Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of Africa’s richest countries in terms of natural resources. Yet it is one of the continent’s poorest.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of Africa’s richest countries in terms of natural resources. However, a significant portion of the country’s population lives in poverty. Early colonial rule was exploitative and punishing – one of the harshest in Africa – and was focused almost entirely on the extraction of the country’s wealth. This history has left a legacy that the DRC has yet to shake. Colonists were drawn to the DRC for the plentiful rubber and rich gold deposits. Their stay left a trail of tragedy, social upheaval, and a poor road map for the future. With unstable political infrastructure, the country desperately needed support from within. Coffee was a potential solution and provided the people with a way out of poverty.View Coffees
Place In World For Coffee Exporter24th
Sacks (60kg) exported annually205,000
Percentage of world coffee marketLess than 1%
Other major agricultural exportsSugar & Tobacco, but primarily minerals & ore
Typical varieties producedBourbon Variants
Key coffee regionsLake Kivu Provinces
Typical harvest timesApril - July
Typically availableFrom July
The Troublesome History
In 1869, David Livingston set forth to find the source of the Nile. He then more or less disappeared. That is, until three years later, the intrepid, narcissistic, and deeply tenacious Henry Morgan Stanley set out to ‘relieve’ Livingston, whom many thought was certainly dead. He found him near Lake Tanganyika (in present day Tanzania), famously greeting him with “Doctor Livingston I presume?” Stanley’s fame was made, and he set his eyes on, first, confirming the Nile’s source and the further mapping of Africa’s rich water sources, including tracing the Nile to Rippon Falls on Lake Victoria. In the process, he chanced upon something perhaps greater: a link to the great Congo River. With this discovery, he set about the seemingly impossible task of crossing the interior of the African continent to the then Portuguese settlement of Boma on the Western Cost. That’s another story.
It bears importance for this one, however, as his success attracted the attention (and greed) of King Leopold II of Belgium, who incidentally had been looking for a colony all his own. The upshot of this history was one of the most brutal and extractive colonial regimes in Africa. The Belgian Congo lasted formally from roughly 1908 until the country’s independence in 1964. The ruthless colonial governance gave way to a march of civil war, military coups, Marxist uprisings, and dictatorships (primarily Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s, which lasted until 1994, much to the country’s detriment).
Why does all this deep history matter to the coffee sector in what is now known as the DRC? Mobutu succeeded in robbing his population’s wealth even more effectively than Leopold had. According to African historian Basil Davidson: “Zaire [as DRC was then called] remained a state without a nation, a geographical concept without a people.”
Rich Reserves - What about Coffee?
The country had rich reserves of gold, of copper and (even more importantly going forward) of cobalt, which is used in almost all technology we use today. However, following Mobutu’s demise, in 1997, until 2003, the DRC suffered civil war after civil war. This period claimed up to six million lives (through conflict, disease, and malnutrition). It also left many – perhaps millions – displaced. Some of the worst affected regions are and were to the east of the country (which was also hit by its western neighbour, Rwanda’s, crisis around the same time). These are the prime coffee growing regions of the country.
In the early 1980s, coffee was DRC’s second-largest export after copper. Mobuto had nationalised the industry in the 1970s, and production had grown steadily until the mid-‘90s. At that time the DRC was producing around 120,000 tonnes a year, and DRC was a significant global producer (though mainly of Robusta). The importance of the crop is hard to overemphasise. Whereas copper and other mineral and ore exports were mainly funnelled into the pockets of mine owners, at least some of the profits from coffee stayed within small-holder families.
The DRC coffee sector was poised to thrive.
Then, as the rebellion hit and civil war raged, from the late 90’s through the 2000s, coffee production slumped. In 2010, production equated to less than a tenth of what it had been two decades earlier. Many producers, in desperation, boated across lake Kivu to try and sell their coffee on the Rwanda side, incurring a reported 1,000 deaths a year according to several sources, many from drowning. Survivors risked theft and violence. None were able to sell their coffee for its true worth.
The situation is still turbulent in the east of the DRC. The areas around Kivu are known to be some of the more unsettled, and rebel violence rears its head occasionally. However, increasingly coffee is seen as a potential saving grace for the region.
Beginning in the 2010s, cooperatives began to set up, some funded by NGOs and state development agencies and others bolstered by Fairtrade and other certified networks. These factors and international attention on the situation have enabled DRC coffee to make a name for itself. Challenges are rife. The country has no agricultural bank, so private or NGO lending is the only option for crucial preharvest financing. Root Capital has been able to provide credit to many of the new cooperatives, enabling them to invest in much needed infrastructure and operations. More recently, private endeavours have taken off, offering services to an increasingly wide array of producers.
Beginning in 2012, the DRC government launched the Strategy Document for the Recovery of the Coffee Sector 2011–2015. This landmark programme for coffee sector recovery set aside US $100 million for investment in the sector. One of the key areas identified for redevelopment and recovery was South Kivu province: an area environmentally optimal for high quality Arabica production.
The private sector also saw opportunity and began lobbying for looser regulations and, generally, market liberalisation. Implemented reforms included caps on export taxes, policy reviews and an effort to align public/private interests. Many positive joint efforts have taken place, including market access, renovation of crops and infrastructure, and measures to counter smuggling.
These efforts seem to have paid off. According to Twin Trading, the 2015 /16 harvest saw 11,000 MT exported, up from 8,742 in 2010. In 2011, there were only seven washing stations in the country. As of 2018, there are over 100. In 2020, coffee represented roughly 0.12% of the country’s exports, valuing in at $23.3 million.
Still, DRC suffers many challenges. Smuggling is still rife, and prices are still low. Much DRC coffee is still smuggled into Rwanda or even Uganda and is sold as the product of those countries. Violence is erratic. Credit is hard to ensure. Bureaucracy and corruption often mean that coffee can take months to reach Mombassa or Dar es Salaam before being loaded and shipped to a consuming country. And to top it off, as of 2019, areas around Lake Kivu are experiencing the devastating effects of a prolonged Ebola outbreak.
The DRC is a challenging origin, with so much of the wealth focused on copper exports and little support given to coffee, times are lightening, and we are beginning to see some exceptional coffees coming from the DRC.