Coffee growers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are emerging from over 30 years of conflict. A lasting effect of this conflict was the devastation of the agricultural sector in Eastern DRC, where many rural farmers mainly rely on coffee production for their source of income. Today, the DRC is rebuilding the economic and social fabric of the country, and the coffee sector will play a leading role in that process. There is incredible potential for growth in a rejuvenated DRC coffee sector. With 75-80 million hectares of arable land, the country was once know as the breadbasket of Africa. Stretching from the high hills of Province Orientale, through the rainforests of Virunga National Park, and down to the smoky volcanic soil on the shores of Lake Kivu, Eastern DRC has been called “a paradise for coffee”. However, there is much work to be done. DRC’s official production shrank from a high of 130,000 metric tons in the late 1980s to about 20,000 metric tons in 2014, according to the ONC (DRC’s national coffee bureau). While Congolese coffee production is estimated to have remained fairly constant over the years at around 100,000 metric tons, 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. While these projects have demonstrated DRC’s potential to produce high quality specialty grade Arabia, Coffeelac’s experience in working with such cooperatives in both DRC and Uganda indicates that once development aid/ support is withdrawn from these institutions, the commercial viability of the organisation eventually collapses. There are various reasons, but they usually include unsustainable high operating costs, lack of price risk management strategy, internal management conflicts, and a misunderstanding of global coffee markets.
Thus, as DRC moves to the next stage in their coffee renaissance, Coffeelac believes the future lies in taking a more collaborative commercial approach, whereby all stakeholders in a transparent supply chain, from the farmer to the roaster, will profit from DRC’s immense coffee producing potential. Excited to be part of the re-emergence of the coffee sector in their home country, Coffeelac and partners have already invested over $2 million in fixed assets and working capital to rebuilding the coffee sector in Eastern DRC. We believe that with further investment into human resources, infrastructure, financing and markets, that the Congolese Coffee sector has the potential to contribute to a prosperous, brighter future for the DRC.