Restoring a Giant: Cocoa and Coffee in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Posted by Kevin Wilkins, Senior Technical Advisory for Specialty Crops, ÉLAN RDC on 12 April 2019

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is often portrayed as a country plagued by corruption and ravaged by conflict. But there is much more to the DRC—a country whose recently installed president and government seek to unite the country, resolve humanitarian crises, extinguish the ongoing scourge of the outbreak of Ebola, and progress together.

Home to some of the world’s richest mineral reserves, endowed with abundant natural resources, climatological variance, and 80 million hectares of arable land under cultivation, DRC is a rising star that shines in the eyes of cocoa and coffee buyers seeking the ideal origin that can satisfy global demand. Here I look at how DRC arrived at this point.

Highs and lows

During the 1980s, DRC exported around 100,000-120,000 metric tons (MT) of coffee annually. After a near two decade-long slump caused by years of conflict, a myriad of regulatory setbacks that forced buyers to look elsewhere and incentives to maintain either crop faded as producers were left to look after ageing and often diseased crops with little to no support. By this time, coffee exports slid to an average 5,000 MT per year, while cocoa bottomed out at 600 MT per year.

It is worth noting that: (i) reliable data on DRC’s cocoa and coffee exports is hard to come by; (ii) values presented are based on official exports and do not include losses from smuggling to neighbouring countries; and (iii) the window from 2000-2015 is offered because it best captures the scale of DRC’s resurgent cocoa and coffee markets. 

The unification of DRC’s cocoa and coffee industry

The dramatic revival of DRC’s specialty crops took years of cooperation and investment. In time, not only did both crops bounce back, but duelling factions joined forces and industry began to show signs of adopting a shared vision.

Driven by commercial interests and the quest to capture a greater share of the African cocoa and coffee markets, new industry associations emerged, seeking regulatory reform. In 2015, the private sector lobby for a more functional marketplace paid off, as Congo’s public and private sectors reached agreement to take their first critical steps together.

Sweeping reforms included caps on export taxes and fees, a review of policy, enforcement and administrative redundancies, and concerted effort to align public and private sector interests. The DRC’s government and private sector took a very public step to address market constraints including measures to counter unregulated exports (i.e. smuggling), pathways to finance crop rehabilitation, productivity, quality, and processing capacity improvements, and to retain existing and attract new cocoa and coffee buyers.

Snapshot of Progress and Cooperation

As the regulatory climate improved, cocoa exports rebounded from approximately 600 MT in 2000 to nearly 11,000 MT in the 2015-2016 season, while coffee exports recovered to the same 11,000 MT mark.

YoY Export Increase

The years that followed saw targeted investments bolster technical capacity and public-private sector ability to extend training to more producers. Efforts resulted in gains in quality and volume, and a steep rise in the number producers achieving certification. This was another big step forward for DRC as an origin seeking to improve its perception in the marketplace.

Kagame Quote

Congo’s rapidly evolving coffee and cocoa culture and consumption habits coincided with a shift in thinking across the African continent. In recent years, Congolese officials and private operators retained more value at origin by diversifying and optimising post-harvest treatment methods and ramping up domestic processing.

To capture greater value addition at each stage, producers have been equipped with new tools, the number of coffee washing stations has risen from seven in 2011 to over 100 in 2018, and box fermentation units (a critical function during the flavour development and treatment processes) surged to over 22 by 2014.

As the number of domestic processors, roasters, and other local operators grew, so did the availability of Congolese coffee and cocoa products at retail outlets, cafes, and restaurants. These include staples such as the Compagnie pour l’Organisation et la Promotion des Activités du Café (COOPAC); Goma-based processors Jambo Safari and Coffeelac; exporters including Domaine de Katale; and cafés such as Le Petit Chalet (LPC) and Café Kivu.


Domestic Process and Consumption

The DRC’s official association representing female producers, exporters, policymakers, and technical assistance providers, les Femmes Congolaises dans le Café & Cacao (IFCCA), is further evidence of the capacity to satisfy domestic consumption. It recently teamed with coffee farmers to launch its own line of “Café Femme” — coffees cultivated, harvested, processed, and managed by women.

Internal control systems give birth to traceability

The DRC has listened to calls to focus on quality before scale, guided by origin-oriented groups such as Twin, during DRC’s specialty coffee revival. Among many other places, South Kivu has been home to some of the proving grounds where new tools have been tested, technologies piloted, and inclusive training and sourcing models introduced.

In 2009, Twin embarked on a value-adding journey with Muungano which at the time was 350-strong. The objectives were to: asses the group’s capacity; engage community members to organically develop action plans which promote empowerment, cohesion, and include core Gender Action Learning Systems (GALS) principles; integrate and strengthen Internal Control Systems (ICS); and explore and potentially support the market case for Café Femme. Results of the collaboration exceeded all expectations.

Recent visits to Muungano’s producers and communities, revealed the depths of change and process of continuous improvement that include positive shifts in household social gender dynamics, the group’s expansion to nearly 5,000 producers and double certification (organic and Fairtrade); and sustained efforts to strengthen ICS.

Muungano took a chance on ICS and its resolve has contributed to the boom in popularity for Café Femme, and paved the way for the integration and proliferation of traceability systems throughout Congo’s coffee value chain.

Other creative methods of strengthening operational controls while building producer-commercial-consumer market ties include platforms like Tip the Farmer. Built on Virunga Coffee Company’s in-country efforts, Tip the Farmer supports the shared vision of Olam Specialty Coffee, Motherland Coffee Company, and Bean There Coffee Company to bring consumers closer to producers by leveraging end-to-end traceability to “tip” or thank farmers at the point of sale.

Production Zones Map

There are many unique characteristics that define Congo’s cocoa and coffee markets, but accessing information can prove challenging, especially for those who are new to the Congolese market. International programmes and Congolese public and private sector leaders have come together to address this gap, producing resources such as ELAN RDC’s 2019 paper titled "The Cocoa and Coffee Opportunity in the Democratic Republic of Congo”— a succinct and colourful overview of cocoa and coffee production in DRC.

Leveraging technology to unlock market information

Separate from materials developed by or in cooperation with technical assistance programmes, the Congo Coffee Atlas is representative of Congo’s specialty coffee industry-led efforts foster trust through transparency.

Designed to inform, and empower, annual updates to the online business intelligence dashboard ensure buyers have access to exports statistics, production zone narratives, cupping scores and flavour profiles, and contact details to directly engage the cooperatives who cultivate it—bridging links to markets. 

Coffee Atlas Screenshot

Direct from the mouths of Congo’s cocoa and coffee champions:

As a firm believer of letting the market speak for itself, I will take a step back, and leave it to the champions whose insights informed the content for this piece to wrap it up.

The following statements are drawn directly from those whom I have had the great pleasure to work alongside over these last few years. They are the force behind the resurgence of cocoa and coffee in the DRC, and these are their words.

 “Congo really is one of the last untapped (or under-tapped) countries in the world for high quality Arabica that we know of. To be honest, it's surprising we are not seeing a lot more of these coffees on importer and roaster offering lists. I hope we are nearing a tipping point, and that in the next few years, coffees from DRC will become more widely recognized as among the best coming out of East Africa.”

- Kyle Tush, Coffee Quality Specialist, Counter Culture Coffee

“Over the last several years, cocoa and coffee throughout DRC have experienced a period of tremendous growth and improvements. We have enacted key reforms and fundamentally transformed how our cocoa and coffee sectors are managed — how we work, who we work with, and how we will realize our potential.”

- François Kambale Nzanzu, Director and Sector Chief, Bukavu, Office National des Produits Agricoles (ONAPAC), formerly l'Office National du Café (ONC)

“This era has opened the door for tens of thousands of Congolese men and women. As we share ahead, we do so as a unified and continuously improving Congolese brand.”

- Julie K. Kamungele, President, Initiative des Femmes (Congolaises) dans le Cacao et Café (IFCCA)

“Progress and collaboration have been instrumental in realizing a stronger and more unified industry. We are moving ever-closer to realizing DRC’s true and enormous potential. So, as we move forward, it is imperative that we maintain our focus on quality, inclusion, and collaboration.”

- Emmanuel Rwakagara, National President, Interprofessional Council for the Promotion of Agriculture (CIPA), and National President, Fédération des Entreprises du Congo (FEC), Comité Professionnel Café et Cacao

“As an origin, buyer interest has piqued and revenues have risen, especially and most importantly for producers. This is a resurgence in progress and it is just the tip of the iceberg.”

- Kambale Kisumba Kamungele, President, Association des Exportateurs du Cacao Café de la RD Congo (ASSECCAF)

“Despite the multitude and complexity of constraints that remain, production zones and communities throughout Congo are thriving. It is encouraging to see and take part in this new push that prioritizes every actor — a vision rooted in improved productivity, quality, revenue, and visibility for all.”

- Kasongo Mudjo, Deputy Director, Goma, l'Office National des Produits Agricoles (ONAPAC), formerly l'Office National du Café (ONC)

At the following events, you can meet buyers, policy makers, association leaders, and producers to explore opportunities and strengthen your links to this unique origin.