BUTEMBO (North Kivu), December 15, 2009-Since the rehabilitation of State Route Four (RN4), there has been significant growth in traffic on the road that links the cities of Kisangani and Beni, eclipsing airplanes which until recently transported most of the goods in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The atmosphere in one town on that road stretch, Butembo, in the eastern province of North Kivu, captures the new reality on the ground: mattresses covered with plastic bags, baskets full of onions, garlic, and assorted commodities strewn on the ground along the stadium avenue; the hustling and bustling of a municipality come alive! In the midst of this apparent chaos, warehouse workers load sacks of beans on to heavy vehicles, each labeled "Kisangani Express."
"There is always a vehicle to be loaded. That's how we earn a living here," said an out-of-breath Bamimbi Vumi, who works as a loader. A makeshift parking lot has been established since the end of 2008, just beside the branch office of the biggest ground transport company whose buses run between Butembo and Kisangani. Only months ago, there were hardly any passengers jostling to board vehicles and travel the 900 km that separate the two cities. Back then, travelers and merchants depended on airplanes for much of their transportation needs.
Air Carriers Losing Market Share
Demand for air transport has been in freefall since the completion of the road, for which the World Bank provided US$55 million in financing through the Emergency Economic and Social Reunification Support Project (PUSPRES). A visit to the empty hangars of some airline companies that still have not come to terms with the arrival of vehicles reveals the effects of the competition from ground transportation.
"Vehicle operators in Kisangani are really killing our business," complained Dominique Mbavumoja, branch manager for Mango Airlines, a local operator. "We are on the verge of folding; however, we are still trying to develop strategies to retain our clients."
Of the 13 airline companies operating between 2000 and 2005, only three are still trying to stay afloat.
"What do you expect? Clients seek out what's best for them," said Pascal Karungu, vice-president of the Drivers' Association of Congo (ACCO). He said he felt no sympathy for airliners because they benefited primarily foreign pilots, and in the end the government had to ban them from flying because of repeated crashes. "Now local drivers are the ones who are benefiting."
"We used to charge US$1.4 per kilo of cargo, but truck drivers have come along and lowered the price to US$0.5 per kilo. Some have even reduced it to US$0.25," said Muyisa Kambine, head of marketing for Galaxie Kavatsi airline. "Before the road carriers got into the race, we transported between 150 and 200 metric tons of goods per month to Kisangani. Now we are down to approximately 29 metric tons," added Dominique Mbafumoya, who also works in the airline industry.
"By Using the Road, We Learn About Our Country"
Truck drivers have another advantage: passengers love the road trips because they are like excursions. "Travelling by motor vehicle is not only less costly, but more importantly, we also get the opportunity to learn about our country by passing through several towns," said Mulubwila Boya, a trader who carries cosmetics to Kisangani. Route RN4 passes through villages like Niania, known for its gold mines; Mambasa, home of an indigenous population group; and the Epulu Okapi Reserve, which is on UNESCO's list of World Heritage in Danger.
Kisangani-Beni, the New Route for Commercial Trade
The location commonly known as Parking de Bafwasende, near the Kisangani central market, has recaptured its former ambiance. Here, scores of trucks load and unload hundreds of passengers and tons of goods every day, going to and coming from Beni, Butembo, Goma, Bunia, Niania, and other localities. The residents of Kisangani have not seen such a flurry of activities in over a decade.
For more than six months, the rehabilitation of the Kisangani-Beni road has been bringing vehicles back to the streets of the city and the main parking lot has come back to life. The administrative center of Orientale Province is once again connected by road to Beni in the neighboring province of North Kivu. It takes a day for cars and jeeps (two days for trucks) to travel from one city to the other, with the cost ranging between US$25 and US$30. As a result, commercial exchanges between the two cities have increased significantly.
The road has also allowed many young people to earn a living through self-employment. The town market receives several items at good prices: cement, metals, construction materials, cabbage, potatoes, beans, and salted fish, among other consumer goods. Several manufactured products are sent out of Kisangani, such as body lotions, beer, soaps, tomato, sardines, which come in mostly by boat from Kinshasa, the capital. "We greatly appreciate the government's efforts to rehabilitate this road, the backbone of our province's economy," added Robert Osundja Bawa, director of the Federation of Enterprises of Congo, in Kisangani.
The Kisangani-Beni road stretch was rehabilitated under the PUSPRES project, which was approved in 2003 to assist the Congolese government in its efforts to reunify the eastern provinces to the rest of the country. The project also aimed to increase access to basic infrastructure and social services for citizens living in the provinces of Orientale, Maniema, North and South Kivu, Equateur, North Katanga, and North Kasai Oriental. The project is scheduled to be completed in September 2010.