Coffee: Providing an Economic Jolt to Eastern Congo?

Can the once-thriving coffee sector in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) be revived? An increasing number of players seem to think so, including donors, coffee companies, the Congolese government, and many thousands of farmers. Their initial investments, centered on the high-grade specialty market, raise hopes that coffee production could benefit the national economy while improving livelihoods and reducing poverty in the troubled eastern region of the country. But major barriers must be overcome before the DRC can evolve from a niche coffee producer to a globally significant one.

The Opportunity

In Eastern Congo, citizens have suffered decades of insecurity linked to the DRC’s enduring political and governance crisis. They have endured violence, displacement, and loss of property at the hands of armed militia or government soldiers. In two of the worst-hit provinces, North Kivu and South Kivu, economic activity continued even through the worst years of conflict but forced many to retreat into survival mode. Now they need opportunities to rebuild their livelihoods and sustain their families. Coffee farming may provide an opportunity to do both. Within the past decade, the coffee sector has attracted significant donor support, and a growing number of companies are making investments as well. Up to 50,000 farmers in Eastern Congo are already members of coffee-growing cooperatives.

Why the increasing interest? First, the DRC has proven potential as a coffee producer. Coffee was once the economic mainstay of this region and the country’s most valuable export after copper. Coffee was cultivated on a large scale during Belgian colonial rule but slowly dwindled under the neglect of the Mobutu regime and nose-dived in the war years that followed, when coffee farms were abandoned. In 1993, the DRC produced 120,000 tons of coffee, but output had dropped to 8,000 tons by 2016. However, several global trends favor a return to larger-scale production in the DRC.

One important trend is that coffee tastes have changed in the main consumer markets of Europe, North America, and—increasingly—Asia, favoring specialty arabica coffee over the cheaper robusta varieties. Just over one in every two cups of coffee drunk in the United States is a specialty brew. The DRC is positioned to tap into this market because the Congolese side of Lake Kivu is blessed with the ideal climate, soil, and altitude to grow high-grade coffee. The best arabica varietals from the Kivus have received very high marks from professional coffee sommeliers, known as cuppers, who scour the world for the best-tasting coffee. These attributes mean that coffee traders are willing to pay a higher price to farmers for their produce, knowing that retailers can charge a premium to consumers who value these single-origin—rather than blended—coffees. Premiums are also available for coffee that has been certified under one of the various programs that validate sustainable practices, such as Fair Trade,Rainforest Alliance, and UTZ. These schemes respond, albeit imperfectly, to another important consumer trend: the desire of many coffee drinkers to know where their product comes from and to be reassured that it was sustainably and ethically sourced. Congolese single-origin coffees enable customers to trace their drink all the way back to the farmer who grew the beans.

Global supply problems also present a potential opening for Congolese coffee producers. While demand for premium coffee is increasing around the world, arabica production is failing to keep pace. The effects of climate change are likely to widen the gap. Research suggests that some of the world’s main arabica-producing nations, such as Brazil and Nicaragua, will be particularly hard-hit, because their coffee is grown at low elevations and there is little higher ground to move to. The DRC could move from a bit part player to taking on a more central role in the future of specialty coffee.

The Obstacles

While the global conditions of contracting supply and expanding demand for quality coffee appear to favor the DRC, currently the Congolese coffee sector is not developed enough to take full advantage. Several challenges must be overcome:

  • Coffee farmers need mentoring and training to increase yields and improve the quality of their product. International donors, the private sector, and the Congolese authorities must work together to ensure that coffee from the Kivus meets the exacting standards set by the specialty buyers. Organizing well-managed farming cooperatives is central to success. Not only can farmers in cooperatives produce at scale, consolidate good practice, and access training and support more easily, they can also negotiate higher prices for the coffee they cultivate.
  • Actors at every level of the value chain need greater access to financing. Establishing coffee farms requires significant upfront investment in plants that do not produce fruit for at least three years (and take even longer to become fully productive), as well as the inputs that help them grow. Without access to loans and insurance products, the risks of making these investments are simply too high for subsistence farmers.
  • More attention must be given to value addition. Most Congolese coffee farmers miss out on the chance to generate a higher income because the coffee they grow is unwashed before export. Washing is the process by which the coffee fruit is removed, exposing the coffee bean underneath. The number of washing stations has increased in the DRC, but more, better-managed facilities are needed so that access is increased in underserved areas.
  • One of the most important barriers to expansion of the Congolese coffee sector is low market access. The traditional outlet for coffee from the Kivus is the Kenyan port of Mombasa, but moving a container there can take up to 50 days due to poor roads, slow customs processes, and illegal roadblocks. The DRC’s coffee sector cannot expand unless these delays are reduced. As a longer-term strategy, there may also be opportunities to develop a domestic market in Congo, where arabica coffee is rarely consumed.
  • The Congolese authorities must offer more assistance to farmers and help remove disincentives to production. More must be done to tackle chronic insecurity, which includes everything from eruptions of violence between armed groups to petty criminality that targets coffee workers and their produce. The DRC’s National Coffee Office, known by its French acronym, ONC, is the body charged with promoting and supporting the coffee sector. Although its performance is improving, especially in South Kivu, it lacks capacity. Traditionally, the only task it has pursued with vigor has been levying export duties. While these taxes have been reduced in recent years, informal taxes plague the sector, and it remains the case that many coffee farmers would rather smuggle their produce to neighboring Rwanda or Uganda, where they can sell it more easily, often at a higher price.

Promising Initiatives

Action is being taken to address some of the problems that hinder the development of Congo’s coffee sector. Earlier this year, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) announced a $23 million project to strengthen value chains in South Kivu—including specialty coffee—and boost food security. A program funded by the UK Department for International Development, called ELAN, is developing value chains including coffee and cocoa. More importantly, international coffee buyers and traders are taking notice. Their interest was first piqued by Twin Trading, a UK-based social enterprise that facilitated the first relationships between Congolese smallholder farmers and commercial buyers. Now, Starbucks is selling specialty coffee from the Kivus in 1,700 outlets across the United States. A cupping competition, Saveur du Kivu, has been established by Higher Grounds Coffee, a Michigan-based Fair Trade coffee importer, to showcase and rank Congolese coffee and link producers to international buyers. There are signs that the Congolese government is waking up to the export potential of coffee and is prioritizing the sector, particularly the provincial government of South Kivu.

The Way Forward

Even with these efforts, it would be wrong to view coffee as a magic bean that will automatically deliver wealth to Congolese farmers. Many companies are putting serious thought and investment into making their operations more sustainable in locations like the DRC; yet the farmer at the far end of the value chain captures no more than a tiny percentage of the premium that retailers ultimately pass on to the consumer for their sustainably sourced beverage. Even then, and despite rising demand for specialty brews, a cup of coffee in the United States costs roughly the same as it did in the 1960s, after prices are adjusted for inflation. The coffee consumer is getting good value for money, while the producer struggles to make a living. The sustainability plans touted by coffee companies must be viewed in this light—as incremental steps in the right direction rather than transformative actions.

However, with the right strategies, investments, cooperation, and motivation among the key actors in the value chain—both public and private—it is possible at least to provide farmers with the means to support themselves and their families. That will mean a willingness to pay higher prices to producers and invest in improvements that boost farmer’s productivity and technical capacity to cultivate high-quality coffee beans. But programs must go further still, making interventions that seek to reduce poverty, increase access to services like health care and schools, and address some of the social problems that underpin the crisis in Eastern Congo.

Most ambitious of all, strategies should be explored to see whether coffee production can promote peace in a part of the DRC that has known precious little of it, by fostering cooperation and economic interdependence that cuts across identity lines and includes the most vulnerable members of society. Priority must be given to women, who traditionally provide most of the farm labor but do not control much of the family income, and to young people—particularly demobilized fighters—who may not be attracted to coffee farming but might be enticed by other activities along the coffee value chain, such as processing and trading. Investments will need to come from a combination of sources that include companies all the way along the value chain, supplemented by contributions from donors and the host government.

Success is contingent upon the growth of the coffee sector. The DRC needs to bring a more diversified set of companies and investors into the country, so that the value chain can be strengthened and market access improved. With more companies on the ground, farmers will be able to negotiate better terms for their produce instead of relying on a sole buyer. For now, the DRC remains a forbidding business destination whose appeal is limited to the largest companies, most risk-tolerant investors, and most committed social enterprises. Broadening the appeal will require providing more information about the opportunities, a task that was recently advanced with the publication of a Congo Coffee Atlas by ELAN and the Eastern Congo Initiative, a nongovernmental organization. It will also require sustained efforts to improve the business climate by creating a safer, easier to navigate, and more predictable environment for investors.

Richard Downie is a fellow and deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Richard Downie