From fighting to farming: The rise of the Kivu coffee

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By Dede Monfiston

Sifa and her children. Kivu coffee has given her renewed hope that the children can go to school and have a better life.

When I landed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the first question that came to my mind was, “How can a country be so rich in natural resources but its people so poor?” Many of those who dared visit or work in the country would likely ask that, too. DRC’s natural beauty is amazing but the endless armed conflict that has gripped the country has taken a toll to its people and resources.

My first trip to DRC was in 2012 when I managed a new development program in northwestern Congo which is close to the Central African Republic (CAR). I felt overwhelmed by both the challenges and the potentials. Are the people even aware of the vast opportunities around them? How can an outsider like me help? Is background and experience in non-profit organizations enough? The answers to questions in my head were not that promising.

When my assignment ended after nearly two years, I went home. My next posting sent me to Iraq but Congo kept haunting me. After a year in Iraq, I decided to find a way back to Congo. I got lucky – another organization hired me and my work focused on agriculture and roads infrastructure in eastern Congo.

During the first three months, my interest in building something that would help the Congolese people for long term deepened. Agribusiness always kept me interested but I did not know how, where and with whom to start. Then one day, a guy came to my office exploring support for former combatants. I found it truly interesting and promising. I started talking about the project with the decision makers in my organization exploring ways to help. It never went anywhere, unfortunately. It was quite a suspense on my part as my contract was also nearing its end.

Fresh hopes. A woman works at the coffee plantation with her child. The project enabled families to look at the future with bright promise for their children.

While at home early in the morning, our security guard handled me a business card from the cooperative guy asking to meet me. Curious, I decided to pay him a visit. He expressed his alarm that I will soon leave. He said, “Dèdè we don’t want you to leave. We need you and we want to offer you an opportunity mutually beneficial for you and for us.” The guy turned out to be Gilbert Makelele, the president of the coffee growers cooperative. It answered my question how to start.

After my contract, I went back home to spend some quality time with my family as I figured out potential business concepts. With my family’s blessings and support, I came back to DRC to support the coffee cooperative.

This time I have a lengthy chance to visit the coffee fields, talk to the cooperative members and learn the basics of the green beans business operations. I got introduced as a partner and business development strategist. It was both exciting and daunting. I have to do my job so I won’t let this people down. I need to get them connected to buyers around the world and enjoy the fruits of their hard work.

The cooperative is composed of more than 5,000 members under Gilbert Makele’s lead as president. More than a third of the members are women, with many of them coming from the Congolese Army and other armed rebel groups who have decided that they have enough of the fighting and want to focus on raising their children well.

Starting anew. Coffee-growing has allowed women combatants to shift to a new journey with their families.

The Groupement d’Intérêt Economique Coopérative des Planteurs et Négociant du Café du Kivu (GIE CPNCK) was created in 2012 by a group of young entrepreneurs with strong social responsibility and eager to help sow peace in the beautiful region of Kivu. Operating in the greater region which includes the Masisi, the south and the north Kivu, the cooperative today has more than 5,000 members composed of farmers, women, widows and former combatants.

One of them was Kitumani, 35, who lived in Idiwi Island. She spent five years in the army and describes the experience as horrible. Her expression said it all. An orphan at 12, Kitumani said she had a very difficult life. She got married at 23 and have five children. Now she is a coffee farmer and a breeder. She told me, “I learned to endure and how to survive life’s tough challenges.”

Sifa’s husband died in the Lake Kivu bringing green beans coffee illegally to Rwanda. The trip through the river is always dangerous and most of the people use rickety boats. To be able to earn for her family, she decided to join the cooperative and work properly to avoid the risks that led to her husband’s death.

Apilline Katambara Pendeza is the president of the Widows Association of the Idjwi Island. Her husband was also among those who braved the risks in the Lake Kivu. Apilline has her own coffee plantation and decided to join the cooperative to market her coffee. She hopes that, “With coffee growing, we can aspire for a better life for our children”.

The community now works together towards achieving quality life for their families.

When his father died and nobody can send him to school, 30-year old Koko joined the Congolese Army. His once-normal life was turned upside down. When an opportunity to leave came, Koko seized it and now works as a driver in the cooperative. Married for 11 years now, Koko is the president of the Ex-Combatants Association.

With the mission of being the catalyst for an innovative change, the cooperative aims to see the coffee growers freely in a fair, prosperous and environmentally friendly rural world. It has set objectives to improve the quality and quantity of the coffee production of its members; search for a niche market for its specialty coffee and improve the living conditions of its member and their communities.

It has always striven to implement its vision of a more just future reflected in the culture of its deep values: transparency and accountability; quality work and autonomy of coffee growers; respect for human dignity and protection of the environment.

Gilbert Makelele is bringing coffee growers and workers together to put Kivu coffee in the world map.

Since 2013, the GIE CPNCK set up the program “Peace Around Coffee and Cocoa in the Kivu” to assist the ex-combatants and their leaders, commonly called “warlords,” and to contribute to the stabilization of the Masisi area through agricultural socio-economic activities, coffee and cocoa combined with vegetable and livestock.

It was decided to start these activities in the red zone. These ex-combatants, determined to change their way of life, struggle to survive from the meager products of their fields and small livestock while waiting for their first harvest of coffee this year. The big challenge is to harvest the cherries, process it and have the coffee green bean ready for export. Some basic equipment is needed. We then need to find a market for the green bean since the local market is very limited.

There are many existing coffee cooperatives in Congo and Gilbert and colleagues are hard at work of creating the confederation of the cooperatives. The cooperative was created on 2012 and restructured in 2014. It dreams for the Kivu coffee to one day be sought by millions of coffee drinkers around the world. You can help make it happen. It will encourage more combatants to lead a life of peace with their families, bring stability in their communities and their beautiful country.

Note: The Democratic Republic of the Congo, also known as DR Congo, DRC, DROC, Congo-Kinshasa or simply the Congo, is a country located in Central Africa. The DRC borders the Central African Republic and South Sudan to the north; Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania to the east; Zambia and Angola to the south; the Republic of the Congo to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the southwest. It is the second-largest country in Africa by area and eleventh largest in the world. With a population of over 80 million, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the most populated officially Francophone country, the fourth most-populated nation in Africa and the eighteenth most populated country in the world. – Wikipedia

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About the blogger: Dede is a happy family man who is a seasoned humanitarian experienced in development and emergency work. His quest to make a difference through projects such as health, water sanitation and hygiene, livelihoods and economic development took him to Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean regions. Besides a degree in Animal Sciences and Agribusiness, he has a Master’s Degree in International Management from Thunderbird School of Global Management. He speaks fluent English, French and Spanish.
Contact email: dedemf@global.t-bird.edu

 

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