs for more than two-thirds of the population, but at the moment only 10 percent of land is used for farming.
Staples such as rice, maize, manioc and other crops grow profusely in the lush tropical climate.
Yet the state shells out more than $1 billion year to import basic foodstuffs. And many Congolese are very lucky if they manage to eat three good meals a day.
“Food self-sufficiency” has to be the goal, said Kahasha.
But here as well there is a problem.
“You can talk about agriculture, but if you don’t have the infrastructure to transform and transport what is produced then there’s no point,” he said.
DR Congo’s road network is so insufficient that farmers and traders often have to make a two-week trip in decrepit boats down the Congo river to sell their produce.
Kabila recently told lawmakers that the vast nation that is around two thirds the size of Western Europe has just 27,877 kilometres (17,322 miles) of roads. France alone has more than a million kilometres.
Ruling party lawmaker Patrick Muyaya estimated that authorities “must build 90,000 kilometres of (national) roads” and 150,000 kilometres more of rural feeder roads.
Electrification must also be high up on the list of priorities as barely 17 percent of the population have access and that too mainly in the urban areas, according to the World Bank.
And that is despite huge generating potential from the Congo river and its many tributaries estimated at 100,000 megawatts.
Sharing nine borders with its neighbours, the sprawling country also has to work on customs deals.
“We must cut tariffs,” said Polycarpe Ndivito Kikwaya, who heads the FEC business association in Butembo, a major trade point near the Ugandan border.
Investor Yves Kabongo said the country had to cut “one of the continent’s most complex” investment systems riddled with red tape.
“We must end all this administrative hassle for those who take the risk of investing in DRC, be they Congolese or foreigners,” Kabongo said.