Assessing the Growth Potential of Eastern Congo’s Coffee and Cocoa Sectors

During the past decade, donors and companies have begun to build viable coffee and cocoa sectors in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The locus of activity has been in eastern Congo, where decades of conflict and poor governance have displaced populations and ruined livelihoods. While the political and security environment in the DRC does not favor large-scale cash crop production, the climatic conditions do. Eastern Congo, particularly the provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu, produces excellent coffee and cocoa. Furthermore, eastern Congo has a successful history of large-scale coffee production, first under the Belgian colonists, then in the first decades of independence before the sector fell apart under President Mobuto Sese Seko.

The recent entry into eastern Congo of development dollars and private-sector partners, ranging from small traders to retail giants like Starbucks, has provided a foundation to expand the DRC’s agricultural export sector. These groups and individuals have taken a risk on a country that has largely been written off by an international community disillusioned by endemic crisis and corruption. Now it is up to the DRC to reward this show of faith by taking steps to attract a larger pool of investors focused on achieving both financial returns and positive social impact. The DRC can only do this by forging a vision for the cash crop sector, putting its own resources into its development, and taking actions to improve the business environment.

Any credible strategy for expanding the agricultural export economy in eastern Congo must be centered on sustainable growth that benefits smallholder farmers and their communities and helps cement peace in a volatile region. With future global supplies of coffee and cocoa threatened by farmer poverty, the impact of climate change, and corporate doubts about the sectors’ profitability, the DRC can create a market opportunity for itself, provided it shows vision and intelligence. If the DRC can learn from mistakes made by other producing nations, it has the potential to build a thriving cash crop sector that not only benefits the national economy but improves the lives of some of its most vulnerable citizens.

Realizing this vision, however, will not be easy. Daunting barriers stand in the way of a large, successful cash crop sector. Farmers are poor, lack support, and struggle to access finance. Their trees are old, badly maintained, and low-yielding. Companies worry about the expense and logistical challenges of getting produce out of the country, at volume. Insecurity and poor governance create a level of unpredictability that deters potential investors.

This report weighs up the size of these risks, compared with the opportunities on offer, and suggests some strategies for overcoming them. Material is drawn from expert interviews and a literature review of global best practices in the coffee and cocoa sectors. The evidence suggests that expectations for the DRC should be realistic. Eastern Congo is highly unlikely to become the next Colombia of coffee production or displace Côte d’Ivoire as the world’s leading source of cocoa. Nevertheless, there is potential to scale up coffee and cocoa production in the DRC in a sustainable way that improves the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. Success will depend on:
  • Effective partnerships between donors, private-sector actors all the way along the value chain, and the Congolese government, which must lay out a compelling strategy for expanding the agricultural export sector and rally support around it.
  • Sustained training of farmers and cooperatives that increases production of coffee and cocoa without compromising on quality.
  • Increasing the flow of capital into eastern Congo’s agricultural sector by deploying new, innovative financing mechanisms and technologies.
  • Finding new ways to market Congolese products that connect with consumers and shift a greater share of value chain profits toward smallholder farmers.

Richard Downie