The Congo Comeback

[The following post was written by HG founder Chris Treter and originally shared on the ELAN RDC blog and newsletter in April 2019.]

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The re-emergence of Congolese coffee not only is revealing the market’s tremendous potential, it has and will continue to serve as a model for other origins throughout the world of coffee. The “Congo Comeback” showcases how an inclusive, collaborative, and equitable market system translates to stronger, more resilient, and diverse value chains. Getting to this point has not been easy. Moving forward requires you.

CRISIS BREEDS OPPORTUNITY

25 years of conflict left nearly 6 million dead, destroying institutions and infrastructure in Africa's most biodiverse country. In 2019, mindful of its past and potential, Congo’s industrial and regulatory rehabilitation and economic recovery is well underway. Yet despite policy reforms and advancements in agricultural productivity, capacity, quality, and volume, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to face a myriad of challenges that can only be resolved by their steadfast determination and a continued concerted Congolese-led effort.

Ranked 184th out of 190 countries in the World Bank’s 2019 Doing Business Report, representing the second lowest per capita GDP in the world, DRC’s average income is just $800/year, and the effects resonate throughout the economy. Policies, practices, and fiscal limitations stretch DRC’s systems thin, challenging their ability to deliver services, or even slow the nearly seventy percent of Congolese-grown coffees that slip through the cracks via illegal flows into neighboring countries. The global interest in coffees from neighboring Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda continues to grow, and Congo’s offerings are gaining traction in that market. The time to differentiate is now.

COMBATING CLIMATE CHANGE AND VOLATILE MARKETS

In recent years, market interest and global demand for specialty coffee has skyrocketed. Meanwhile, the viability of the coffee crop and communities who rely on it as their primary source of income is challenged by climate change—a global issue wreaking havoc on coffee and other crops. Making matters worse, increasingly volatile markets and market fluctuations feed into growing uncertainty, destabilize communities, and exacerbate generational poverty for coffee farmers.

In March 2019, the C Price hit its lowest point in 13 years: 97.5 US cents/lb, well below what it costs farmers to produce a pound of coffee. In response, coffee growers from over 30 countries sent a letter to CEOs representing many of the world’s largest coffee companies. Rooted in the principles of value chain economics, coffee farmers called for attention and action, detailing the real and present threat to their economic well-being—one that could “no longer be denied,” cited poverty as “the biggest predator of the environment and the social fabric,” and outlined how the coffee market, in its current state, was “generating a deep economic, social and potentially political crisis, and unrest amongst coffee producers.”

FARMER-CENTERED ECONOMICS AND CONGO’S OPPORTUNITY TO PROVE THE CASE FOR TRULY VALUABLE VALUE CHAINS

Coffee growers need more than a higher stable price with incentives via quality premiums, increased production per hectare, and sporadic social impact projects from companies touting their “sustainability initiatives.”

Endowed with nutrient-rich volcanic soils, a wealth of uncultivated arable land, lush vegetative landscape, elevation that extends from steep mountain ranges to the shores of Lake Kivu, and equally rich culture and resilient population, eastern Congo represents not only a unique specialty coffee opportunity, it is the ideal proving ground for models rooted in transformative change.

Emerging from an era of conflict, in 2019, only a meager 10% of what is produced makes it to the export markets—a far cry from its position just 25 years ago. Yet Congo is proving that it is the final frontier for mass global coffee production, capable of being home to the world’s first true “value” chain--but only if the industry can join together to demonstrate that we value the humans behind our cup of coffee. If we simply carry forward with business as usual, we not only perpetuate inequities; we fail our partner producers, their communities, and the country. Any profit we make is in stark contrast to the poverty of those with no other choice than to grow the coffee we depend on.  

Thankfully, we have an array of sustainability research and emerging global platforms to build from—providing us with the framework to design and scale human-centered trading models that are inclusive, equitable, and commercially viable. 

SIDE BAR: Learn more at “A Sustainable Coffee Industry? Not Quite” (Specialty Coffee Association, December 2018)

Success comes when we address the entire market system as interconnected ecosystems across sectors, focus on collective need, and realize value at every level—from producers to consumers.

Success comes by meeting existing demand through value-driven purchasing patterns, contributing to a more vibrant and resilient Congo, one that will deliver the finest Arabica and Robusta coffees to satisfy even the most discerning palates for generations to come.

Success comes with thriving producer cooperatives with women at their helm, programs like Ensemble Pour La Difference and Lake Kivu Coffee Alliance, and with high cup scores and diverse regional coffee profiles.

Congo has a unique value proposition sought after by buyers around the world. To bring Congo coffee to a vast global market, the international development and private sectors must first foster local capacity and social inclusion as the primary means to increase quality and productivity. Demonstrating global demand and alignment on a strategy that offers expertise and funding is already driving the DRC government to quickly transform systemic and infrastructure development necessary for a healthy coffee economy.

We must collectively provide space and support, standing face to face with each other across the supply chain to confront our own inevitable failings, while collaborating with shared learning, using metrics created by the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. By doing so, we can conquer the gross inequality at the core of the social, environmental and political catastrophic aftermath we find the Congo in today.

But success depends upon you to set aside your misgivings about a place and people that few have been fortunate to experience. The future of this regenerative model for sustainable coffee depends on your action. Join us at Saveur du Kivu in Bukavu, DRC this June 10-12 as we enter our fifth year building on a model that has the potential to transform the coffee industry, not just in DRC, but around the world. Think coffee. Think Congo.

  

About the Author

Co-founded by Chris Treter over 17 years ago, Higher Grounds Trading Company subscribes to a model and ethos that prioritizes smallholder farmer relationships, a direct link to the origin. In doing so, they both source and roast some of the world’s finest and most unique specialty organic coffees, and demonstrate how taking care of people is ultimately the first step towards a sustainable and profitable business.

 Believing that coffee can only be sustainable through a human-centred approach, Chris founded On the Ground Global, an international NGO addressing the root causes of poverty faced by coffee farming communities around the world. In addition, seeking to promote the origin, foster industry-wide collaboration, and holistically address challenges to realize potential, Chris founded Saveur du Kivu, DRC’s premier annual specialty coffee cupping competition and value chain conference