Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Congo, beyond the conflict: Six reasons why it matters

By Vava Tampa, Special to CNN
August 28, 2013 -- Updated 0933 GMT (1733 HKT)
DR Congo may be known for conflict minerals and proxy wars, but it is also a country with rich ancient traditions, a colourful cultural energy and amazing potential, says Vava Tampa. Its natural wonders include Virunga National Park. DR Congo may be known for conflict minerals and proxy wars, but it is also a country with rich ancient traditions, a colourful cultural energy and amazing potential, says Vava Tampa. Its natural wonders include Virunga National Park.
Beauty beyond the conflict
Hope after violence
Farming potential
Natural wonder
Great lakes
Fishing potential
Tourist attractions
Virunga National Park
More than minerals
Rare wildlife
  • DR Congo has a reputation for conflict and violence
  • Campaigner and Congo native Vava Tampa says there's another side to the country
  • It has immense natural beauty thanks to its rainforests and wildlife
  • The country's farmland and rivers could help feed the continent, he says

Editor's note: Vava Tampa, a native of Congo, is the founder of Save the Congo, a London-based campaign to tackle "the impunity, insecurity, institutional failure and the international trade of minerals funding the wars in Democratic Republic of the Congo."

(CNN) -- Mention DR Congo, Sub-Saharan Africa's largest country, and what comes to mind? Probably conflict minerals, proxy wars, the rape capital of the world, or the trigger for the 19th century "Scramble for Africa."

But beyond the despair, there is another country; a country not like any other country in the world -- a country with rich ancient traditions, a colorful cultural energy and creativity, amazing potential and much, much more.

Read this: Africa's new skyscraper megacities

Ask historians or archaeologists -- one of the earliest known mathematical objects, the Ishango bone, was not made in Ancient Greece, Mesopotamia or Renaissance Europe but around Congo's Lake Edward around 18,000 BC.

It is certainly difficult to picture this today: thirty-two years of dictatorship followed by wars, invasions and bad governance reduced Congo from being a potential economic powerhouse to one of the world's poorest countries.

Beyond the despair, there is another country; a country not like any other country in the world.
Vava Tampa, Save the Congo founder

But little by little, individuals and organizations in and outside Congo are creating glimmers of hope. The future of Congo still looks more exciting than its past and with a bit more push we can tilt the balance and awaken the world to a century, if not centuries, of "Made in Africa." Below are six reasons why saving the Congo is critical.

Congo's strategic position in the continent

Congo's unique geo-strategic position, more than its gold, diamonds and coltan reserves, makes it of interest to anyone with a keen eye for Africa's future.

Neighboring nine other countries at all four cardinal points, Congo sits right at the crossroads of African democratization and development, as well as the intersection of a series of real and potential security dilemmas.

How Congo River controls wealth
Conservationist saves endangered apes
Trendy Congolese express freedom

This means whatever happens in Congo could have an impact across the continent. And a stable and functioning Congo could trigger prosperity and development throughout Africa, and most critically, play a role in assuring security in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere in the continent.

Read: Will 'world's biggest' hydro power project light up Africa?

Helping to make famine in Africa history

Congo's vast, fertile agricultural land has tremendous potential to make it the breadbasket for the entire African continent. If Congo's fertile land were used effectively it could lift millions out of extreme poverty in a continent where malnutrition and food insecurity are rife. But this potential has barely been tapped. In spite of climatic conditions favorable for farming and abundant water resources, only a small proportion of Congo's arable land and pasture lands is under cultivation.

Bad governance and decay of the transportation infrastructure -- in particular the road networks through which production could be distributed around the country -- continue to prove a challenge and the consequences have not been short of a disaster.

The Global Hunger Index lists Congo as the world's hungriest country in its 2009, 2010 and 2011 reports, and UNICEF says Congo has the highest rate of malnutrition in Central and West Africa, affecting 43% of children under five.

Congo Rainforest

The Congo Basin rainforest, one of the natural wonders of the world, is sometimes described as one of the Earth's lungs -- the other being South America's Amazon. Home to 10,000 species of plants (of which 3,000 are found nowhere else), it features mesmerizing scenery, restless landscapes, waterfalls, a mosaic of savannahs, swamp forests and some of the most spectacular and endangered wildlife in the world.

The forest plays a crucial role in regulating climate, both locally and globally, but recent industrial logging, resource extraction and proxy wars are threatening this fragile ecosystem.

Kinshasa violin performance
Bourdain travels in Congo

As things stand, there are 20 million hectares of logging titles in Congo -- an area the size of Ghana. For more than half of Congo's population who rely on the forest for food, medicine, fresh water, shelter and customary tradition, this is humanitarian havoc in slow motion. For the global climate, it could be a catastrophe.

Read more: Fight to save Africa's rainforests

Fishing and tourism

If Congo could be known by a different name, that name, I think, should the country of lakes. Rich in aquatic biodiversity and holding more than half of Africa's water reserves, including four of the continent's great lakes, as well as Africa's longest and deepest freshwater lake -- Lake Tanganika -- Congo's lakes and rivers, if coupled with the needed infrastructure to fulfill its potential, could be a breadbasket for the region.

With more than 700 species of fish recorded in the Congo Basin -- the world's second-largest river basin -- the potential for commercial fishing in these lakes and rivers is great. However, the ripple of potential does not stop there; tourism is another side of the coin. Congo's lakes and rivers, along with its rolling lush hills and valleys, could potentially transform Congo into a huge tourist attraction, creating jobs and businesses for the region.

Lighting up Africa, from Cape to Cairo

Electricity is said to be the lifeblood of human society and economic development, but 550 million Africans have no access to electricity. They rely on wood, dung and crop waste for their daily energy needs -- and that costs lives. Burning dirty fuels in poorly ventilated homes causes 1.6 million people around the world to die prematurely each year.

The Congo River has the potential to light up the entire African continent from Cape to Cairo
Vava Tampa, Save the Congo

Yet, astonishingly, the Congo River has the potential to light up the entire African continent from Cape to Cairo, without further polluting the planet or worsening climate change.


Congo's unspoiled wildlife diversity is perhaps the country's most fascinating feature. Whether by 4x4 drives or river tours by pirogue, Congo offers an ideal wildlife destination for nature lovers.

Read: Hippie apes battle for survival in Congo

Home to big cats as well as 1,000 bird species, 900 species of butterflies, 400 species of mammals (including more than 80% of African primates), half of the continent's remaining elephants, 280 species of reptiles, 216 species of amphibians, forest antelopes and forest pigs -- with more species being discovered -- the Congo Basin is by any measure an essential feature of a healthy planet.

But instability, industrial logging and poaching are threatening the very existence of some of these animals, including some of the country's most famous residents such as the shy, endangered okapi, the owl-faced monkey, the beautifully patterned bongo, the sliverback gorilla, the bonobo and the dazzling Congo peacock.

Nonetheless, it's not too late to save these species. And it's not too late to save the Congo, and help it realize the potential it has always had.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Vava Tampa.

Part of complete coverage on
African Voices
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 1140 GMT (1940 HKT)
The veiled female rapper tackling Egyptian taboos head on
Meet Mayam Mahmoud, the 18-year-old Egyptian singer tackling gender stereotypes through hip-hop.
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1050 GMT (1850 HKT)
As the head of Kenya Red Cross, Abbas Gullet was one of the first emergency responders at the Westgate shopping mall.
March 19, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Gikonyo performs a medical check-up for one of her patients at Karen Hospital in Kenya.
Leading pediatric surgeon Betty Gikonyo reveals how her life changed at 30,000 feet and her mission to save the lives of countless disadvantaged children in Kenya.
March 4, 2014 -- Updated 1346 GMT (2146 HKT)
Biyi Bandele
As a child, Biyi Bandele immersed himself in a world of literature. Today he's taken that passion and turned it into a career as a celebrated writer, playwright and now director.
February 26, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Sanaa Hamri in Los Angeles, 2011.
Music video and film director Sanaa Hamri shares her story of how she made it from the streets of Tangier to the big film studios in the United States.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 0934 GMT (1734 HKT)
African Voices meets James Ebo Whyte a passionate storyteller with a series of successful plays to his credit.
February 17, 2014 -- Updated 1016 GMT (1816 HKT)
Actress Lupita Nyong'o attends the 86th Academy Awards nominees luncheon at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 10, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o has become a new critics' darling after her breakout role in last year's hit movie "12 Years A Slave."
March 27, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Celebrated designer Adama Paris reveals how she was tired of seeing "skinny blonde models" on all the runways, so she did something about it.
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1548 GMT (2348 HKT)
Packaging can change how people see things. And when it comes to sex, it could maybe help save lives too.
March 21, 2014 -- Updated 1106 GMT (1906 HKT)
Global perceptions of the tiny country in east-central Africa are often still stuck in 1994 but local photographers are hoping to change that.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1234 GMT (2034 HKT)
A Silverback male mountain Gorilla sits in the dense jungle canopy on the edge of Uganda's Bwindi National Park in this 29, January 2007 photo. Bwindi, or the 'Impenetrable Forest' as it is known to many tourists is home to the majority of Uganda's rare and endangered mountain gorilla population where plans are underway to habituate two more gorilla family groups to counter growing demand from a flourishing gorilla trek tourism business, a major source of income for the Uganda tourism Authority. AFP PHOTO / STUART PRICE. (Photo credit should read STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images)
Meet Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, the woman from Uganda trying to save critically endangered mountain gorillas before its too late.
April 4, 2014 -- Updated 0939 GMT (1739 HKT)
Lightenings strike over Johannesburg during a storm on December 14, 2013.
Ending energy poverty is central to a resurgent Africa, writes entrepreneur Tony O. Elumelu.
February 7, 2014 -- Updated 1045 GMT (1845 HKT)
A group of young students have taken stereotypes about the continent -- and destroyed them one by one.
April 1, 2014 -- Updated 1014 GMT (1814 HKT)
Grace Amey-Obeng has built a multi-million dollar cosmetics empire that's helping change the perception of beauty for many.
Each week African Voices brings you inspiring and compelling profiles of Africans across the continent and around the world.