The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of Africa’s largest, richest and most centrally located countries, with access to the sea, borders to nine countries, and the continent’s most comprehensive river system, the Congo River. The country has Africa’s largest forests and hydroelectric potential, significant agricultural and fishing potential, and huge deposits of sought after minerals, from gold and diamonds to cobalt and copper.
Despite the great wealth, DR Congo is one of the least economically developed countries in Africa. The significant natural resources, especially the minerals, have made DR Congo a sought-after country for foreign interests, from the colonial period to the present. A little of this wealth has benefited the regular Congolese.
Especially Portuguese and Dutch interests took advantage of the country’s two most important commodities of the 16th century: ivory and slaves. Colonized by Belgium’s King Leopold 2, the Free State of Congo was the crude rubber at the turn of the century, while mineral extraction began in earnest under Belgian colonial rule, from 1908. The great mineral wealth was a major reason why Belgium did not want to renounce the colony and that foreign interests did not saw itself served by a nationalist policy after independence in 1960, but supported the attempt to disassociate the state of Katanga, where a significant part of the mineral recovery took place; first in 1960, later in 1977–1978.
DR Congo has been the site of numerous revolts, wars and conflicts since independence, and fighting for mineral deposits has been a key factor in most. During the wars of the late 1990s and early 2000s, several parties – both Congolese militia groups and foreign army forces – were involved in the extraction and smuggling of minerals, especially in the east of the country. This activity helped to fund the war.
Agriculture and fishing
Agriculture is an important part of the employment base of DR Congo’s working population, and the sector’s share of GNI increased in the 1990s; not due to increased production, but due to decline in other sectors. However, much of the trade takes place informally and the CIA World Factbook estimates that agriculture accounted for 21.1 per cent of GDP in 2017.
A wide range of products are produced, most for domestic consumption. The most important food crops are cassava, maize, rice and cooking bananas, which are mainly grown by small farmers. The only agricultural commodity that is substantially exported is coffee, but coffee exports were sharply reduced towards the end of the 1990s, mainly because of the war in the east of the country, where coffee is grown. Large fluctuations in the world market also contributed to reduced production, and a significant proportion of the production was smuggled to neighboring Burundi and Rwanda.
The majority of sales products are grown on plantations, including coffee, palm oil, rubber, cotton, sugar, tea and cocoa. By independence in 1960, agriculture accounted for about 40 percent of the country’s total export revenue, but the authorities have pursued a small agricultural-friendly policy, with nationalization of plantations and few investments in the sector, and DR Congo has gone from being a net exporter of agricultural products to having to import food.
The wars have significantly contributed to declining production, partly because hundreds of thousands have been displaced and partly by direct destruction. At the same time, access to markets has been weakened, both through general decline in the transport network, but also because parts of it were closed as a result of the war. Many farmers went from production for sale to self-storage. DR Congo is considered to have significant agricultural potential, including for future exports.
DR Congo has very large forest areas, which are yet to a relatively modest extent exploited commercially. 60 per cent of the land area – 1.3 million km 2 – is forested, which corresponds to approximately five per cent of the world’s forests. Large distances make forestry other than along the major rivers little relevant for export. Nevertheless, commercial harvesting is a major threat to the rainforest.
DR Congo has only a small coastal strip, and therefore the fishing takes place mainly in rivers and lakes. Although fishing is not a major trade route, it is important in some parts of the country – and the potential for increased catches is great. It is estimated that DR Congo can produce around 220,000 tonnes a year, close to twice the national demand.
DR Congo has a significant industrial sector that is primarily related to the mining sector and is therefore concentrated around the mines in Katanga, where there are refineries, among other things. Like the country’s other industries, this has also suffered from economic mismanagement and war, and requires major investments for modernization to reach the level of previous production and increased profitability. In 2017, the industry accounted for an estimated 33 percent of GDP (CIA World Fact Book).
DR Congo’s economic modernization in the past century is based essentially on mining and exploitation of the country’s very significant mineral deposits, especially in the copper-rich Katanga province as well as in the diamond-rich Kasaï; gradually also in other parts of the country, including in the east and northeast. Exports of minerals have accounted for about 90 per cent of the country’s total exports in recent years, and have represented about half of the country’s national budget.
Above all, the extraction of copper, cobalt and diamonds is of great importance, but DR Congo also has significant deposits of a number of other minerals, such as gold, zinc, tin, uranium, tungsten and coltan. Throughout the wars of the 1990s and 2000s, a number of concessions were awarded to these minerals, including the rebel forces, and several of these were subsequently disputed. President Joseph Kabila and his family have also gained considerable wealth based on state concessions.
Copper extraction takes place in Katanga, where the deposits are an extension of the rich Copperbelt in Zambia. Here, too, cobalt and zinc are recovered, but production has declined sharply since the 1990s, both because of war and because the production facilities are worn out and transport difficult. The price on the world market also plays a significant role in the extraction of several metals. The majority of diamond production takes place in Kasaï.
Gold, cassiterite, coltan and tungsten are mainly mined in Kivu, and in the Ituri district there are some of the richest gold fields in Africa. The state-owned company La Générale des Carrières et des Mines (Gécamines) is responsible for the extraction of about 90 percent of copper production, as well as the entire extraction of cobalt, zinc and coal. By far the largest part of diamond production consists of industrial quality, but jewelery quality diamonds are also supplied. Until 1986, DR Congo was the world’s leading manufacturer of industrial diamonds.
DR Congo has been extracting oil from offshore sources since 1975, but the country’s coastline is small and the deposits relatively small; production does not exceed total local consumption. Due to the nature of the crude oil and the lack of options for processing at its own refinery, it is still exported, while oil of a lighter quality is imported. New occurrences are being sought both offshore and inland at the border with Tanzania and Uganda. There are large reserves of methane, carbon and nitrogen gas in Lake Kivus.
Other industries are found especially in the capital Kinshasa, where a finished goods industry produces for the domestic market, including food and cement.
DR Congo has a huge energy potential from hydropower, based on the many rapids in the Congo River. The potential is estimated to represent 13 per cent of the world’s capacity and 50 per cent of Africa’s potential capacity: A total of approximately 100,000 MW, centered around the Ingadammen at the Congolese outlet. However, it was estimated that only nine percent of the population had access to electricity in 2013, mainly in the central cities (CIA World Factbook).
Several plans have been laid for further development of the Inga falls, based on exports of electric power to several countries in the region. Not least, South Africa has shown great interest in further development – both of Congo’s power reserves and a regional power grid – and has for several years assisted the country in developing its power resources.
Some exports are already taking place, including South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Also Nigeria have shown interest in further development of the Inga Falls, considering a power line through the Republic of Congo (Kongo- Brazzaville ), Gabon and Cameroon, as have Egypt. Another plan is for the so-called Western Corridor (Westcor) project, which will link Inga to Angola, Namibia and South Africa. A large-scale development of Inga is intended to make the dam the center of a future Pan-African power grid. Electricity is also generated in several other places in DR Congo, including from the Ruzizi dam in South Kivu.
DR Congo’s huge water reserves from the extensive network of rivers have also been used for direct export. Several water-poor countries have expressed interest in importing water from DR Congo, including a water pipeline from the Congo River to the dry Sahel region of West Africa. Plans have also been made for a water pipeline to the Red Sea coast of Sudan, with a view to export to the Middle East, as well as to southern Africa. Water from the Ubang River has been wanted to replenish the almost dry Chad Sea. However, water exports may partly conflict with the desire to increase hydropower production.
Transport and Communications
DR Congo’s economy is suffering from inadequate communications, and the country’s transport network is partly poorly developed, and partly poorly maintained. Weak infrastructure is highlighted as a major reason for the country’s lack of economic development, and the transport network has been steadily deteriorating since the 1970s, both through inadequate investment and as a result of several years of war. Significant parts of the big country are inaccessible with technical means of access.
From the capital and inland, the waterways (Congolese river with tributaries) are the main transport routes, and there is commercial traffic between Kinshasa and Kisangani. The eastern provinces are linked to the transport network in Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, and foreign trade mostly goes over the port of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
The main ports for sea traffic in DR Congo are Matadi, Boma and Banana, all in the lower part of the Congolese river. Part of the traffic goes over Pointe-Noire in the neighboring Republic of Congo.
The railroad has suffered from poor maintenance and lack of investment, but links Matadi and Kinshasa to the Katanga and Kasaï mining districts. There is a railway to both Zambia and Angola. The Benguela railway on the Angolan side to Lobito is the shortest transport route from Katanga to the sea. It was destroyed and closed during the civil war in Angola, but was heavily equipped until 2015.
The road network has for many years been characterized by decay due to absent maintenance and investments and is inadequate for the country’s needs. Of the approximately 157,000 km of road, around 3,000 km of main roads, but only a small part has a fixed tire. Plans are underway to build a bridge over the Congolese river and link the two capitals of Kinshasa and Brazzaville.
Air traffic has also fallen into disrepair, but a domestic grid has been trafficked by several smaller, private companies. There are international airports at Kinshasa (Ndjili), Lubumbashi (Luano), Goma and Kisangani. Smaller airports and airstrips exist in a number of places in the country.
DR Congo’s foreign trade is usually characterized by significant deficits and is dominated by mineral exports, with copper and diamonds being the most important single products. In particular, coffee and timber were exported from agriculture, but coffee exports have been greatly reduced. The political and economic crisis of the late 1980s, as well as the war of the late 1990s, have also affected foreign trade, mainly through a sharp reduction in mineral production and exports. Export revenues are further reduced as a result of smuggling.
The export pattern changed in the 1990s, when diamonds became the most important export commodity. Low prices for several of the country’s export goods have also contributed to a deterioration in the trade balance, and Congo has accumulated a large foreign debt. Minerals normally account for 80-90 percent of the total export value. Belgium is traditionally DR Congo’s leading trading partner, but since the 1990s, South Africa in particular has become a significant partner, as have Nigeria and the United States.