The sun slips behind dense foliage as the day draws to a close, but a few golden rays penetrate the dense canopy of trees. The sun’s rays illuminate a large clearing planted with fruit trees and beds of vegetables. Despite the lateness of the hour, people are still at work.
Joseph Claude Milongo is operating a noisy, motorized water pump that provides a steady stream of water to the dozens of vegetable beds in his field.
His fellow gardeners refer to him as the “Turnip man.” Mr. Milongo earned his nickname because he is the only farmer in the area who grows turnips. The vegetable was introduced to Congo-Brazzaville about four years ago by Chinese settlers, who eat a lot of turnips.
Mr. Milongo explains: “The turnip is a very attractive plant. It can be grown throughout the year, whatever the season.” Turnips do not need a nursery bed because the seeds can be planted directly in the soil. An added bonus is that farmers do not need to dig over seedbeds, which saves time, money and labour. Mr. Milongo adds, “After 45 days they are ready to harvest. We sell both the leaves and the roots.”
He grows turnips to increase his income. His dream is to own his own small farm very soon. He says: “After 15 years of farming, it’s [only] now that I am making good profit margins. [After I have paid for] seeds, manure, soil preparation and so on, I have enough left over to live on and plan other projects.”
Unlike tomatoes, eggplants or endives, turnips are easy and cheap to grow and hardy. Most of Mr. Milongo’s buyers are West African, Chinese and Arab immigrants.
He says: “I can buy a box of [turnip] seeds for 5000 Central African francs [$9.60 U.S.]. I plant them in amongst the tomatoes, eggplants and peppers in ten seedbeds, 20 metres long and one metre wide. I also grow seven beds which have only turnips in them. From that, I earn 250,000 francs [$480 U.S.] after 45 days.”
Mr. Milongo used his profits to buy land near the town of Ngabari. He hopes to one day set up a small family farm there.
He has been desperate for several years to own his own farm. Like many other small producers, he has squatted on derelict land near Brazzaville. But he was constantly in fear of being expelled from the site.
The 50-year-old father of six works with his wife, Patricia Kiembé. Her main role is selling their produce at the market in Brazzaville, where she maintains good prices and good relationships with their customers. She says, “It was I who convinced my husband to grow turnips.”
The couple discovered the crop at a nearby Chinese-owned farm. Mrs. Kiembé observed that people at the market were interested in turnips for their therapeutic properties – the vegetables are thought to be good for the heart and intestines. There was strong demand from the Chinese community, both for food and as part of traditional medicines.
So they seized their opportunity. The couple bought the water pump with their first-year profits. Mrs. Kiembé adds, “Slowly but surely, our situation is developing for the better, and soon we will have our own farm where we can start to raise pigs.”
Mr. Milongo believes they are off to a good start. But he still faces huge difficulties, especially in the dry season when he cannot draw water from the wells. Sometimes he has to wait hours before he can resume irrigating. But despite these challenges, Mr. Milongo is full of confidence. He concludes: “If I can continue to generate these profits, in two or three years I’ll have my own farm.”