Last January, Kawa Kabuya won the Taste of Harvest competition for arabica coffees from DR Congo. The competition was organized at the UCDA office in Kampala, together with the Ugandan competition. Sofie took part in the cupping jury to help find the countries’ best coffees along the national jury. The coffees she tasted there spurred an interest to visit these two countries and learn more about the regions where they were grown.
For the DRC leg of the competition, the coffee from the Kawa Kabuya cooperative stood out because of its deliciously fruity and crisp, complex character In the months after the competition, we were in contact with the people who helped start up the cooperative. The quality was there and the setup sounded interesting, so we had to go and see for ourselves how this worked! Read Sofie’s three-day Congolese adventure here.
From Rwanda to DRC
After a tour through Rwanda to visit the exporters and washing stations we work with, I crossed the border in Gisenyi on the Rwandese side to Goma on the Congolese side. After a memorable flight the next day in a 16 seat plane where even experienced travellers would get stressed, I arrived in the heart of the North Kivu region in Butembo. This flight managed to land safely. Two weeks earlier, one of the flight operator’s two planes fell out of service after an emergency landing. The plane’s landing gear didn’t work properly, so the plane couldn’t land on the small, unpaved landing strip. The plane had to fly back to Goma, dump the remaining fuel so the risk of fire was reduced, and land on its belly. No one got hurt luckily. Not the most reassuring story to hear when you’re about to take this flight and right next to the plain there’s people with fire-extinguishers ready at take off and landing! The co-pilot said they would try to make us arrive safely at our destination. Not sure this was a joke…
Either way, we arrived safely after a beautiful 35 minute flight with unique sights on and in the active Nyamuragira volcano close to our left. In Butembo, I was awaited by two people from VECO and Elifas, the director of the Kawa Kabuya cooperative. We continued on to the VECO office and to the headquarters of Kawa Kabuya next.
Kawa Kabuya’s micro washing stations
After a visit to the dry mill in Butembo, we headed to the first of the cooperative’s micro washing stations (or MSL) we would visit: Maniyi MSL, located at 1670m. The station groups 603 producers. Together, they produce 3MT of parchment coffee. On average, a household has between 1000 and 1500 trees. The number of members is steadily growing, as more neighbours get convinced of the benefit of the project. In 2014, many producers replanted their farms, based on what they learned in the training sessions. By 2018, they expect to produce a drastically larger volume. After visiting Maniyi, we visited Katanda MSL, closer to Butembo. Many of the members were young and driven people with vision. They didn’t content themselves with inferior material, as one of them said: quality produces quality.
The farmer members of the coops that VECO helped set up are grouped around micro-washing stations of at least 50 producers. To join, each member has to contribute $50 to help build the infrastructure of the station, to buy all necessary material for the pulping machine, drying beds, fermentation tanks, warehouse and office. VECO and private investors help with supplying the rest of the funds and material needed. The project started in 2010, when the first coops and farmer groups received training about producing quality coffee and coop management. The first washing stations were built in 2013.
Coffee in Congo
Coffee was introduced in Congo by the Belgians during the colonial period as from 1940. Coffee production was enforced on the households. Each had to plant a number of trees. Next to that, the Belgians built large plantations where the Congolese people worked. Under this colonial system, Congolese coffee production knew a big success. When the Belgian colony ended, the plantations were abandoned. The Congolese people chose a different crop to cultivate on their lands because coffee was associated with oppression. Nowadays, large part of the plantations across the country are in a bad state. Coffee production still isn’t very popular, even though the east of the country in the North Kivu province has great potential for coffee growing.
East Congo is a high altitude, fertile volcanic region. The main source of revenue is agriculture. When a household has produced more than it needs to feed the family, the produce gets sold in the local market. The hard work on the fields is mostly done by women. Traditionally, outside this new cooperative system, the harvested cherries are dried at home on mats on the ground, or directly on the ground. The man in the household takes the dried cherries to a buying centre in the nearest village or sells them to middlemen. These give opportunistic prices, resell for a higher price and cash the benefit themselves. After the colonial period, some cooperatives were created as well, but many of these were false cooperatives who wrote false cheques when they bought the coffee from its members, and made big profit selling this coffee.
Congolese quality coffee is only just pioneering through small-scale community projects like the one VECO started. Little to no research has been conducted, and government support is low. VECO has collaborated with the UCG to identify some already existing varietals and determine the best for their seedling program. For as far as they have collected and registered, Congo has arabica plants of the following varieties: Rumangubu, Catuai, Kaira, Blue Mountain, Maragogype, Ruiru 11 and Rusiru.
Knowing all this, helps understand how revolutionary projects like Kawa Kabuya are. Gaining insight in the whys and hows easily convinces you to support the producer communities around the micro-washing stations, so they can grow into self-sufficient, commercially relevant farms. Being able to talk to the people in these communities and those managing the cooperatives, sheds light on many of the challenges they face in daily life, with quality generally being the least of their major worries.
The actual impact
Since the start of the Kawa Kabuya, producers have seen their initial investment get repaid in the first year. After two years, they saw their returns doubled. Thanks to the focus on quality and proper farming, processing and selection practices, the prices they have received were unseen up to now in the collective memory. They can send all their children to primary school, or even to secondary school and university. They can save the money, buy more land, build new houses or improve theirs, or get medical care. Some of the elders in the villages still recall the success of the colonial coffee plantations. The difference now is that the producers themselves are in full control of what happens to their coffee, and receive all premiums for the sold coffee how they decide as a community. 64% of the price that Kawa Kabuya manages to get for its coffee goes back to producers. The other 37% is used to pay taxes, milling costs and permanent staff, among other things. What remains is invested into the micro-washing station funds, which are used for maintenance and improvement of the infrastructure.
In the cooperative system, the board is elected from community members. There’s a general director, treasurer, secretary, a control group and a general assembly with all producer members. Initially, the producers receive 250 francs per kilo of cherry, with an amount pre-financed during the harvest when they deliver their cherries. When the cooperative manages to sell the coffee at a premium, the assembly of producers decides what happens with this premium. They can choose for a second payment and receive more direct benefit for their work, or to put the money in the coop fund to reinvest in the washing station infrastructure and improve their farms.
The way forward
Among the many challenges of these new cooperatives are the age of the existing plants in Congo. Most of these are 50 to 60 years old. To address this, each washing station is equipped with a nursery. The project had about two million seedlings available for farm renewal. 70% of these has already been planted. The nurseries also have many seedlings for compatible shade trees. Convincing the producers to replant and reduce their production volume for the next three to four years isn’t easy. Through the cooperatives’ training in farmer schools, attitudes towards coffee production are slowly changing on a small scale. The producers understand the processes and efforts needed to produce quality and see their hard work returned in nice premiums. They see the advantage of being grouped instead of working separately and selling in the local market, or to conduct illegal coffee trade with buyers coming from neighbour Uganda. This trade has already cost the lives of many. Not rarely, people get shot during this hazardous transport on foot or by bike.
The degree of motivation and investment in the communities at the base of Kawa Kabuya is rarely seen. They believe coffee and quality is their way out of poverty. Congo’s people and varied nature left a big impression on me. All the potential is there, in a healthy structure. Now we just need to help them to regain the name and fame Congolese coffee had in other times.
Big thanks to the people from VECO who organized this trip and accompanied me during these fascinating days!