Lesser-Known Coffee Regions: The Democratic Republic of the Congo

Coffee in the Democratic Republic of the Congo  has been plagued by violence, particularly against women. Now, groups are getting involved to help improve the outcomes of female producers and make coffee from the DRC more accessible.

There are coffee regions we know well, but there are regions where violence, accessibility, and poverty have detrimentally affected coffee production. In this ongoing series, we’ll highlight  different coffee-producing countries and discuss the struggles producers face and how activists and various non-profit organizations are helping to make coffee from these countries viable, more profitable, and available to a wider market.  

BY NORA BURKEY
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE

Ever wonder where a career with specialty coffee will take you next? For some, that place has been Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), including Chris Treter, founder of Higher Grounds Trading Co. in Traverse City, Michigan, and founder of related non-profit organization On the Ground. On The Ground (OTG) supports agricultural growth and sustainability through long-term partnerships across the globe, and has helped farmers (not just in coffee) in Mexico, the West Bank, Nicaragua, and has worked with coffee growers in the Eastern Kivu region of the DRC.

On The Ground supports sustainability for farmers in countries plagued by war, violence, and gender discrimination.
On The Ground supports sustainability for farmers in countries plagued by war, violence, and gender discrimination.

The DRC is the second-largest country in Africa–in comparison to neighboring coffee-producing countries like Rwanda or Burundi, the DRC is massive. The DRC borders Lake Kivu to the east, which is where most of the coffee produced in the country comes from (Rwanda borders to the west). Even though the DRC is the largest coffee producing country in Africa, it  doesn’t produce nearly the amount of coffee as countries like Kenya or Ethiopia. According to the International Coffee Organization, the DRC produced 335 60kg bags during the 2015/2016 crop, compared to 6,700 bags in Ethiopia and 760 bags in Kenya. However, many coffee professionals and buyers hope that through  sustained investment, production will go up and we’ll continue to see more coffees from the DRC.

In 2015, not only did Chris and other specialty coffee industry members travel to the Congo, so too did seven astounding marathon runners. Run Across Congo was a fund- and awareness-raising event that saw nine people run seven marathons in seven days across South Kivu, DRC. The run, created by On the Ground, was intended to promote gender equality and garner support for gender initiatives throughout the Congo, a country known as one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. Sexual violence is extremely common, especially in the eastern region of the country, where 39.7% of women report being the victim of sexual abuse. War has normalized rape and sexual violence, and yet because of the ongoing conflicts, many women are the heads of their households. Between 60 and 90 percent of homes are female-led, which means they are the sole providers for their families. However,  most women don’t see the profits from their labor. According to OTG, “although responsible for up to 80% of coffee farms’ labor in the DRC, many women never see a single  Congolese franc for their efforts.” Through initiatives such as Run Across Congo, OTG is hoping to promote wage equity and inclusiveness and rejection of sexual violence between men and women.

Farmers of the Muungano Cooperative in Nybiyehe, DRC.
Farmers of the Muungano Cooperative in Nybiyehe, DRC.

Mel Evans-Glenn, owner of Conscious Coffees in Boulder, Colorado and board member of On the Ground, participated in the Run Across Congo. œWhen I heard about it, it seemed crazy, but I decided to jump on board. It was a remarkable way to raise awareness money.  Before heading to the DRC, Mel and her supporters at home raised $20,000 through donations and events. œThe run was challenging on a number of levels, not just physical,  she said. œThe whole country felt like it was experiencing post-traumatic stress. Coming from such a privileged background and seeing what was happening in the DRC is something I won’t forget. But it was rewarding to be a woman who could travel and use her body so freely on this run, and to show other people what’s possible. 

The DRC has long been a viable coffee region, but years of war and political instability have made growing and exporting difficult.

DRC is a difficult and dangerous place to be in general, and not only for women. According to the Human Rights Watch, at least 175 Congolese and foreigners were abducted and held for ransom last year. Formerly known as Zaire until 1997, the DRC has been plagued by corruption and militant movements, causing peace to be a tenuous at best at any given moment. For coffee, this can mean that government officials can arbitrarily apply taxes and forge documents to hold up movement of coffee bags. Death threats to cooperative members  aren’t uncommon. But leaders aren’t giving up hope, and are working to bring coffee production back to the prominence it received during the pre-war era. The DRC has received aid from both organizations large and small. Along with continued aid from organizations like OTG, in 2014 Starbucks purchased its first crop of coffee from the DRC, and has been working with the Eastern Congo Initiative to revitalize agriculture around Lake Kivu.

Chris Treter, founder of OTG and Higher Grounds, hopes to provide agricultural support to build sustainability amongst farmers.
Chris Treter, pictured above in center, founder of OTG and Higher Grounds, hopes to provide agricultural support to build sustainability amongst farmers.

Although the DRC has received a lot of attention, there’s still a number of obstacles to overcome, and coffee production isn’t near the levels it used to be. œThe coffee industry in DRC,  Chris explained, œis like a shell of its former self. It is currently producing only one-tenth of what it produced before the civil war, but it still has good soil that is chemical-free and has a huge potential for high quality coffee. It’s like the last bastion for specialty coffee. 

In part two of this series, we’ll look at some of these organizations who, along with OTG, are working to improve the quality of coffee in the DRC, and discuss  what the future of coffee production looks like.

screen-shot-2014-12-10-at-5-50-22-pmABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nora Burkey  is a contributing writer to Barista Magazine, both in print and on-line. She  holds a degree in Sustainable Development from SIT Graduate Institute, where she focused on gender and food systems and conducted research on women’s lending groups in coffee cooperatives. For the past three years, she has lived in Nicaragua building non-profit The Chain Collaborative, which focuses on small community-led development projects with local leaders in coffee communities around the world. While directing The Chain Collaborative, she also joined The Partnership for Gender Equity (PGE) in 2016 as Programs and Research Advisor. PGE is an initiative of The Coffee Quality Institute. Nora supports PGE  to build strategy and  engage industry members to take action on gender equity. She  is also independently pursuing a PhD  in International Development Studies at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, focusing on development in the coffee sector with fellow coffee researcher Dr. Gavin Fridell. You can reach her at nora@thechaincollaborative.org.

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