From fighting to farming: The rise of the Kivu coffee

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

 

Marrying in Nepal: Fall in love or get arranged?

By Alina Rajbhandary Shresta

Alina met her knight-in-shining armour with a lot of help from her family. Her resistance was no match to the powerful pull of destiny.

In Nepal, it is normal for a woman to be married with the man selected for you.

Raised as a very independent Nepali woman, I could never imagine doing that. Not my cup of tea. Just thinking about how I would spend my entire lifetime with a stranger chosen for me bring shivers up my spine. I resisted the idea – much more the reality.

Thus, in 2002, when there was a proposal to meet up with a man who passed the criteria of fitting into our family requirement of a suitable son- in-law, I was distressed. Terribly. The potential groom’s photo got especially delivered to me at our house. It was actually a group photo of men and one of them, of course – was my future.

When I saw Pushkar for the first time in that photo, my immediate answer was a big “no”. However, my over-eager family interpreted my “no” as a “yes”. Eventually, I got persuaded to meet and see him in person. I invented many creative excuses I can imagine. To no avail.

Finally, my youngest sister Namrata came up with an idea that was so simple yet did not strike me earlier. She said, “You don’t have to marry him, just meet him. Enjoy a good pastry at his expense (if he is generous enough to pay for it) and come home.”

It was brilliant, for me at least. It sounded like a hilarious solution to my dilemma of being an obedient daughter who cannot go against my parents’ wishes. I thought I had nothing to lose and it would be a good end to the ongoing conversations at home.

The meeting was set up at Hotel Himalaya in downtown Kathmandu. I drove to meet him with the wise matchmaker seated beside me in the car. Families often engage with a matchmaker for arranged marriages. As soon as we reached the hotel, he pointed to the man at the door who seemed very excited. He was friendly and overly accommodating. Of course, I told myself, he will show his best foot forward.

Pushkar had lived in the United States for 11 years and came home for a break after acquiring his engineering degree. I suspected he also came home to find a wife. His acquired accent reminded me of one of the American shows I watched on TV, which I found very funny. This made me chuckle.

We talked about our interest and hobbies in general. I concluded we were poles apart. He shared his love for fishing and I was like “yeah right — fish in the heart of the city” (add an eye-roll)! Since my mind was already made-up, half of what he said flew past my head. I did not find them interesting. This concluded our brief (and in my mind, our supposedly last) meeting.

“I was raised as an independent Nepali woman. I cannot imagine not making my own choices.”

When I reached home, everyone wanted to hear how he was and my answer was ready, “He is not my kind of guy”. I confidently closed the chapter and life became peaceful. Or so I thought.

Two weeks later, I received a call from our landline telephone that was not working for a while. It was Pushkar, and I got alarmed. I soon recalled this was the number I shared with him when we had our short and forgotten meeting. I pretended to be my sister, trying not to sound like myself, informing him about the distant possibility of talking to a girl who was extremely busy with work. I was then working as a teacher.

He did not give up. When he called the following day, I picked up the phone again and this time, I got caught red-handed. He asked, “Is this Alina?” and running out of alibi, I have to admit I am the one on the phone. He immediately added, “I heard you do not like me? What is it about me that you don’t like – was it my looks?”

Before I could answer he continued, “There’s a face cream in the market I have heard about- called Fair and Lovely- do you think I should start using that?” My jaws dropped and I was lost for words.

Eventually I responded, “Yes, do that!” That did not faze him. “Which cheek should I start with – right or left?” My response- “Your call”. The conversation did not stop. He went to say, “What if I am fairer on the right side and dark on the left side”.

I have no idea if it was a joke or part of a vengeful plot to spite my decision. It was a hilarious chat for sure, but I was scared at the same time. I ended the call but this was just the beginning.

The next day he called again. He said, “You know what, you are the first girl to say no to me and I find that quite attractive – I always thought I was good looking.” The calls got frequent. My sisters and I sat together almost every evening to hear his endless tales just to burst out into peals of laughter.

Here was a man who was so confident that his charm would work on the girl he wanted to marry. I strongly believed it was just a passing phase of my life and would end soon for all of us, including the uncalled-for laugh sessions.

The beautiful bride on her wedding day. “It was destiny.”

My parents noticed the buzz in the house and decided it was time for them to meet Pushkar. A meeting was arranged between two families- his and mine.  This formal meeting usually culminates into marriage.

My resistance broke down. I had no time to think when my parents finally decided he was the one. They added to remind me he was better than the Bollywood actors I admired on screen. Yes, they also did question my earlier decision to say no.

After six months of courtship, I happily married the man I have not imagined would be my husband in the first meeting. It was destiny.

This became the most important lesson in my life.  Sometimes the best gifts in life come as a blessing when you have no clue and when you least expect it. Our choices may not be right but when God has plans for you, they find their way to come full circle.

My husband was not a choice I made, but he is my destiny. He was my perfect fit. He became a friend, a mentor and above all my inspiration.  After 14 years, we were blessed with two boys Pratyush, 12 and Pravaath, 7. Both of them asked me once, “Mom, why did you say no to our dad?” adding, “We don’t like this story of yours.” I just smile.

I guess they love that the story has a happy-ending.

“Sometimes your best-laid plans may fail for something much better to happen. Go for your dreams but don’t be disappointed when it doesn’t happen exactly as you want. Better things may replace them and surprise you. For girls on pressure to get married, don’t give in easily. Enjoy life and what you love to do. Your knight in shining-armour will find you, if he is your destiny.” – Alina

Now. Alina is a happily married woman to Pushkar and a loving mom to Pratyush and Pravaath. Yes, there are still fairy tale endings. And they lived happily ever after …

Alina R Shresta is currently World Vision Nepal’s Communications Manager and a very passionate humanitarian worker and advocate for the better future of girls and women.