In the 1970s, the Democratic Republic of Congo was one of Africa’s leading coffee exporters. However, civil wars and political instability that have persisted from the 1990s to the present day have had a huge impact on the country’s coffee industry.
Along with poverty and disease, conflict has claimed more than six million lives in recent years and displaced thousands of people. As a consequence, the DRC went from exporting 120,000 tonnes of coffee per annum in the late 1970s to just 10,000 a year by 2002.
Despite these challenges, the DRC is reemerging as a coffee origin. Across a number of different initiatives from both within and outside the country, and thanks to the optimal growing conditions the country offers, it is rapidly becoming renowned for its specialty coffee. Read on to learn more.
Lee este artículo en español Explorando la República Democrática Del Congo Como Origen de Café
The INERA Research Station, a multivariety test plot located northwest of Bukavu and funded by USAID
The Reemergence Of The DRC
The Democratic Republic of Congo is the second-biggest country in Africa. It is also home to some 87 million people, making it the fourth-most populated country in the continent. Before production plummeted in the 1990s, the DRC was a major robusta producer. Today, however, it is becoming more renowned for its high-quality arabica.
Since 2010, co-operatives have formed across the country, some funded by international NGOs and state development agencies. In 2012, the Congolese government set aside US $100 million to invest in the coffee sector, with a particular focus on coffee-growing regions like South Kivu, which offers optimal conditions for high-quality arabica production.
Alongside this, private sector investment in the country is also revitalising its coffee industry. During the Exploring Congolese Coffee: Green Buyer Experiences webinar, Kamabale Kisumba Kamungele, president of the Congolese Chapter of the African Fine Coffee Association (AFCA), explained that the country’s coffee production was on the rise.
In the space of just ten years, Congolese arabica exports have grown from between 8,000 and 9,000 metric tonnes to around 12,000 a year.
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Kisumba is also a coffee consultant and exporter in the DRC
Coffee Producing Regions In The DRC
The DRC offers a number of regions which provide perfect conditions for growing coffee. Two of the most popular varieties in the country are Bourbon and Blue Mountain (a derivative of the Typica variety that originates from Jamaica).
In the north of the DRC, the region of Ituri spans more than 5,200 square kilometres of rugged terrain, mountain ranges, and deep valleys. It borders Uganda and Lake Albert, and its fertile clay-sandy soils are perfect for growing high-quality coffee.
Coffees in Ituri are grown between 1,600 and 1,900 m.a.s.l. Kisumba explains that one major problem with coffee grown in Ituri, however, is that it is often smuggled to Uganda.
“There are no good regulations to protect the internal market [in the DRC],” he tells me. “[As such], a lot of Ituri [coffee] crosses the border because it is less complicated to get it through Uganda.”
Despite these challenges, Ituri has become renowned for its consistent quality and volumes in recent years, leading to continued attention from buyers. Coffees grown in Ituri often have notes of sugarcane, grapefruit, prune, and blackcurrant, with a balanced body and acidity.
Located in North Kivu, the Grand Nord region remains one of the most productive regions in the DRC. It covers almost 25,000 square kilometers, and here, coffee is grown between 1,200 and 2,200 m.a.s.l.
Kisumba explains that this is a “very interesting” region as it produces large volumes of both arabica and robusta. He adds that the area is also home to the DRC’s Rwenzori Mountains, which border Uganda.
In a cup from the Grand Nord, you can expect notes of tropical fruit, lemon, and honey, along with a medium body and citrus-like acidity.
The Petit Nord in North Kivu covers 10,000 square kilometres, and includes coffee-growing zones such as Masisi, Rutshuru, Nyiragongo, and Walikale. It borders Virunga National Park, the home of a number of different environmental sustainability initiatives, including an EU-funded coffee program operated by the Virunga Alliance and Farm Africa.
Coffees from this region are grown between 1,400 and 1,800 m.a.s.l. in rich clay-sandy volcanic soil. They often have a smooth body, citrus-like acidity, and flavours of blackberry, grape, and lemon.
Red ripe cherries in South Kivu.
Bord du Lac
This region is located along the country’s border with Rwanda, in the Albertine Rift. It is composed of three main producing zones: Kabare, Kalehe, and Idjwi Island.
It covers just over 7,300 square kilometres, and is home to notable coffee co-operatives including SOPACDI and Muungano.
Bord du Lac coffees are grown between 1,450 and 1,800 m.a.s.l, and the region offers excellent growing conditions. In a cup from Bord du Lac, you can expect notes of tropical fruit, apple, jasmine, chocolate, coffee blossom, orange, and blackberry.
The region of Ruzizi is located in the southeastern area of the DRC. “This region is bordering Rwanda and Burundi, so coffee from that area tends to be sort of similar,” Kisumba says. “The variety that is most commonly used there is Bourbon. It’s a volcanic region, and the coffee’s flavour notes tend to be citrus-like and fruity.”
The region covers some 16,000 square kilometers with growing altitudes ranging from 1,400 to 2,400 m.a.s.l. Along with citrus-like and fruity notes, coffees from this region are known for their medium body and flavours of lemon, tropical fruit, and melon.
Coffee producers (including Adelard Palata, centre, wearing baseball cap) on a farm near Virunga National Park
Challenges For The DRC’s Coffee Sector
Transparency International ranks the DRC 168th out of 180 countries for corruption on its Corruption Perceptions Index. In 2019, the organisation’s Global Corruption Barometer indicated that 85% of people felt corruption had increased in the DRC over the 12 months prior, while 80% of public service users had been paid a bribe in the same time period.
For coffee, corruption ultimately means delays. If soldiers or public officials are not paid, fed, or housed appropriately, this can lead to roadblocks and coffee in transit being stopped for an indefinite period of time.
Corruption is also present in the form of taxes levied on the export of agricultural products, in both an official and unofficial capacity. As a result, Congolese coffee is often smuggled to neighbouring countries and sold as coffee from another origin.
Chris Treter is the Director at Higher Grounds Trading. “These are things that we have worked to improve,” he says. “Historically, they have been the things which impact buyers from province to province.”
Chris tells me that through continued work with both the Congolese government and producers, things are improving. While getting a visa for coffee buyers was historically difficult, it is now easier than it has been in some time.
This has been further supported by the development of Saveur du Kivu, a coffee conference and action in South Kivu. Chris explains that through this event and wider collaboration with supply chain actors in the DRC, green coffee buyers are more shielded from corruption than they ever have been.
Altogether, Chris says there have been widespread efforts from across both the public and private sector to combat and ultimately stop corruption.
Prices & Financing
Adelard Palata, who supports the Virunga National Park with coffee sector development projects, notes that pricing is a major challenge. “A lot of buyers who buy coffee from DRC use the New York Stock Exchange to fix the price,” he explains. “This makes it very hard for farmers to get a good price.”
Even though there are a few good buyers who pay above C market prices, Adelard explains that usually, they are not able to buy a farmer’s whole harvest. He uses the example of the Kawa Kanzaruru co-operative, near Butembo, in North Kivu. “We got a good price for one container, but for the other three containers, the price was very bad.
“The DRC needs buyers that can buy coffee from co-operatives at a good price. That would be a good opportunity for farmers to improve the quality,” he says.
Kisumba also adds that financing is a problem for farmers. Just like in many other producing countries, co-operatives and groups cannot access pre-harvest financing without contracts.
“Most African and Congolese producers will produce coffee, but they associate it with subsistence crops,” he says. “Sometimes before harvest season arrives they do not have enough liquidity or cash.”
Left to right: Chris Treter from Higher Grounds Trading and Adelard Palata from Virunga National Park
Infrastructure & Logistics
Decades of conflict and economic instability have also affected the DRC’s infrastructure and logistics. Kisumba says: “It is very complicated. Getting to the biggest towns or villages is a problem. There are no adequate roads to come from, so remote places [struggle] to bring all that coffee all the way to the center, where people can come and buy it.”
Adelard adds that Covid-19 is exacerbating existing logistical issues. Coffee containers are often sent to Mombasa, through Beni or Mutembo, before crossing the border to Uganda and then Kenya. “Generally this would only take two weeks, but now, with Covid-19, sometimes it takes a month.”
Insecurity & Conflict
“The other challenge in the Congo is the civil war,” Kisumba tells me. Since becoming independent from Belgium in 1960, political instability and conflict have been a part of life in the DRC.
The country’s rich deposits of precious minerals and natural resources have fuelled violence and rebellions in the country for decades, rather than serving as a force for economic growth.
“The farmers might be harvesting, pruning, or doing other agricultural work, but at any time, the rebels could arrive. That unpredictability means there are a lot of problems. People don’t have anywhere to go… they just have to live with these kinds of conditions,” Kisumba says.
Views of Lake Kivu
Hopes For The Future Of Congolese Coffee
Despite the many challenges, Chris tells me that he believes coffee can bring peace and prosperity to the DRC. He tells me that visiting the country from abroad is easier now than it has been in a long time.
“The leadership in Congo as well as Congolese coffee growers have supported efforts to build the industry,” he says. “This has begun the process of building a coffee sector led by the Congolese people.”
Similarly, Kisumba tells me that he believes in the sheer potential of quality Congolese coffee. “We have good varieties and good [growing conditions]… the terroir of Grand Nord close to Rwenzori mountains, the specific good soil of Ituri…
“When the coffee is properly cultivated and processed with really good care, it has been shown that it is of a really good quality,” he says.
He also tells me that in the wider context of what’s happened in the DRC, coffee is a symbol of hope. It offers the Congolese people a chance for transformation and a road forward through resilience and dedication to the production of high-quality coffee.
“I am sure that for international consumers, especially the younger generations, that will make a whole difference,” he says. “[They will] consume that good cup of coffee from the DRC for its quality, but also to support the Congolese producers who are producing it.”
Riziki Kacheranga, a coffee producer and a member of the Muungano co-operative
Despite the challenges the DRC faces, the country boasts some of the best growing conditions on the planet for coffee production. Its high-altitude growing regions and nutrient-rich soil mean that regions all across this huge country can provide unusual and distinctive cup profiles.
So, next time you visit your local specialty coffee shop or roaster, ask if they’ve got something from the DRC in stock. You might find they’ve got something citrus-like and smooth from Petit Nord, or maybe a sweet, fruity cup from Ituri. Not only is there a chance that you’ll find a new coffee you love, you’ll also be supporting the revival of the Congolese coffee sector.
Enjoyed this? Then try Understanding the DRC’s Coffee Industry
Perfect Daily Grind
Please note: Higher Grounds Trading Co. is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.
Photo credits: Saveur du Kivu, Higher Grounds Trading, Adelard Palata, Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi
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