America Is Still Fighting a War on Marijuana—In Congo.

Columbia Global Reports

North Kivu, DR Congo | A woman going through a terraced tea field. Farmers in places like Congo who see cannabis as a profitable, stable crop must grow it at their peril. | Photo MONUSCO / Abel Kavanagh

Some of eastern Congo’s small-scale farmers are benefiting from a surprising—and illegal—crop.

Cannabis has become a major source of income for tens of thousands of farmers in Congo’s unstable east. It isn’t hard to see the appeal. “Cannabis (is) a robust plant which is easy to grow, requires little labor outside of harvesting and drying, yields several harvests per year, and can be harvested as early as six months from sowing,” writes Ann Laudati, a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has interviewed more than 100 cannabis farmers in eastern Congo. “They’re making a living off it,” said Laudati. “They’re not getting rich, but they’re surviving.”

Congo isn’t alone. “The highest levels of cannabis production in the world take place on the African continent,” according to the UN. In 2005, Africa produced an estimated one-fourth of all global cannabis. In 2005, seventeen African countries reported that cannabis use was on the rise, including Congo. Be it by land or by sea, the drug also makes its way outside Congo’s porous borders. Quite possibly it’s what’s being smoked by western expats and humanitarians in African cities as far away as Nairobi.

But there’s one major factor limiting the crop’s proliferation: Cannabis is illegal in Congo, as it is in almost every African country. Since 2011, there have been more cannabis seizures in Africa than anywhere else in the world. Africa’s crackdown on cannabis reflects an international narrative that blames cannabis for all manner of the continent’s ills–the product of a century of European and U.S. pressure meant to stop it. According to the RAND Corporation, “in no Western country is a user at much risk of being criminally penalized for using marijuana. “ At a time when the United States is rapidly decriminalizing marijuana at home, it continues to endorse a narrative that demonizes the drug abroad.

Read the full article at Columbia Global Reports.

Congo’s Cannabis

OZY.com

In a nation known for minerals, a controversial crop is on the rise.

Before he started growing weed, Koti spent his days digging holes and tunnels, mining for morsels of gold. He would smoke weed — or bangias he calls it — to overcome his fear of the darkness that he faced underground. As a teen, he saw a tunnel collapse, trapping five fellow miners — only one was rescued. “It’s dangerous,” says Koti, of the illegal minerals trade that many eastern Congolese families depend on. “People were dying.”

The tragedy frightened him, but with no other source of income, he was back at the mine the next day. Then, in 2007, a foreign mining company kicked Koti and the other small-time miners off the land. With no other job, he bought cannabis seeds from a neighbor, planted them and, six months later, harvested a crop of cannabis that measured in the kilos. “I had no other job,” says Koti, who asked that his real name be withheld out of fear of authorities. “So I decided to start growing marijuana.”

The Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa’s second-largest nation by area, is known for nefarious trade in copper, coltan, cobalt, tin and other minerals. But now, tens of thousands of Congolese like Koti are setting their sights on a different sort of illegal resource: cannabis. The United Nations estimates that Africa produces 10,500 metric tons of cannabis — a fourth of all the marijuana in the world. Between 27 million and 53 million Africans use the drug, making up about one-fourth of all weed users worldwide.

But while cannabis farming comes without the physical fears that accompany mining, it carries its own share of risks, wrapped in politics from across the Atlantic. Decades of U.S. and international pressure are a key reason why cannabis cultivation is illegal in Congo. In 1961, the U.S. voted in favor of the U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which added marijuana to the list of drugs that were banned internationally. The way to solve America’s drug “problem” was by pinching off the global supply, or so the thinking went.

Farmers can’t receive international aid to grow an illegal crop. It also leaves them vulnerable to harassment from corrupt police officials.

The penalization of cannabis in Congo is endorsed by the U.S. at a time when many states are decriminalizing the drug at home. In Afghanistan, the U.S. has funded “alternative livelihood” programs to shift Afghan farmers away from cannabis. And in 2005, the U.S. vetoed an international attempt to “reschedule” cannabis as a less dangerous substance — a move that could have opened the doors to deregulation.

Read the full feature at OZY.

Leaving China in Pursuit of the African Dream

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In 2009, China surpassed the United States as the continent’s largest trading partner. By 2012, its trade with Africa was double the United States’.

Western media tend to inflate the rhetoric surrounding China’s rise in Africa. Headlines are often resentful and sometimes border on fear-mongering: China is “winning” Africa from the West. The United States must “catch up” to China if it hopes to maintain economic, security and cultural relevance in Africa. A monolithic “China” sees Africa as a place to get rich quick, and doesn’t care much about the consequences.

But behind these hyperbolic headlines there are people, actual Chinese moving to Africa — one million over the past 15 years according to the rough but generally accepted estimate.

“Big projects completed by big, government-owned companies dominate the headlines about the advancing Chinese agenda in Africa,” wrote Howard French, a longtime New York Times correspondent in both China and Africa, in China’s Second Continent. “But history teaches us that very often reality is more meaningfully shaped by the deeds of countless smaller actors, most of them for all intents and purposes anonymous.”

Read the full article at VICE, and watch the full documentary, Chinafication of Africa, which I helped produce, on VICE HBO on April 22nd, 2016.

The Blood in Your Phone: Covering Conflict Minerals

Columbia Graduate School of Journalism - Covering Business

Artisanal copper mining in the Congo. / Jacob Kushner

The global mineral trade can be ugly. Think children skipping school to dig barefoot with picks and shovels for gold or other precious ore. Picture warlords and army officers using guns to traffic minerals on the black market. Think Democratic Republic of Congo.

Or perhaps, consider the multi-billion dollar corporations that source many of the precious metals they use to build your mobile phone or your laptop from under regulated and often illegal mines. U.S. Congress began thinking about this in 2010 when it passed a first-of-its-kind law aimed at curbing the trade of certain “conflict minerals” in the Democratic Republic of Congo—Africa’s second largest country, whose eastern region has been ravaged by mineral-fueled violence for decades, killing more people than any other conflict since World War II.

Covering Business spoke with Michael Kavanagh, a veteran Bloomberg reporter in Congo who has covered the mineral trade there for more than a decade, about what journalists get wrong and how they can do a better job of covering this complex and divisive subject.

Read the article at Columbia University’s Covering Business blog.

In Pursuit of Africa’s Missing Trillion

Columbia Graduate School of Journalism - Covering Business

In recent decades, Western media has tended to place the blame for Africa’s problems overwhelmingly on African shoulders. Given portrayals in the mainstream press, for example, one could have been forgiven for thinking that Robert Mugabe’s ongoing state plunder in Zimbabwe or the Joseph Kabila administration’s secret mining deals in Congo were purely African scandals, manufactured by Africans without any outside help.

And yet a subtle shift in western media’s coverage of Africa is underway: today many news outlets are making great efforts to uncover the ways in which foreign corporations and actors from North America, Europe and Asia are central to corruption on the continent.

Read the full story at the Columbia University Covering Business blog.

Enlisting an Academic Gatekeeper to Unlock a Story

Columbia Graduate School of Journalism - Covering Business

Any good reporter, regardless of his beat, will consult as wide a range of sources as possible to get an accurate picture of his subject. But sometimes there’s a single source who seems to know almost everything—an expert who’s the ‘gatekeeper’ to a castle of information and contacts on the business or deal the reporter is investigating. Enlisting the help of this person can unlock access to dozens of key sources and documents all at once.

This happened to be the case when I was reporting my master’s thesis for Columbia Journalism School about China’s rise in the Democratic Republic of Congo, now an eBook. I was investigating a $6.5 billion “infrastructure for minerals” deal in which the Chinese state-owned companies partnered with Congo’s state mining agency to mine an incredible 6.8 million tons of copper and 427,000 tons of cobalt over the subsequent 25 years. In exchange for the minerals, the Chinese companies would spend $3 billion to build roads, hospitals and universities throughout Congo. That investment was not structured as a gift, but a loan: every dollar spent will eventually be paid back in copper revenues.

The more I reported, the more the name Johanna Janssoncame up: It seemed like every journalist, academic and business insider I spoke with about the deal would refer me back to her. Jansson is a Swedish PhD candidate who has spent years researching the specific megadeal I was reporting on, called Sicomines, for her dissertation at a University in Denmark. In January 2013, I approached her in Kinshasa to ask for help understanding the deal—and for her contacts to some of the most powerful and knowledgeable stakeholders in Congo. My eBook, supported by the Pulitzer Center, would not have been possible without the information and contacts she provided me.

But what motivated her—an academic expert and a business insider—to open up to me—a journalism school student and someone with relatively little knowledge of the subject? What inspired her to hand off to me information that she had spent years gathering?

Nearly two years later I called her to discuss what a journalist can do to gain the trust and help of an expert– and what that expert often expects from the journalist in return. Read the full interview at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Covering Business page.

China’s Second Continent

OZY.com

Sia Kambou/AFP/Corbis

The million Chinese who’ve landed in Africa are plucky, hugely ambitious and have an eye for opportunity. They’re also helping make China a big player on a continent once dominated by the West. 

You’ve seen the headlines: China is taking over Africa, and the United States and Africa’s former colonizers in Europe have lost sway.

Mostly, it’s true. Throughout Angola, Ghana and the Congo, some of China’s largest companies are building roads and railways. They’re backed by Chinese banks, and they’ll pay off their loans in kind through mining and oil deals. All the while, small-scale Chinese entrepreneurs are moving to Africa, opening pharmacies, trading furniture or buying land to farm, much as earlier generations did in Southeast Asia and North America. African governments are welcoming them with open arms, and for the most part, so are Africans themselves.

Earlier literature on China’s rise in Africa pushed us past the easy — and flawed — paradigm of China as Africa’s latest ”colonizer.” But in his forthcoming book, China’s Second Continent, Howard French argues the Chinese who migrate to Africa do so as individuals motivated by simple, familiar dreams of opportunity.
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A former China bureau chief for The New York Times and veteran Africa correspondent, French traveled the African continent, speaking Mandarin with Chinese men and women who had grown weary of the daily grind in their homeland. The characters French encounters are risk-takers: sometimes foulmouthed, often lucky and universally ambitious.

Read the full Q&A: Howard French on ‘China’s Second Continent’ | C-Notes | OZY

Africa Isn’t Rising.

OZY.com

Roberto Schmidt/Getty

By the books, it’s rising. Africa had six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies in the 2000s. Minerals, metals and oil are nourishing long-starved government coffers. In January, Kenya’s Revenue Authority said it had collected too much money in taxes over the previous six months — 24 percent more than during the same period the year before.

But don’t go telling your friends Africa is no longer poor. The raw numbers are misleading, and “much of Africa’s celebrated growth is vulnerable,” according to the first Africa Transformation Report, published last month by the African Council on Economic Transformation (ACET). According to ACET, African economies have failed to transform in ways that would ensure long-term gains.
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In that argument, ACET joins a burgeoning subfield of economists trying to explain the discrepancy between fast economic growth and slow human progress in some African countries. Their ranks include Dani Rodrik and other development economists, but ACET’s report may be the most prominent. They hope their ideas change how we think about national success.

Read the full story at OZY.com

Knowledge is Power: World Bank to Chart Africa’s Minerals in ‘Billion Dollar Map’

Think Africa Press

Nairobi, Kenya– Last  month, the World Bank announced an ambitious new project aimed at helping African governments earn a better price for their natural resources and accelerate the pace of mining across the continent.

Dubbed the ‘Billion Dollar Map’ for its meteoric price tag, the decade-long initiative will scour a century of historical research into the continent’s mineral makeup and collate it in a public database. The project will then finance governments to conduct exploration to fill in the gaps.
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The need for better research into the continent’s minerals is clear and urgent. When it comes to negotiating contracts, knowledge is power, and African government’s uncertainty over the levels of the resources they possess has contributed to them signing some hugely unfavourable deals.

According to a 2013 report by the think tank Global Financial Integrity, African countries have lost between $600 billion and $1.4 trillion in net resource transfers over the past 30 years.

Read the full story at Think Africa Press.

Risky Business: Is China Wavering in Africa?

Think Africa Press

South Africa’s president arrives in Beijing for a Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Photograph by GovernmentZA.

Chinese companies and banks were once seen as bold and fearless as they invested in countries Western investors deemed too risky. But this may now be changing.

By Jacob Kushner

In 2007, when two Chinese state-owned companies struck a deal with the Congolese government to build the biggest mine the country had ever seen, all involved were riding high. In a mega-deal originally worth some $9 billion, Sinohydro and the China Railway Engineering Corporation (CREC) would gain access to 6.8 million metric tons of copper, the future profits of which were to underwrite the prior building of hospitals, roads and other infrastructure.
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At the time, the China’s involvement in Africa was booming and the Sicomines deal embodied much that was symptomatic of Sino-African relations: it was massive-scale, involved vast infrastructural construction linked with similarly vast mineral resources, and was taking place in a country many other investors would have deemed too unstable.

It was not long, however, before confidence in the deal began to wane, especially amongst the deal’s financiers, China’s Export-Import Bank (Exim).

Read the full article at Think Africa Press.

RADIO: BBC World Service on “China’s Congo Plan”

BBC World Service

China’s economic rise in Africa has brought a whole army of managers and engineers to the continent. Many of them have come with state-owned companies to extract minerals and build infrastructure. One example where this is happening is the Democratic Republic of Congo. Newsday has spoken to journalist Jacob Kushner who travelled around the country meeting different communities of Chinese immigrants for his book “China’s Congo Plan”

 

Listen to the interview at BBC World Service Newsday.

Corruption in the Congo: How China Learnt from the West

Think Africa Press
To single out Chinese companies for entering into shady business in the DRC is to miss a fundamental point: Western firms have been at it for centuries, and still are.

Last January I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to research Sicomines, China’s controversial $6.5 billion megadeal in which Chinese companies will construct roads, schools and hospitals in exchange for mining and untold billions of dollars worth of copper and cobalt with Congo’s state mining agency.

On a sunny morning in the south-eastern mining city of Lubumbashi, I called a Congolese official to pose some hard questions about the deal – particularly, what happened to the $350 million ‘signing bonus’ that was handed over by the Chinese. But I hardly got a word in before his response betrayed his fear as to the more sensitive concern on his mind: “Is this about COMIDE?”

It wasn’t, of course. But perhaps it should have been, because the corruption scandal that burns hottest among Congolese officials today has nothing to do with the Chinese. In 2009, the International Monetary Fund started a $551 million loan to improve the DRC’s business climate through a series of projects. As a condition of the loan, Congo’s government would have to make all its mining contracts and transactions public.

So it must have come as a surprise to the IMF when Bloomberg revealed the DRC had sold its 25% stake in a copper mining venture called COMIDE SPRL – a trade the Congolese government hadn’t disclosed. The IMF responded to the news by refusing to renew the loan, meaning the DRC will essentially forfeit an incredible $225 million because a few Congolese officials didn’t want the world to know what they were up to.

Read the full story as it appeared at Think Africa Press. 

As Africa welcomes more Chinese migrants, a new wariness sets in

Christian Science Monitor
In Congo, Chinese are settling in with businesses and bargains that locals love. At one copper smelting plant, Chinese and locals work together but live apart.

LUBUMBASHI, CONGO — Some 6,000 miles away from his home in China, Robin Wei awakes on a cot beneath a white mosquito net. He gets dressed, opens the door of his bunker, and walks out into the rainy season toward the factory where he works.

Four years ago, Mr. Wei bade goodbye to his wife and daughter in Shanghai and boarded a flight to the heart of Congo’s mineral belt. He lives and works at a Chinese-owned smelting plant that extracts copper from the rich ore, which is then sold for wire and pipes that go into building skyscrapers and cargo ships.

Congo also holds nearly half the world’s known reserves of cobalt. It has vast reserves of high-grade copper, tantalum, and tin. Just 10 years ago, a ton of copper could fetch $1,700 on the world market. Today it goes for about $8,000.

Wei is one of hundreds of thousands of Chinese men and women – as many as 1 million by some estimates – who, at least for now, call Africa home. (Wei goes home to visit his wife and daughter once a year.) China has been investing heavily in Africa for more than a decade, and both China and its migrants are in what could be called a settling-in period as the story of a fast-growing Africa and a rising China unfolds.

Read the full story as it appeared at the Christian Science Monitor. This story was adapted from the new e-book China’s Congo Plan.

China’s Congo Plan

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“Kushner is fair-minded and has invested much time and effort in figuring out the interplay between the new superpower and a poor but strategically important African country.”

-Ian Johnson, The New York Review of Books

What does China see in the world’s poorest nation? An opportunity for big business. Congo is known for poverty and conflict, but it is home to an enormous wealth of buried minerals such as copper, whose value is rising on the world market. Already, tens of thousands of Chinese men and women have left their families behind to live in Africa to dig and process ore.

Now, two Chinese state-owned companies are opening the biggest mine Congo has ever seen. In exchange, they’re spending billions of dollars to build new roads and modernize Congo’s infrastructure.

But will Chinese mines and roads help transform Congo in a way Western aid and business has not? Or will Chinese businessmen and Congolese officials get rich while the people continue to live in poverty?

In “China’s Congo Plan”, Jacob Kushner takes us street-side to a grand, Chinese-constructed boulevard in Congo’s capital Kinshasa, to a mountain range where Congolese men, women and children dig for minerals with picks and shovels, and to a factory where Chinese immigrants melt aqua-blue rocks into molten copper lava. Two years after China overtook the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner, Kushner brings us inside the world of China’s rise in the continent.

Kushner’s reporting was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and his research was advised by faculty at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “China’s Congo Plan” was awarded the Grand Prize in the Atavist Digital Storymakers Award for Graduate Longform, sponsored by the Pearson Foundation.

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