The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the second-largest country in Africa and the twelfth-largest in the world. It is home to some 87 million people, and its land is rich in natural resources and offers optimal conditions for the production of high-quality coffee.
Despite this, decades of conflict and political instability have restricted the country’s progress. To understand more about what is happening in the DRC and how its coffee industry has been affected, I spoke with Chris Treter, Director at Higher Grounds Trading, and Gregory Mthembu-Salter, Political Economy Analyst at ÉLAN RDC and a former member of the UN’s Council of Experts on the DRC. Read on to learn what they had to say.
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Mountains in South Kivu, DRC
A History of Conflict
“The Congo is one of the most beautiful places on earth,” Chris says. “I argue that it’s the most beautiful place on earth. It’s got mountains, volcanoes, great lakes, amazing culture, music, and people, but its conflict continues to this day.”
The DRC sits on vast deposits of valuable natural resources including gold, cobalt, tin, diamonds, and many other minerals. Despite this, the majority of its population lives under extreme poverty, on less than US $1.90 a day.
The country’s wealth of precious minerals and natural resources has also fuelled many of the conflicts that it has endured for decades, including two major civil wars in the 1990s and early 2000s. Armed conflicts in the DRC have claimed the lives of some six million people, either directly through fighting, or indirectly through disease and malnutrition.
Political instability has also been a major issue in the DRC ever since it became independent from Belgium in 1960. In recent years alone, a number of controversial elections and accusations of corruption have prompted protests and rebel activity. As a result, Congolese citizens have endured violence, displacement, and loss of property at the hands of rebel groups or armed militias.
There is still conflict ongoing in the country today, namely in the region of Kivu, which is also one of the country’s major coffee-producing areas. Gregory says: “We’re currently seeing a resurgence of violence with armed groups in a number of areas of Eastern Congo.
“Some of it is being stirred up by neighbouring countries, while the other elements may have to do with divisions within the armed forces themselves.”
Selecting ripe cherries in Kivu
How Has Conflict Affected The Congolese Coffee Sector?
Just a few decades ago, coffee was the DRC’s second-biggest export, after copper. It contributed an estimated US $164 million to the country’s economic output in the 1980s. However, various conflicts in recent years have affected the DRC’s coffee sector tremendously.
In the 1970s, coffee production was nationalised and grew steadily. By 1989, the DRC was exporting some 120,000 metric tons of coffee per year. Though most of this was robusta, the DRC was still a significant global producer.
However, when rebellion and conflicts broke out through the 1990s, and then the Rwandan genocide in 1994, coffee production declined. Chris says: “Today, [the DRC] exports maybe 10% to 15% of what it did before the genocide.
“So, essentially, what had taken place in the industry was pretty much bombed out… the infrastructure in place is left over from a time before specialty coffee existed as a whole.”
Today, roughly 70% of all Congolese coffee is smuggled into neighbouring countries and sold from there. Gregory notes while conflict has a part to play in this, “export taxes on agricultural products and mineral products are [also] very high”.
“This creates an incentive for smuggling,” he explains. “The export taxes of neighboring countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi, are much lower.”
Finally, coffee producers in some areas of the DRC are still directly affected by conflict. Massacres claimed the life of more than 700 people between January and September 2020 alone.
Roger, the manager of the Kawa Kanzururu co-operative in North Kivu, tells me that the impact of these attacks ripples throughout the coffee-growing community. “In our zone, there have been attacks since June.
“There is even a washing station in Mwenda (in Kivu) which is not working this season, because all the producers have fled their homes.”
Members of the Muungano Cooperative in South Kivu
Coffee In The DRC Today
Despite these challenges, coffee is slowly re-emerging as a vital export in the DRC. Recent interest from NGOs and the specialty coffee industry have boosted its growth and the most recent ICO figures show a 4% year-on-year increase.
Gregory explains that ÉLAN RDC is a private sector development program that aims to improve markets in the DRC. “We’re really trying to work with the private sector to boost their efforts, to raise quality, and to start interesting international buyers in the product… we generally want to raise the profile of the industry,” he says.
Chris tells me that there is huge potential for Congolese coffee. He says that this is not only because it can be a central component in bringing peace and prosperity to the country, but also because it has the potential to be of incredibly high quality.
“Last year, we held the fifth Saveur du Kivu (an annual DRC coffee conference and cupping competition). There were four coffees that cupped over 90,” he says.
Chris notes that the coffee industry is pretty much in an “adolescent stage” across the country. However, he says that the potential is there and “is being manifested in the cup quality right now… at such a high level”.
Coffee-growing regions in the DRC boast rich volcanic soil and a range of microclimates that are suitable for growing the arabica plant. This means that coffee grown in the DRC often has a unique flavour profile which is unlike many other origins – even others in Africa.
Furthermore, for producers, coffee can serve as a stable source of income, allowing them to take a step towards financial stability.
Coffee selection at the Muungano co-operative, founded in 2009
Coffee’s Impact In The DRC
“Coffee can have a direct impact by bringing peace and prosperity; it can bring rebel groups to the table and provide them with economic opportunities after negotiation,” Chris tells me.
He adds that he has seen several projects that have worked in the same way in countries such as Honduras and El Salvador. “The same thing is possible, I should say, in Eastern Congo,” he says. “All of the pieces are in place in order for that to happen.”
By becoming coffee farmers instead of joining militias or rebel groups, Chris says that Congolese citizens can be “repatriated back into Congolese civil society with economic opportunities”.
“They’ll make more money working in coffee, cacao, and other related industries than they would ever do as a soldier or a rebel,” he explains.
With access to stable income, coffee producers are then able to make a number of real-life improvements for themselves and their families. This includes access to better food and nutrition, paying for medical care, or sending their children to school.
By incentivising combatants to put down their weapons and start farming instead, coffee can bring not just economic prosperity to citizens of the DRC, but also peace.
A mountain gorilla sleeping in the Virunga National Park
Developing The Coffee Sector
Across the DRC, there are a number of public and private sector initiatives that are working to develop and improve the coffee sector.
One of these is the Virunga Alliance. Chris tells me that this is a project launched by Virunga National Park, the first national park ever established in Africa. Virunga is also home to one-third of the world’s total population of mountain gorillas, and it covers the land of thousands of smallholder farmers who live in the area.
He explains that the aim of the Virunga Alliance’s coffee program is to enable farmers to realise the full potential of their crop.
“We helped Virunga National Park set up their coffee program as part of the Virunga Alliance,” Chris explains. “This came from a number of public-private partnerships, all spearheaded by the Virunga National Park.”
This program has since evolved, and a formal Virunga Coffee initiative has been launched by Farm Africa and the Virunga Alliance, with funding from the EU.
Chris adds: “The Virunga Alliance has the means to support the four million people that are within a day’s walk of each other within the national park. It provides economic opportunities through the resources available to them within the park, such as using its water for hydroelectric energy.”
He also explains that together with Higher Grounds Trading, the Virunga Alliance has helped producers to identify and commercialise their coffee and cacao. Chris explains that Higher Grounds has partnered with the Kawa Kanzururu co-operative in North Kivu, through the Virunga Alliance. This partnership has seen them encourage more people to buy coffee produced by the co-operative, as well as coffee from Virunga on a wider scale.
Coffees produced in Virunga are typically grown at altitudes of between 1,000 and 1,800 m.a.s.l. In the case of Kawa Kanzururu, the average farm size is 0.37 hectares. This co-operative is home to 22 “micro” washing stations, two of which are run by women.
Chris adds that Higher Grounds Trading is also taking action through its partner non-profit organisation, On the Ground. On the Ground is holding gender equality and general literacy workshops across five communities in the Muungano coffee cooperative, on the shores of Lake Kivu.
Finally, Chris tells me that Higher Grounds is working with the Congolese government to establish Saveur du Kivu as a national platform for coffee producers. “By working to help build a national platform for coffee, that is building capacity for a coffee sector led by the Congolese producer… we are able to inject the key components of what sustainable communities require,” he says.
A view of Lake Kivu
Driving change in a country like the DRC is no small task. It requires collaboration and continual efforts that need to be sustained over months and years. However, Chris tells me that if people in specialty coffee care about delivering sustainability and real impact in origin, then the DRC should be a number-one priority.
“Coming together can transform one of the most amazing, beautiful places and people in the world into a peaceful, loving society,” he tells me. “This will bring benefits for not only the Congolese people, but for coffee drinkers around the world.”
To achieve this, the global coffee industry is coming together to launch a number of initiatives. In doing so, they are creating a framework for collective impact, and seeking to build a coffee industry that benefits everyone across the supply chain in a sustainable way.
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Photo credits: Saveur du Kivu, Higher Grounds Trading, Gregory Mthembu-Salter, Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi
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