Wheat doesn’t grow in the steamy, tropical climate of central Africa. But that hasn’t stopped people from eating bread. In some parts of Zaire, especially around the capital Kinshasa, bread has virtually replaced the traditional starchy staple, ‘shikwanga’ — derived from locally-grown manioc root.
Almost all the country’s wheat is imported from the flat prairie land of the American mid-West by the Continental Grain Company — one of the ‘big five’ family-run grain traders that dominate the world market. Wheat is a politically volatile commodity, as both Continental and Zaire’s notoriously corrupt President Mobutu know from experience. But when it came to exploiting that political pressure point even the autocratic Mobutu was forced to admit the multinational grain company had the upper band.
Zaire began its wheat addiction in the early 1960s shortly after Belgium grudgingly lowered the flag in its former colony, the Congo. Surplus wheat was made available at subsidised prices to the newly-independent country under the American PL480 food aid programme. It was cheaper and easier to feed bread to a growing and influential urban population than to increase agricultural production in the countryside and improve transport and distribution systems.
Small bakeries sprung up and bread eating boomed. As then US agricultural attache John Williams noted, bread had been ‘the staple diet of the colonial masters and was adopted by the elite; bread consumption identifies with progress and modernity for the masses.'
This new dependence on imported wheat was reinforced when Continental Grain opened Black Africa’s first modern flour mill in Kinshasa in 1973. Months later the price of wheat went through the ceiling when the Soviet harvest flopped and Moscow shrewdly snatched up the US surplus. At the same time the bottom dropped out of the global copper market — Zaire’s main export and major foreign exchange earner. American wheat first obtained as aid now cost cold hard cash — dollars. And Zaire didn’t have enough to pay Continental for its imports.
By late 1976, the company began to fret about bills and concluded that some gentle arm-twisting was necessary. Continental held back its monthly shipment of wheat to the Zaire mill which in turn was forced to reduce its flour output. The effect was devastating and spontaneous: long queues, hoarding and angry grumbling in the streets.
The Mobutu regime moved quickly. Government officials met with Continental, sensitive to the company’s stranglehold on a now-essential food staple. There was little room for negotiation. All the company’s demands were met. The Central Bank would pay cash for all further wheat shipments and the country would start to repay its old debt at the rate of $l million a month. Except by special arrangement only US wheat would be imported and Continental was to be given exclusive rights to mill flour in Zaire. The deal mounted to a complete monopoly. Continental now had the power of a government agency to control competing flour imports.
Regular wheat shipments resumed immediately. Homemade bread ovens again plumed smoke in Kinshasa’s morning air. President Mobutu could rest easy now that a politically-powerful urban elite was again content. And the Continental Grain Company continued shipping and milling wheat, confident that the free market grain business was back on track.