I struggle to know where to begin when it comes to talking about the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Muungano coffee that we’re soon to release for the 2nd year in a row. I could start by describing the beauty of the landscape, the quality of the coffee, the history of the country, the statistics of the industry or the conditions of the climate and the soil. But the thing that I have been sat with for the months since my visit is the stories of the people.
It’s the story of driving over a somewhat cobbled together road of rock and sand after a landslide, passing people going about their day and kids playing, looking at huge boulders either side of the car and hearing that homes and people are still buried under them, weeks later, because no one has the equipment to move the massive stones. It’s asking why there aren’t any dogs around, and being told most of them were killed when they started eating the bodies.
It’s the story of driving through a beautiful, vibrant village where all the houses are painted in happy colours, while the locals chat, trade, work and play along the road, and being told that the nearest hospital treated 200 survivors of sexual abuse in the last 3 months, some of whom were just toddlers. It’s the stories of suffering, of corruption, of disaster, of injustice, that make you question how anything is ever achieved; how anyone can ever heal, how progress can ever be made.
You feel sad and you feel helpless and you feel guilty because while you may feel crap, it’s nothing compared with what many of the people you meet are having to deal with. And you struggle to speak and to let go of the children’s hands as they giggle and grab yours. You share big smiles with the ladies in the village hall when you talk about how being a woman in coffee is a proud, powerful thing to be, and you breathe deep and hope that what little you can do as a small coffee buyer can make a difference.
Congo has the potential to be one of the greatest stories in coffee. It’s the second largest country in Africa with nearly 80 million inhabitants. But the challenges the country faces are immense, broken, scarred and traumatised as it is after years of conflict, corruption, violence, destitution and neglect. Coffee production declined by 80% between 1988 and 2012. But they also hold everything they need to see a coffee revival similar to the one that’s occurred in neighbouring Rwanda after the genocide. They have the altitude, the climate, the soil and the trees, and people who see the value of coffee as a way for them to improve their own lives and the situation of their community.
It takes the collective effort of everyone in the industry to get the Congolese coffee sector on its feet. Since they gained their independence from Belgium in the 1960’s, infrastructure and trade has been in decline and was nearly destroyed following the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Never ending conflicts and violence forced many farmers to leave, abandoning their homes and coffee plantations. The pioneers who went in there between five and ten years ago had little to start with. No infrastructure, a fragmented leadership, few resources available, neglected farms, derelict washing stations, loss of skilled workforce and management, and no access to finance. Resistance, mistrust and dishonourable intentions at both local and national levels had to be overcome and continue to be a challenge today.
Regardless, tireless efforts to build networks, to rebuild and reconnect a supply chain and to establish long term solutions and relationships have seen Congo come a long way. When there is barely anything to start with, you can build anew from the ground up and that is what we are seeing. Two years ago, the ONC (l’Office National du CafÃ©) didn’t even have a cupping lab. Co-operatives were a largely unknown organisational structure. Export was focused on commercial grades if at all focused. Thousands of men died every year, drowning on the journey across lake Kivu to sell their coffee for marginally better prices on the Rwandan side of the lake, leaving widows and children to fight for survival.
But producers, exporters and buyers are starting to find each other, driven by efforts on both sides of the trade chain. The ONC are re-establishing outreach programs for farmers and millers, and organisations from consuming countries are sharing their knowledge and bringing the specialty market to this still largely unfamiliar origin. More than 25 organisations and co-operatives are now working in coffee in the DRC, and the number of washing stations has dramatically increased too.
This is especially the case along the shores of Lake Kivu where they have for the last two years – albeit by the skin of their teeth – been able to arrange their own quality contest for producers; Saveur du Kivu. I had the great pleasure of being on the judging panel for SdK in Bukavu last year. With one event already under their belt, the organisers ran a very professional event, even under difficult conditions.
The ONC cupping lab I mentioned earlier was built specifically for this competition, and when the roasting and cupping team showed up to start prep, they found unassembled sample roasters and grinders, and builders still painting the walls and dealing with loose wires hanging from ceilings. The first year they cupped and evaluated around 18 samples from 10 co-ops. This year, interest was so great that they had to restrict entries to one per washing station, meaning my judging team had 22 coffees to cup. Grinders and roasters were assembled and the smell of fresh paint faded, but electricity and water only seemed available once a bit of money had discreetly changed hands.
With the organisers, Prince and Moses on the sample roasters, four national jurors and six international cuppers, we alternated between cupping and attending a coffee conference that was being held in conjunction with the competition. It was very interesting to see the officials, politicians and ”˜suits’ of the Congolese industry get together to talk business. There was a wide range of opinions about where they should be focusing their efforts and what measures would be necessary to progress. Discussions around varieties, diseases and sustainable agriculture took the form of educational lectures. Others spoke more philosophically and were looking to neighbouring countries like Rwanda to see what lessons they could learn from those that had been in similar situations.
One chap proclaimed loudly that specialty coffee was dead and that what some of us there were doing was essentially a waste of time. Overall there seemed to be a lot positive energy, but also a lot of jostling for position, and a lot of time spent adhering to the formalities around acknowledging and honouring the hierarchy of the people in positions of power. I see this in other countries as well, and regardless of how frustrating I may find these types of proceedings they are perhaps an important part of the process and necessary to get anything done. My only wish is that the sector maintain a unified vision and mission and are able to set aside private interests and agendas in favour of the common good.
I seized the opportunity to travel to the DRC to not only explore their coffees via the Saveur du Kivu, but also to visit Muungano, a co-op that had already charmed me into buying and roasting their coffee for our customers. As we were cupping blind I didn’t find out till the awards ceremony, but Muungano had entered the SdK and placed eighth much to the delight of Fikiri the president of the co-op, and Ismael their head cupper, the latter having also been on the jury with me.
With such a great result the long drive to get to Muungano was an exciting one, knowing that the people at the mill and the farmers in and around the village would be pleased with the result and have renewed energy to keep pushing the specialty side of their production. The road headed out of town started off good in spite of the hectic Bukavu traffic, but conditions quickly got a bit bumpy. While the views are amazing and you pass fields of sunflowers, waterfalls, cross rivers and get held up by adorably unflappable middle-of-the-road goats, you also navigate tight corners, steep drops and curves nicknamed ”˜Chez le FranÃ§ais’, after the people that died there when the roads washed out and their car plummeted down the mountain side.
A skilled driver is worth their weight in gold, and finally we arrived at Muungano just in time for sunset, and settled into the old colonial house that serves as visitors accommodation. Perched atop a hill the building has views out over the first of Muungano’s four washing stations (Kiniyezere 1 which they rent), the village itself, and on across the valley towards their newer, larger station: Kiniyezere 2 which they own themselves. They also own the Nyabilehe and Buchiro washing stations.
Muungano means “togetherness” in Swahili and members of the Muungano co-operative live by the phrase “unity is strength, and coffee is life”. The co-op was founded in 2009 with 350 members, and have since grown to around 5,000 members who are organised into 16 geographical sectors. They have been converting to organic production since 2014 and just received their certification at the beginning of 2017.
After a good night’s rest, Fikiri came round for breakfast and I gave him a bag of the Muungano I’d brought from the roastery. Without a grinder to hand he promptly proceeded to place the beans in a plastic bag and started rolling a glass bottle over them to crush them. Without a brewer I essentially made a giant cupping bowl in a big mug and poured the brew over into cups through a plastic sieve to get the grounds out. No kit? No problem!
It was great to finally be able to explore Muungano in the daylight and see the setup. Immediately neighbouring the colonial house is the farm of Ferdinand and Felista Kasisi Shabirere who told me they weren’t members of Muungano yet, but they were considering joining up. To get down to the wet mill and the village we had to walk through their coffee fields and their yard, and it became one of my favourite little moments of my day to say hello to them as I passed, Ferdinand always diligently sorting, raking or tending to his coffee with the radio on. He told me his father planted most of the trees, some of them more than 60 years old with root bases bigger than I have seen anywhere else, and still carrying a decent amount of cherry.
Normally in May the harvest should have been over, but this year – largely due to climate change – it was a full 3 months late. Typically they’d start receiving cherry around mid January, but this year they waited until mid-April and expected the season to continue until the end of June. This causes severe problems such as disrupting cash flow, delaying people’s ability to receive their income, pay expenses and loans, and finance the next harvest.
What’s more, such severe changes to the normal maturation schedule can mean the area’s Oct-Dec fly crop doesn’t happen at all, further exasperating the issue. These issues have unexpected trickle down effects, such as having no funds to repair broken fishing nets, leading farmers to use their medicated malaria nets that should be protecting them from mosquitoes while they sleep, and so increasing the risk of illness while also contaminating the water in the lake.
Kiniyezere 1 is the oldest of their washing stations and has some very interesting and unusual fermentation tanks. They are deep and round, unlike I’ve seen anywhere else. Fikiri’s theory was that the lack of corners meant nothing got stuck, making pulp removal by stirring more effective and the extra depth and smaller surface area kept the water cooler for better fermentation.
As the most accessible of the washing stations, Kiniyezere 1 is always busy; the drying tables heavy with parchment. However the throughput was clearly taking it’s toll, with many of the tables looking old and poorly maintained and starting to fall apart and sag. This makes it very hard to work and consistently distribute the parchment for even drying and also makes it trickier to pick out the insect damaged parchment that Fikiri knows is causing the potato defect. This defect is one of the biggest risks when buying Congolese coffee, so removing the affected fruit is a key factor for the mills to focus on, but requires a lot of intensive hand sorting which is slow and costly.
From the first station we continued down the hill to the village, across the flats and up the other side to the second station. Three months ago the village suffered a landslide due to abnormally heavy rainfall – another side effect of climate change that they are having to battle by planting trees to hold the earth together. Thankfully no lives were lost, but a couple of houses washed away and you can still see the rocks forming an unnatural path of debris down to the edge of the lake.
While some of the houses are built from brick, many are still traditional mud huts and stand no chance against those kinds of natural forces. The village rallies when things like these happen and they come together to support each other in recovery. The community spirit was lively in the market space where people were gathered after the day’s work having a catch up and buying and selling wares, getting ready for dinner with their families. Along the way we quickly picked up a curious flock of kids laughing and pointing at me. The bravest tried to touch my hair and wanted to hold my hand. The climb up to Kiniyezere 2 was quite steep and I guess it was hilarious that I ran out of breath, the kids certainly seemed to find me an endless source of entertainment as they tested out a few English phrases on me and nearly tumbled down the hill laughing when I responded in my rubbish French.
With the premium that we paid for our Muungano coffee last year they were able to build ten new drying tables at Kiniyezere 2, and it was great to see that they were of far sturdier construction that those at Kiniyezere 1. The new tables are flat and tightly suspended for better drying. The capacity of this station is near double that of it’s sister station, with 56 tables in total, a three disc pulper and several soaking tanks for separating out first and second quality parchment.
The farmers pick cherry in the morning and deliver it in the afternoon, it gets pulped in the evening and the first fermentation soak takes about twelve hours. After a second, day long soak, the coffees go through the washing channels and get another 18-20 hour soak in the final tanks before being taken to the drying tables. In the warehouse they were holding about 5,250kg of parchment but had capacity for more, so they were optimistic with regards to being able to handle the volumes yet to come.
I noticed the pile of pulp next to the mill and asked them about it – whether they had ever thought about selling it as cascara or using it for anything other than fertiliser. The response was as I expected; they wished they had even more cascara to use for compost, and to use if for anything else would make no sense. Even if they could make enough money selling it to be able to buy replacement fertiliser, it’s very hard to source, especially now they’re certified organic.
In another area of the village the co-op had just built its new office and cupping lab. Some works still needed to be finished off – the grinder didn’t work, the sample roaster kept tripping the power, and Ismael only had enough glasses to cup two samples at a time. He’s the only cupper on staff, and tastes all the day lots from all the washing stations, scoring them, deciding if and how to blend them and keeping records of the quality over time. It’s a great setup and I really look forward to coming back to cup with him in the future, and I resolve to have a suitcase full of cupping lab equipment with me!
On the way back through the first mill we came across a few women bringing their cherry to the station, having spread them out on the ground to sort through and pick out any under or overripe cherries before handing them in. With more than a third of their members female, many of them widowed and the sole providersfor the families, Muungano have a program whereby the co-op pays a premium for their crop, enabling the women to provide properly for their children. The coffee is sold at a premium as ”˜Women’s Coffee’, easily processed and kept separate as the women deliver their cherry on Mondays and Tuesdays (the rest of the members deliver the rest of the week). We’ve already planned to buy in some of the women’s coffee next harvest, so we can showcase more of what Muungano has to offer.
While gender equality and the need to support and educate women is important everywhere, the urgency and nature of the issues vary from place to place, village to village. Programs like Gender Action Learning Systems (GALS) give female and male members the opportunity to work together to highlight the imbalance of their roles and the benefits of addressing it. Empowering the women to take equal part in the responsibilities and management of their households and finances gives them a voice and the confidence to take equal part in the co-operative as well. Zawadi Kalwira, a widow and mother of four says “I am now a member of Muungano and I am happy to be one. I get a fixed price for my coffee, and in addition I get a second payment. As a member, I had the opportunity to learn GALS. GALS literally changed my life. I used to waste money taking care of men who were only giving me more children. My widowhood didn’t teach me any lesson in planning and managing my resources, but GALS did.”
In order to learn more and meet some of the people going through the GALS program, the next morning Fikiri took us to Nyabilehe, a more remote village and mill where the balance between men and women is far more unequal. GALS has been essential here and has given good results so far.
The best way to get to Nyabilehe is by boat, so we climbed aboard in the only boat in the village, a large, wooden, flat bottomed leaky contraption that also happens to be the only vessel Nyabilehe have for any other transport of goods and people, such as trips to the nearest hospitals. The boat shook and bounced treacherously with every little wave, and the little engine – which seemed far too small to propel such a large chunk of wood- spluttered and sounded like it was about to cut out at any minute. The journey takes about 90 minutes and while it’s stunning out on the water, the continuous casual bailing out of water taking place at the back of the vessel was unnerving.
Nyabilehe is at the top of a headland sticking out into Lake Kivu, and as we pulled up the first dock on one side of the headland to collect the mill representatives to take to the other side, the dock was full of people, music was playing, it was full of colour and laughter as people repaired yarns, cleaned fish, organised deliveries,and it seemed completely beautiful and idyllic. When we pulled around to the bay on the other side, the story was very different. No people were around bar a lone fisherman in a carved out canoe, the shoreline was scarred, broken and brown with muddy water and grey with dead trees and debris, and we struggled to find a place to dock where we wouldn’t have to wade in.
Nyabilehe had had a landslide three weeks prior to my visit that washed 13 of 20 drying tables – all of which were full of parchment – out into the lake. The slide also destroyed their office, and flooded the coffee in their warehouse, spoiling much of the harvest that had been collected thus far. The devastation was heartbreaking. After the waters receded, they managed to salvage some materials, like chicken wire and plastic sheets, to help rebuild the drying beds. They also picked up as much of the coffee as they could find from the ground and the sand.
In the warehouse, they had stored 630kg of women’s coffee, 1,050kg of men’s coffee, and 1,300 kg of second quality coffee. 730kg of that second quality coffee was what they had collected back off the ground after the water subsided. Some would be sold locally for a very low price, the rest would just have to be a hit on the co-operative’s finances. The harvest had to carry on after the landslide, but without enough tables they were now bringing the freshly pulped parchment to Kiniyezere to dry it there, an hour and a half in that leaky, creaky boat. Walking around the village, there was a quiet to the place; to the smiles on the faces of the women sorting parchment. There was not even sounds of birds, just the rushing water from their new, muddy, unwelcome river.
The milling equipment itself had been untouched by the slide, and there had been little loss of coffee trees since they were planted higher up the hill. To get to the plantings we had to climb up the impossibly steep sides of the headland, along narrow trails carved out of the earth, enjoying stunning views of the lake but also walking past patches of tired and wispy looking trees riddled with antracnosis and other ailments. There is still a lot of work to do at Nyabilehe to restore soil quality, rejuvenate trees, implement shade and combat diseases.
I was there to hear about GALS, so we went directly to the village hall where we were welcomed by a great choir of women singing and dancing. Being there to hear their experiences with gender inequality, I noted how all the women sat on one side of the room and the men on the other. We were sat at the front and I must admit I felt a bit unprepared for what might come. After a round of introductions we heard from some of them on how GALS had impacted their lives up to this point, and the stories started coming.
One lady told me how she was growing and selling cassava (a starchy root crop) but didn’t know how to go about getting a fair price for it. She used to hide the money from her husband so he wouldn’t waste it, but through GALS she learned the value of her products, and how to work with her husband in order to pool their money and agree on how to spend it. A man got up and explained how GALS had taught him to plan for his vision, and given him the tools he needed to achieve it. He now worked his farm more productively and had learned how to save money, to use opportunities to overcome challenges and to save and invest to further his vision.
Another lady, called Jeanette, gave me the thumbs up when I talked of my own experiences with gender inequality in coffee (which, admittedly, fade in comparison), and told me how GALS has taught them to have more harmony in the relationships between husbands and wives, even between neighbours. They now plan their budgets as a family and she has learned how to use money without wasting it. After being in the GALS program for three years, she has now been able to build herself her own house.
Another man got up and spoke of how they want to help spread the GALS program to other areas, seeing the benefits first hand. He also brought up one of the challenges they still face, not related to gender but of great importance to them as they look to use their GALS skills to work on other areas. They needed better access to healthcare and getting to the nearest hospital was difficult, being eight kilometres away through the mountains. Another hospital is accessible by boat, but they don’t have one of their own and rely on the shared Muungano boat.
I tried to come up with some suggestions, like bringing in a doctor or nurse on a regular basis but it didn’t strike a chord. Their main health concerns are the flu and malaria, and when I asked how many of them have or have had malaria, my heart sank as the room of maybe 150 people all raised their hands. They’d had someone from the hospital come to teach them how to avoid it, but they still keep getting sick. What they wanted was their own hospital and a full time onsite doctor, but it was a big investment. I suggested starting by getting their own boat as well as a regular clinic, so that they would have the ability to transport patients with injuries and urgent care needs. This seemed to gain more traction, but they still felt a boat and motor was expensive to buy and run. In the end we agreed that with the skills they had learned through GALS, they could identify a vision, plan it out and make it happen, a boat could be in reach, and perhaps an onsite clinic one day.
Fikiri brought up an example from his own village where the people simply started by constructing a building as a starting point, then acquired the equipment and staff necessary to turn it into a hospital as they went along. He suggested they make a plan and a budget and start building themselves rather than wait for someone to build it for them. They had the wood to construct it so they needed to choose a plot and start. There was a bit of resistance as they said they didn’t have what they needed for a hospital, but after a while they admitted they hadn’t thought about what it really entailed.
A building just like the office or the coffee warehouse would be a great start, and this they were perfectly able to construct. Instead of dismissing the idea they needed to work out what was required, and then create the vision to achieve it. Suddenly one man stood up and said he’s already planned for what they’d need to build a hospital, down to the number of planks and nails. As the GALS team meet every Wednesday to discuss matters at hand, they set a date for a focused meeting about it.
But the questions kept coming and they asked me, how do we get less sick? How do we get rid of antracnosis? I wasn’t really prepared for these topics and tried to answer constructively, diplomatically and respectfully. They asked for a credit line but I explained that what I can do to help is to continue paying a premium for high quality coffee. It felt like too little and I could tell Fikiri was being put in a difficult position as the head of the co-op. The mood in the room swung from the crowd seeming pleased to annoyed and back quite quickly. But the time had suddenly got away from us and we had to wrap it up, so I resolved to do something to help once I was back home, something that would support them both as a community and as coffee producers.
Returning to Kiniyezere in the rickety, leaky boat I wondered how I could provide added input to at least one of the areas where the Muungano co-op needed and wanted to improve. The boat and transport situation being one, reconstruction of the lost drying beds another. Kitting out the cupping lab would also help, as would improving their connection to the internet. Now, after almost a year of thinking and discussing with Muungano which areas they feel would be more useful to focus on, we’ll soon be introducing an exciting project that we hope will mean fundamental improvements to how they operate and work. Those of you who tried the Muungano last year as a filter coffee will get a chance to enjoy it as an espresso this year, and with the sweet cocoa notes and syrupy texture that it’s showing, we trust you’ll be as happy with the new crop as we are. Enjoy!
A note on the potato defect:
Just like neighbouring Rwanda and Burundi, DR Congo also struggle with the potato defect. This defect, which causes a single bean here and there to have a distinct smell of raw potato and an earthy taste, is extremely difficult to prevent and remove in the sorting process. It’s become one of the most researched coffee defects in recent years, as the reputation of otherwise stellar coffees from these countries has suffered and prevented many buyers and roasters from taking the risk on coffees from this area.
We have chosen to accept the fact that in a bag of coffee here and there, a single bean might carry the potato smell, most evident when ground. But when the coffee is this good, we take the risk because it’s really delicious and we want to support the work of the co-operative. When we come across the defect ourselves, we simply discard those grounds and grind again. Should you come across a potato bean in your bag we urge you to let us know, as the frequency of the defect is valuable data and feedback for the co-operative.
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