December 3, 2020

Scaling Coffee Production In The DRC

Like every aspect of life in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, coffee production has suffered from decades of armed conflict and political instability. In the 1970s, the DRC produced 120,000 tonnes of coffee a year; some 30 years later, by the early 2000s, that figure had fallen to just 10,000 tonnes a year.

Today, Congolese coffee producers still face a range of challenges, from insufficient infrastructure to ebola outbreaks and rebel activity in major producing regions. However, in spite of these difficulties, the country’s coffee sector is recovering thanks to major international and domestic investment projects. 

The eastern areas of the DRC provide suitable elevation, good rainfall, fertile soil, and all the necessary conditions to produce high-quality coffee at scale. Furthermore, coffee is slowly becoming a symbol of economic stability, peace, and prosperity across the country.

To explore how this sets the stage for Congolese coffee production to scale and grow, Atlas Coffee Importers, ÉLAN RDC, Cooperative Coffees, and Higher Grounds Trading are hosting the second session of a three-part webinar series entitled “Exploring Congolese Coffee”. Entitled “Developing Origins For The Future”, the second webinar session will be held on December 10.

Views from the Muungano Co-operative in South Kivu. Credit: Saveur du Kivu 

Understanding The Challenges That Congolese Coffee Producers Face

Since the DRC became independent from Belgium in 1960, it has suffered from decades of conflict and political instability. The country has a wealth of natural resources and precious minerals, but instead of driving economic prosperity and development, these have instead been at the root of a number of conflicts throughout the 20th and 21st century.

In the 1990s and early 2000s in particular, two major civil wars broke out in the DRC, the effects of which are still felt across the country today.

Ben Lentz manages the Feed the Future/DR Congo Strengthening Value Chains (SVC) Project, which is financed by USAID. SVC provides technical assistance to actors within the South Kivu coffee value chain, with a focus on improving productivity, quality, efficiency, and sustainability.

He tells me that even though the DRC is in a “transitional post-conflict situation”, and that things are improving, there are still some areas where coffee is being grown that are still insecure. Armed conflict is an ongoing problem, and a number of rebel groups are still active in the country. 

Aside from conflict, the country also faces high levels of corruption and political instability; the DRC ranks 168th out of 198 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. For the coffee sector, this means that shipments can end up being delayed for a number of reasons.

Furthermore, high export taxes mean that Congolese coffee is actually often smuggled across the borders into neighbouring countries where it is relabelled and subsequently sold as being from a different origin.

Finally, coffee producers also face difficulties with infrastructure and logistics in the DRC. Ben uses South Kivu in the east of the DRC as an example. “[For instance], South Kivu has very poor road, rural, and support infrastructure in terms of electricity and water supply,” he says. “It’s [also] a very long way from here to the ports in Mombasa or Dar. So those things all play into the challenges and the competitiveness of the coffee coming out of [the region].”

The shores from Lake Kivu, seen from South Kivu in Eastern Congo. Credit: Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi

Scaling Coffee Production In The DRC: How Can It Be Done?

Despite these challenges, the DRC is slowly reemerging as a coffee producing country, and it is starting to focus more on the quality of its crop. Although production levels were much higher in the 1970s, the coffee grown then was predominantly robusta. Today, however, it is estimated that around 50% of all coffee grown in the country is arabica.

Richard Hide is a coffee value chain consultant based in Sheffield, UK, and the moderator of the second part of the “Exploring Congolese Coffee” webinar series. He says: “While production volumes may not have grown significantly [in the DRC], there has been huge growth in the production of high-quality coffees that the market really wants to see.” 

Ben also adds that improving quality – and consistency in quality – will help coffee producers earn a consistent and reliable living wage. However, more than a focus on quality will be needed to truly scale coffee production in the DRC. We spoke to Ben and Richard about some of the other positive changes that have taken place across the country’s coffee sector, and to look at what the next steps are.

Office National du Café (ONC) in DRC. Credit: Saveur du Kivu 

Infrastructure 

The economic instability that the DRC has faced over the past few decades has meant there has been a lack of investment in the country’s infrastructure. Poor transport infrastructure makes internal travel and the transport of goods (such as coffee) difficult.  

By improving road conditions, it would be considerably easier to transport coffee from one point to another. Additionally, improving farmers’ access to utilities such as water and electricity would provide them with better quality conditions for living and working.

Richard says that thanks to the great potential already present in the DRC, improvement in a few key areas would support the industry greatly. “A lot of it is about capitalising on the coffee that is already there,” he explains. “[We can do this through] better processing and quality control. 

“[After that], strengthening the official export channels [would help] reduce smuggling to neighbouring countries.”

Ben explains that there are existing initiatives focusing on developing infrastructure in some areas in the DRC to support its coffee sector. For instance, he says that ONAPAC, a public body in the DRC that regulates the sector, has recent built a dry mill in South Kivu. 

He says this will allow coffee to stay in South Kivu, instead of being sent to North Kivu. As a result, coffees will then be processed in the same province, allowing producers and other stakeholders to avoid the taxes and fees associated with transporting coffee from province to province.

Finance & Credit

As it is in many other producing countries, access to affordable finance is often a problem for Congolese farmers. Often, co-operatives and producer groups cannot access pre-harvest financing without a contract. Ben explains that this is an issue, as farmers need to be able to invest in their business in order to scale it.

“In Eastern DRC, if you don’t have the money available at harvest, the coffee crosses the lake and goes to Rwanda, where they’re willing to pay cash,” he says. “Their government guarantees the loans, which the banks would put out for Opex financing… this does not happen here in DRC.

“I think [producers] also need to have access to the proper inputs, tools, and varieties… and none of that is free.”

Selecting only ripe coffee cherries. Credit: Saveur du Kivu

Technical Assistance & Access To Information

A lack of accessible information and technical assistance also pose a challenge for farmers. Without better access to technical information, Congolese coffee producers will not be in the best place to scale and develop their farms.

This doesn’t just mean teaching farmers more about varieties, soil health, and fertiliser, for example, but also providing more information about the coffee market on a local and international scale. 

“There needs to be more information available to smallholder farmers and their co-operatives about the dynamics of the market and what factors come into play in determining that market,” Ben says.

He tells me that an increased understanding of the coffee pricing structure and the wider supply chain would empower farmers to take more ownership over the coffee they produce.

However, Richard tells me that there has already been a lot of investment in recent years focusing on technical assistance and quality. “There is a lot of investment being made across the value chain from farmers to exporting, with a strong emphasis on quality, productivity, and sustainability,” he says. 

“The number of coffee washing stations [in the DRC] has multiplied over the last decade, and the best are now regularly producing coffees in the high 80s on the SCA scale. In North Kivu [for instance], two new cupping labs have been built under the Virunga National Park coffee programme.”

Another major issue that has been highlighted in the DRC is a longstanding issue with plant regeneration. Alongside armed conflict contributing to stark decreases in the export of Congolese coffee, smallholder farmers also suffer from ageing, non-renewed coffee fields.

However, in the past few years, there have been efforts from across the public and private sector to renew coffee farms across the country on a massive scale. Earlier this year, for example, ÉLAN RDC and Olam Coffee launched a mass rejuvenation and pruning campaign across North and South Kivu. 

This project trained more than 150 technicians to oversee the pruning and rejuvenation of more than 180,000 coffee trees across the two regions. This operation will also oversee the distribution of more than a million seedlings, although the long-term aim is to produce “a minimum of 50 to 60 million seedlings per year” within 15 years. 

Earlier efforts by Virunga Coffee have already seen rejuvenation efforts improve massively; the organisation is already the country’s leading seedling producer with more than three million arabica seedlings every year.

Raising Awareness & Attracting Buyers

Historically, the DRC has been predominantly known for its production of robusta. However, now the country is shifting towards producing arabica at greater volume, buyers need to become more aware of the country’s potential to produce high-quality coffee. 

To this end, the Exploring Congolese Coffee webinar series aims to improve awareness of the DRC as a coffee origin. Hosted by ÉLAN RDC, Atlas Coffee Importers, Cooperative Coffees, and Higher Grounds Trading, the second session will take place on December 10. In this webinar, panelists will discuss real-life experiences of how stakeholders are addressing challenges and improving practices across the Congolese coffee sector.

However, even though the DRC is making progress, there is still a long way to go. It is vital that stakeholders involved in Congolese coffee make it a more attractive origin for buyers. The country’s high export taxes, low security, and visa difficulties all currently make it tough for buyers to visit producers and learn more about the DRC as an origin.

Selecting coffee in the Muungano Co-operative in South Kivu. Credit: Saveur du Kivu

Who Needs To Get Involved? 

Ben says that in order to develop the sector and increase production, many stakeholders need to be involved. “Both the private and public sector, of course,” he says. “External investors, buyers, roasters, importers… [these people can] partner with Congolese farmers and co-operatives.” He also adds that the government is “very interested in seeing more activity”.

However, he adds that it’s important not to forget the farmers themselves, noting that they will be a key part of any coffee sector development that will take place in the DRC. “They’re committed, they’re willing to learn,” Ben says. “There’s a lot of potential that [the sector] can capitalise on.”

Richard also notes that female producers have an incredibly important role to play in the development of the Congolese coffee sector. “I see women engaging in the Congolese coffee sector to bring extraordinary transformation,” he says.

“[There are examples of co-operatives in the DRC] where women deliver the coffee in their own names… the Rebuild Women’s Hope Co-op on Lake Kivu trains its members in income generation and is about to open a maternity clinic.

“[These efforts] are turning the traditional role of women in coffee (where they would do most of the work and receive none of the money) on its head.”

Coffee cherries growing on a plant in Bukavu, South Kivu. Photo credit: Saveur du Kivu

Despite the impact of decades of instability and conflict, the Congolese coffee sector is making progress. Through continued collaboration, improved infrastructure, technical assistance, and greater access to affordable credit, Congolese coffee producers will be able to secure better working conditions and be empowered to invest in their farms. 

The country already has excellent conditions that will allow for the growth of exceptional coffees. Beyond that, one of the DRC’s greatest assets is its coffee producers, who are willing to drive the industry forward towards a brighter future.

Interested in learning more? Sign up to the second part of the Exploring Congolese Coffee webinar series here.

Please note: ÉLAN RDC is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

Photo credits: Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi, Saveur du Kivu

Feature photo caption: Fikiri Nabukezi Anyendos, President of the Muungano Co-operative, picks coffee cherries from his plot in the village of Nyakalende in South Kivu. Credit: Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi

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