Conflict and coffee: reviving the industry in the DRC

Posted by Richard Hide on 5 February 2014


In 2008, thousands of refugees surrounded the shores of Lake Kivu in the eastern highlands of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The fallout from the 1994 Rwandan genocide spilled into DRC, sparking years of internal conflict that fractured the country along ethnic lines. Farmers abandoned their land to flee the violence and the Government estimated that about 1,000 people were losing their lives each year in an attempt to smuggle coffee across Lake Kivu to Rwanda to barter their coffee for basic goods as DRC's export infrastructures had collapsed. The impact on DRC's already declining coffee exports was dramatic, falling from 120,000 tonnes in 1989 to just 6,000 tonnes in 2010. This tragedy, in combination with the conflict, also left behind countless coffee widows struggling to earn a living.

Twin set out to engage new producers in DRC and help them access value-added markets for the first time. Our first partnership was with a coffee cooperative, Sopacdi, which had 284 members and was in need of support, capacity building and access to international markets. Since 2008 Twin has worked to build Sopacdi's production and export capacity, including coffee farm rehabilitation, processing infrastructure, and business and governance capacity. Today, the cooperative has 5,200 members, including 1,450 women, and has constructed the country's first modern coffee washing station in 40 years.

From small beginnings

Sopacdi's first international buyer was Twin Trading - Twin's trading business - in 2008. The cooperative exported just eight tonnes of coffee - less than a half a container - but since then sales, through Twin Trading and facilitated by Twin, have risen dramatically, to 171 tonnes in 2012. One key reason behind the dramatic increase in sales has been an improvement in quality. Sopacdi's farmers were processing their coffee on their farms using rudimentary equipment; occasionally the quality was good, but it was very inconsistent. By initially renovating a dilapidated washing station left by the Belgians, the cooperative was able to add value to their coffee and produce a higher grade. This focus on quality has resulted in outstanding cupping results for Sopacdi's coffee and the cooperative was the first to achieve the highest national grade (Kivu 2) since 1967.

With assistance from Twin, Sopacdi's farmers are also renovating their land, incorporating measures to combat soil erosion and are planting new coffee seedlings from the cooperative's own nurseries. Farmers are attending workshops led by agronomists to learn about organic composting and mulching, and Sopacdi has established a small fund to enable farmers to buy equipment needed to produce the best quality coffee.

Effective marketing

Effective marketing has been key to the organisation's success. Initially, Sopacdi had been unable to gain Fairtrade accreditation due to the security threat posed to auditors but Twin then secured special measures from Fairtrade International, enabling the cooperative to become Fairtrade certified without the initial requirement of a physical inspection. When the security situation calmed down a year later, a normal inspection was undertaken and Sopacdi became the first cooperative in the DRC to be Fairtrade certified, subsequently gaining organic accreditation and adding further value to exports.

TTD Sopacdi fairtrade

Twin also partnered with the UK supermarket, Sainsbury's, and the roasters Finlays under a Food Retail Industry Challenge Fund (FRICH), funded by the Department for International Development (DFID) and Comic Relief in 2009. The collaboration sought to bring together a wealth of industry expertise to support marginalised producers with training and new facilities to improve quality, as well as provide access to mainstream markets and product development. A milestone for Sopacdi came in 2011, when a limited edition DRC and Malawi coffee blend, including Sopacdi's coffee, was successfully launched by Sainsbury's. The FRICH project will culminate in July 2013 with the launch of the UK's first single origin coffee from the DRC - Sopacdi Fairtrade Ground Coffee - as part of Sainsbury's 'Taste the Difference' range.

Delivering better livelihoods

Over 25 per cent of Sopacdi's producer members are women. Sopacdi is supporting its female members to address additional difficulties faced by women (limited access to land and credit) by setting up a women's committee which has representation on the cooperative's board. "I had to bribe the police to be able to cross to Rwanda by boat," explains Sopacdi member, Cecile Batumike. "I saw boats sink because the waves were huge. Many people in my village died that way leaving their children orphans and without any kind of assistance. With the income from the sale of our coffee, we are now able to send our children to school, we are able to feed our families and we are proud to know that our coffee is being sold in the international market."

All of Sopacdi's buyers pay an extra US$0.02/lb premium to support female membership. Sopacdi has invested this extra income in a women's fund to develop income generating activities, which have included small portable mills to produce flour from maize and cassava in the community and transport services by boat. "It feels good to be in a group and share a vision - share our dreams," explains Baseme Mutebwa, the treasurer for Kalunga women's committee, who started their own mill. "Now I have hope that the mill will bring enough money to send all of my children to school. I hope to build a new house. We know we now exist, we have a voice, we are listened to." In addition to the extra income, the experience of running these enterprises also teaches valuable leadership and business skills, which also help the women make improvements to their coffee farms.

"It's inspiring to see what the farmers call 'green gold' bring green shoots of change, especially among women members who have faced such extraordinary challenges," says Twin's managing director, Nicolas Mounard. "But beyond this great story is truly great tasting coffee, which is essential for ensuring long-term transformational change."