Measures announced by the Congolese government to keep food prices affordable have elicited both scepticism and praise from NGOs and citizens, some accusing the administration of not doing enough to cut the cost of living.
On 12 May, the government announced a reduction from 18 to 5 percent in the rate of VAT levied on a range of basic imported foodstuffs and other goods deemed essential. These included staples such as wheat, sugar, rice, salted fish, baby food and household products such as soap. Import duties are also set to be cut on a variety of foods.
Congo is unable to produce enough food to feed its population and is therefore dependent on imports. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the country imports 130 billion CFA francs (US$260 million) worth of food every year.
“The measures are welcome, because with our small salaries, these days, it is difficult to make ends meet,” Pascal Elenga, a secondary school teacher in the capital, Brazzaville, told IRIN. “Moreover, in my family, we are limited to one meal each day despite the risk to our health.”
A junior officer in the army agreed. “We cannot eat what we want because of the high food prices we have seen in recent times. For example, freshwater fish, a delicacy in Congo, has become so extravagant, one must pay 5,000 CFA francs [$10] to get it.”
In the past three years, the price of chinchard, a popular fish, has risen from 700 to 2,000 francs (from $1.40 to $4); a kilogramme of rice from 250 to 500 francs (50 cents to $1) a kilo; and a sack of charcoal from 2,500 to 5,000 francs ($5 to $10).
"Drop in the ocean"
The hike in food prices is not a first in Congo. In 1994, the 50 percent devaluation of the CFA franc caused the price of imported foodstuffs to double overnight.
Maixent Fortunin Hanimbat, chairman of a local human rights NGO, Le Forum Pour La Gouvernance et les Droits de L’Homme, voiced his scepticism. “The major problem in this country is we make decisions, but they are not applied for the good of the population,”
Roch Euloge Nzobo, an official of another NGO, L’Observatoire de Droits de L’Homme Congolais, described the government’s measures as “a drop in the ocean. They will have no effect on the purchasing power of the people, neither on the prices of goods. The government does not have strong structures that are effective in controlling the quality and prices of goods.”
Prices are supposed to be fixed by the ministry of trade, but in practice enforcement is weak, leaving traders to set such prices themselves. Nzobo suggested “the government take durable measures by creating conditions for sustainable development and for real self-sufficiency”.
Akouala Atipault, the Minister for Communication and the government’s spokesman, said: “The measures were taken in the people’s interests. They are to be applied to the letter, rigorously and without fault.”
Aside from the cuts in duty, the government also announced it would establish a committee, headed by the prime minister, to follow up the measures, and agents would be recruited to ensure goods were being sold in line with regulatory prices and quality levels.