Congo’s Specialty Brews Look to Be the ‘Future of Coffee’
During the first half of the 20th century, as the country was subjected to exploitative Belgian rule, extensive coffee plantations rolled through the green hills of eastern Congo. The country’s beans were roasted in coffee houses in Brussels and Rome, and its coffee was among the world’s finest.
The coffee industry was decimated after rebel groups marched through those fields in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and the toppling of Congo’s longstanding dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, in 1997.
Farmers fled to cities and even outside Congo, leaving their crops to rot as government security forces and militant groups tore through the countryside.
With the meticulous, handwritten records detailing species and genetic varieties of plants, documented by the Belgians, having disappeared decades ago, most farmers here now know little about the genetic varieties of Robusta and Arabica on their farms, let alone how to secure trademarks for them, as has been done in countries like Ethiopia.
And while more people in the West are now enjoying Congolese specialty coffee thanks to increasing interest from fair-trade buyers and nongovernmental organizations, Mathias Sekabanza, a 62-year-old coffee farmer, has never even tasted a cup.
Like many Congolese growers, he is more interested in the profits it can bring in.
“I don’t know what coffee is for, whether it’s a medicine,” said Mr. Sekabanza, who has a small plot of land in the village of Tarika, near the town of Ntamugenga. “I just see that they really buy it.”
Producing specialty coffee is much more involved than harvesting and processing commercial coffee beans, said Kyle Tush, an analyst at Counter Culture, a wholesaler that supplies boutique cafes in the United States.
Without high-level technical advice and support to ensure consistency in the taste and color of specialty coffee, he said, “a really great cup of coffee is very improbable.”
That is in addition to the violence that continues to plague the region. In recent months, the Congolese military has conducted operations against rebel groups, and kidnappings and violence remain common.
Mr. Sekabanza is part of a farming association that was formed in the late 1990s as violence displaced farmers and their families. The group’s coordinator, Norbert Lulihoshi, 45, abandoned his coffee farm in the village of Kishishe two years ago because of the strife.
“We have multiple challenges; one of the biggest is insecurity,” Mr. Lulihoshi said.
The legacy of war is another. The soles of his feet were carved up by a small bomb that hit Mr. Lulihoshi, a former nurse, in 1996 on his way to the refugee camp where he was working. Others have lost limbs after hitting grenades and mines with hoes while planting and clearing the thicket around their crops.
Yet Mr. Lulihoshi and the head of the association, Celestin Magura, hope to turn the group into a cooperative, having seen others prosper after receiving donor support.
Chris Treter, the founder of the Saveur du Kivu festival and owner of Higher Grounds, a Michigan-based fair trade coffee company, said that farming communities like the one in Ntamugenga offered a chance to remake an industry that had historically been defined by exploitation.
“It’s the front line of the future of coffee in Congo,” Mr. Treter said.
In June, the United States Agency for International Development pledged $25 million over the next six years for agriculture in eastern Congo. The coffee and cocoa sector is expected to get a large part of the funding.
But exporters argue that institutional reform is needed most.
Although taxes for Congolese coffee exports are officially 0.25 percent, in practice they amount to around 11 percent, according to the Association of Coffee and Exporters of Cocoa and Coffee, compared with less than 2 percent in neighboring countries like Uganda and Rwanda.
Bribes are a significant factor, and 50 to 80 percent of Congolese coffee exports are smuggled through bordering countries, where prices are as much as 15 percent higher.
The bureaucracy and bribery involved mean that coffee can take months to reach the port of Mombasa in Kenya or Dar es Salaam in Tanzania before being shipped to the United States or Europe.
And leading coffee exporters argue that the influx of donor dollars to Congo and the focus on specialty coffee, which makes up just 3 percent of the local coffee market, are harming the re-emerging industry.
Andreas Nicolaides, a Congolese-Greek coffee exporter based in Uganda, said the prices being paid for Congolese specialty coffee were “astronomical” – sometimes more than twice the $1.26 per pound for commercial-grade coffee.
“We just need to get as much volume as possible of Congolese coffees into the world market,” Mr. Nicolaides said. “We need to deliver it at a competitive price so that we can compete with our neighboring countries.”
Donors say farmers should be demanding even higher prices. They say the specialty market, which makes up an estimated 55 percent of the $48 billion United States coffee market, will continue to grow.
Despite the presence of corruption and the higher taxes, “there is still an opportunity that we see growing,” said Christophe Tocco, the director of the U.S.A.I.D. mission in Congo.
And that does not take into account the potential for sales within the country.
Dennis Sangara, 28, an entrepreneur who owns a pair of coffee shops in Beni, a northeastern city that has been plagued by massacres and violence in recent years, said too little emphasis was being placed on domestic consumption.
Yet that market presents its own separate challenges, as most Congolese people drink Nescafé with powdered milk – if they drink coffee at all.