A New Look at Congo Coffee

Authors: Baraka Kasali and Kambale Kisumba Kamungele

On a humid Saturday morning in July, Steven Kanane hiked the slopes of the small village of Mushenyi on the shores of Lake Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo. He’s made this journey to the washing station many times since 2012 as the president of the KACCO cooperative, but this time it was different. He was being followed by a flood of curious children and cameramen following his every move as he explained to NBA star Bismack Biyombo and international journalist Soledad O’Brien what convinced Starbucks Coffee to source Congolese coffee for the first time. This was the second time that such a spectacle took place in Mushenyi. Two months earlier, Steven and his staff had discussed processing techniques to Starbucks executives. That day, he welcomed them by saying, ‘you are the first people to come and visit this community in a really long time.’

Steven is young, charismatic, and confident. Since, 2012 he has grown the cooperative to over 1,800 members; he’s in the process of building their second washing station; and is currently managing a portfolio of roughly $200,000. But his story is not unique to the region. Today in South Kivu province, there are over 26 cooperatives, exporter and commercial farmers – eight years ago there were less than 15.  According to the Office National du Café (ONC) over 2 million Arabica coffee trees have been planted in North and South Kivu provinces and in Ituri province, and four exporting companies have opened their offices in the past 36 months.   

Blessed by its climate, soil, diversified landscape, and abundant hydrography, the DRC offers favorable conditions for the cultivation of some of the best coffees in Africa. In the 1980s, coffee was the most important agricultural export product, and second income-earning commodity after copper. An average 80,000 metric tons worth over US$160 million were exported, which created employment for over 800,000 households in rural areas. For the last 25 years, national coffee exports have been declining drastically, currently averaging 9,000 metric tons per year. In the 2014/2015 crop year, 8,936 tons of green coffee (66% Arabica, 34% Robusta) were officially exported.

Coffee in the DRC is produced mostly by small-scale farmers who are geographically dispersed. Arabica is produced in the eastern highlands and Robusta in lowlands of the Congo Bassin. Accurate production data is hard to find due to the limited capacity of competent services, however it estimated that over 70% of the produced volume is smuggled into neighboring countries.

In the last six years however, there has been a push to revitalize the coffee sector and shift towards the specialty coffee movement. Coffee farmers organize and receive agronomic support in good practices; wet and dry-milling operations are improving to increase quality; stronger synergies are developing between producers and the private sector; government is instituting policies to improve the competitiveness of the coffee sector; and research in varietal testing and trials for arabica coffee are underway through a partnership between World Coffee Research (WCR) and the national agricultural research center (INERA). 

Investment in this coffee revitalization initiative is driven from the private and public sectors. Traders such as Coffeelac, Tsongo Kasereka, and Virunga Coffee are investing in small-holder relationships and processing centers. The non-profit sector is also contributing to rebuilding the coffee sector led by efforts such as Kahawa Bora ya Kivu project funded by USAID and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, VECO RDC and DfiD-funded ELAN-RDC.  

The newly created Association of Coffee and Cocoa Exporters is actively advocating to the government for a more competitive coffee sector – and the Congolese government is responding to their needs. In September 2015, the government put into application a tax reduction that brought down coffee export taxes from over 4% to 0.25%. 

Despite these huge advancements, there is still a long way to go for Steven, the farmers he represents, and other Congolese coffee stakeholders. There continues to be a need for fiscal policy improvements to improve the competitiveness of the Congolese coffee sector. Reduced fees would provide sufficient financial incentives to reduce smuggling and increase official exports of coffee to an estimated 16,000 tons by 2020.

By forging partnerships among the farmers who grow coffee, the traders that distribute it, the government who regulates it, and the roasters who craft it, the coffee sector in DRC is fast on its way to improving the quality of life for the farmers and families of Congo and claiming a position in the global coffee market as a consistent, viable, and dynamic coffee origin.

This article was originally published by the African Fine Coffees Association

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