The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is arguably Africa’s most rich and diverse country with vast mineral reserves, highly fertile land, beautiful scenery, and vibrant wildlife. It is also a country plagued with conflict and unrest. The DRC has a traumatic history of violence and war, which has had a disastrous impact on the country’s population and economy. The Congolese Civil Wars began in 1996, involved nine African countries, multiple groups of United Nations’ Peacekeepers, and resulted in the deaths of 5.4 million people.
The country was crippled and the coffee industry came close to collapse. The eastern mineral-rich area of Kivu, on the border of Rwanda, has endured years of instability, corruption, and exploitation. It is also an area ideal for growing coffee. A tense normality has emerged in the DRC as the country attempts to recover after years of devastating turmoil. Now the coffee sector is beginning to recover:
“Today a glimmer of hope is emerging from the deeply troubled DRC. It’s just not coming from the peace talks. It’s coming from the country’s eastern hills. The coffee industry is reviving there, bringing peace, hope and better livelihoods to battle-scarred farmers living in the fertile highlands of the Lake Kivu region, just across Rwanda’s border.”
Coffee plantations in the DRC were originally developed by Belgian colonialists. The DRC produces both Arabica and Robusta coffee varietals. The Rwandan Genocide and the DRC war decimated the coffee sector. Coffee farmers were forced to smuggle their coffee across the border into Rwanda to sell it or exchange it for other products. Today the coffee industry has begun to recover. Several large cooperatives have been established, which has helped with the industry’s regeneration. Various NGO’s have invested in the coffee industry, offering loans and grants to cooperatives.
Installing roofs on school classrooms
Bean There Coffee Company was introduced to coffee from the DRC in 2013, when the company acquired three 60kg bags of coffee from the Virunga Coffee Company, which became Olga’s Reserve III. Founders of Bean There , Jonathan and Sarah, were introduced to coffee by their grandmother, Olga “Polly” Robinson. In recognition of her invaluable influence, Olga’s Reserve is a carefully selected, rare, micro-lot coffee and the DRC Virunga coffee matched this criteria. This small micro-lot was a finalist in the 2013 African Taste of Harvest, an annual quality competition hosted by the African Fine Coffees Association (AFCA).
Bean There customers loved the DRC coffee and the company decided to make plans to add it as a regular offering. Olga’s Reserve coffees add a R40 per kg fair trade premium for the producing community and this was used to install rooves on several classrooms.
Jonathan and Sarah visited the DRC in 2013 and met with company leaders and producers. They were struck by the beauty of the country and its potential to become one of Africa’s leading coffee producers. Hence they were motivated to begin plans to purchase DRC coffee regularly. Finally, in November 2014, Bean There’s DR Congo Virunga coffee was launched.
The coffee is purchased from the Virunga Coffee Company, which consists of 2,000 small-scale farmers. The company was established by coffee traders Schluter, which has worked with African coffee for over 150 years. Organic practices were implemented from the beginning and the coffee is certified organic.
Certified organic coffee is grown naturally and without the use of pesticides. These practices stimulate the environment’s natural development and regeneration and add value to the farmers’ coffee, allowing them to fetch fairer and higher prices for sustainably produced coffee. The farmers are receiving 23% more for their coffee because of the organic certification.
Farmers receive 23% more for organic coffee
Virunga Coffee Company is focused on increasing the quantity and improving the quality of coffee produced.
The following are areas of focus:
- Development and implementation of the field-based support activities
- Introduction of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP)
- Introduction of Good Processing Practices
- Development of organizational structures and Internal Control Systems (ICS) for efficient management and implementation of the traceability systems and coffee marketing activities.
To date, Virunga Coffee Company has achieved the following:
- Trained eight agronomists and 29 Agro-monitors on UTZ Certified standards, such as Code of Conduct and Chain of Custody
- Trained 83 “Lead Farmers” on UTZ Organic Certification standards
- Trained cooperative management on GAP and UTZ
- Improved Internal Control Systems
- Trained technical staff on internal audits or self-inspection
- Trained technical staff on fully-washed processes and post-harvest improved practices
- Field visits take place for practical training
- Produced a 26-page book on fully-washed coffee production for farmers
Fair trade premiums include women’s working conditions
The direct fair trade premiums Bean There Coffee Company pays for the coffee have been used to improve the working conditions of the ladies responsible for sorting the coffee. New tables have been built and comfortable stools installed. The ladies now receive lunch and have the opportunity to listen to the radio while they work. This has made a significant difference to the comfort of the workers.
The DRC still has a long way to go. The country is still gripped by unrest, corruption, and violence. Although it is better than it has been for some time it is still a difficult place to live and work. Bean There believes that investing in the coffee sector of the DRC through direct, fair trade will make a sustainable difference in the lives of coffee producers and their communities. Bean There is the only roaster of DRC coffee in South Africa and is proud to be working with the Virunga Coffee Company. As more and more South Africans have the opportunity to fall in love with DRC coffee, so they will be making a difference in this majestic country.