When you consider the coffee quality of Rwanda, just across Lake Kivu from the main coffee-growing areas of Congo, it’s easy to imagine the potential here. The region of South Kivu has similar altitudes and varieties of some of the best Rwandan coffees. And there are glimpses of this coffee brilliance in lots we have offered over the years.
Congo coffee from the areas of Bukavu in the south of the coffee zone, to Goma and beyond at the north of the lake, can display complex aromatics and flavors, and vibrant brightness.
Yet a combination of factors, past and present, seem to hold Congo back from exploring this potential in a consistent way. In fact, there is a long tradition of smuggling the coffee of Congo into Rwanda, because of the instability of prices domestically, and problems exporting Congolese coffee under it’s true origin.
Kivu is the general name for this East Congo coffee zone (Kinshasa). Kivu is divided into three provinces, Nord-Kivu (North Kivu), Sud-Kivu (South Kivu), and Maniema. South Kivu has great potential for quality and a more stable marketplace for farmers to trade coffee.
Products beside coffee are cotton, rice, and palm oil, as well as tin, gold and rare earth minerals which are mined. Mineral wealth in Congo, and the struggles to control it are a huge challenge in this zone. For coffee the quality potential is high, but the political turmoil and power struggles between factions make actual stable business practice a huge challenge.
The Ruwenzori mountains, Virunga National Park, and part of Maiko National Park are part of this region. Most of Kivu was controlled (1961—62) by the breakaway regime of Antoine Gizenga, which was centered at Kisangani (then Stanleyville). Kivu was a base for various rebel groups in the 1990s. Later, a revolt against the central Congolese government at Leopoldville [now Kinshasa] broke out in Kwilu and Kivu provinces.
Since then the Kivu rebels have established a Revolutionary Government of the Eastern Congo with headquarters at Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. (Part of the Congo problem is the direct involvement and support in turmoil sponsored by neighboring governments).
The Ruzizi Valley in Kivu is controlled by the rebels who claim to be led by Patrice Lumumba (who in fact was killed in 1961!). With recent elections in Congo, the hope for stability and the continuation of the cease fire is possible. But this is a tumultuous political scene, with rare earth mineral, gold and diamond wealth as inspiration to the various factions. Consequently, the Kivu area is directly affected.
Of course, smallholder coffee farmers are the first to suffer. So in a sense the export of coffee to the US is in itself a positive sign about East Congo stability. What I hope to see next is NGOs and others move in and try to firmly re-establish the coffee trade, rebuild mills, offer education toward specialty coffee production, and install a Fair Trade pricing model.
The fact is, Congo coffee is being exported on the cheap, much of it smuggled into Uganda or Rwanda. The price is below fair trade level – the bare minimum we like to pay, with most of our lots offered at higher-than-fair-trade prices.
And even though the coffee comes from Cooperatives, it’s very difficult to verify how much money actually makes it back to the farmer-members. With a little help, we hope to see this change, keeping fair and transparent business practices as a primary goal. We have encouraging prospects in the DRC, and with overall quality potential being high, there is a lot of interest.
See our current selection of Congo Coffees at Sweet Maria’s. (We usually only have Congo on offer for 2-3 months of the year)
One of the oldest export coffee companies in the zone is CoffeeLac. Their assessment of the challenges in Congo is incisive:
“For decades almost all coffee was smuggled across the border to Uganda and Rwanda due to the lack of a viable market in DRC. In addition to receiving only a fraction of the the worth of their coffee, thousands of farmers are estimated to have died making the unsafe journey across Lake Kivu to sell their coffee in Rwanda. Likewise, due to the political and economic unrest, investment in the coffee sector by private organizations during the past 20 years has been almost non-existent. While reforms in the tax law and the re-emergence of international exporters have improved market access for DRC’s farmers, they still face other challenges.
Endemic levels of corruption persist, and coffee producers are subject to fake taxation, bribery and other barriers to doing business in the country Beyond the political and social limitations, farmers face production challenges because of the poor levels of de-hulling and processing practices. The lack of equipment, washing stations, and knowledge of best processing options and agricultural practices further limits reaching their potential to produce a high quality coffee. Additionally, there has been price little incentive to produce high quality coffee, as most legal and illegal coffee exporters provide the same price for coffee regardless of quality. In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in the DRC coffee sector. Most investment has taken the form of development aid agency or NGO-led programs to establish cooperatives and/or washing stations.”