KISANGANI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Markets in this part of the world tend to feature fruits, vegetables, pots and pans. But here in this provincial capital city, a prime spot in the central market is all about coffee.
The aroma attracts customers to the stalls of women who sit behind large plastic basins filled with locally grown, locally processed coffee beans.
It wouldn’t be right to say that this is a new phenomenon here. Coffee was once called “green gold,” because of its ability to boost the local economy. But in more recent years, the local coffee sector hasn’t been very active. Much of the coffee grown here has been shipped out of the country for processing. Now, earnings from the sale of ready-to-drink coffee have the potential to transform the local economy.
A coffee revival project has farmers across the area eager not only to grow a high-quality crop but also process it themselves, using techniques they perfected decades ago, when DRC’s coffee sector was in its heyday.
Zita Amwanga, GPJ DRC
The project was launched in 2013 by DRC’s national coffee board (L’Office National du Café) on a 2.5-acre nursery about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the Congo River. Seedlings planted at that time matured to produce an inaugural harvest in 2017 of 60 kilograms (132 pounds) of coffee. Now, about 100 people work at the nursery. A government-supplied agronomist helps the workers perfect the coffee grown there, and other technical and material support is provided throughout the process.
It takes three or four years for newly planted trees to produce coffee cherries, the small fruit in which the coffee bean – the cherry’s seed – hides, says Jacques Chikuru, director of the project.
A single tree can produce 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds) of cherries per year, resulting in about 500 grams of coffee (1.1 pounds), Chikuru says.
The success of Chikuru’s project has other farmers yearning to cash in on coffee, too. It’s estimated that there are now more than 500 coffee growers in Tshopo province, whose capital is Kisangani, in addition to people who specialize in processing coffee beans.
The project comes as many Congolese, even those with experience in the coffee-growing sector, are struggling to live on income earned from their coffee crop. Violence among armed groups in eastern DRC has jeopardized transit routes, making it difficult not only for coffee farmers but for businesspeople of all types to get their products to buyers.
Coffee growers elsewhere in eastern DRC are struggling, too. In North Kivu province, farmers say that the cooperatives that sell coffee beans to foreign buyers don’t give enough of the profits back to the growers. (Read our story here.)
Zita Amwanga, GPJ DRC
There are other problems, too. Seeds are expensive, says Augustin Itowa Baelo, a 37-year-old coffee farmer. And changes in weather patterns have made it difficult to ensure that the crops thrive.
“I’ve been engaged in coffee farming since I was young,” he says. “However, production has taken a dive since 2015, causing me difficulties.”
Still, fresh interest in the region’s coffee is a sign that things could turn around, he says.
“The revival brings new hope to me,” Baelo says.
Already, some growers say their crops are earning them a good livelihood.
Charlie Ilongo, a 48-year-old mother of four, says she and her husband earn enough money to support their family by processing coffee beans bought from local farmers. Once the beans are processed, Ilongo sells them in Kisangani’s central market and to supermarkets. She takes about 50 percent of the final sale price as profit.
“My processed coffee resonates with many customers, because it’s natural and its aroma is unmatched,” she says with pride.
Ndahayo Sylvestre, GPJ, translated the article from French