All images courtesy of OLAM Speciality Coffee. All rights reserved | @olamcoffee
Our latest Limited Edition Virunga Reserve is a stunning coffee from the Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The province itself has everything that is needed in the cultivation of beautifully high-quality arabica; plentiful rainfall, high, fertile slopes, and just the right amount of sunshine. On paper, it’s the perfect place to grow coffee. In practice, however, you couldn’t be much further from the truth.
Getting coffee out of the Congo is not easy. In fact, for the last few decades, it’s proved almost impossible. Decades of civil war have caused, amongst countless other horrors, a steady decline in the production of coffee and effectively destroyed the fragile export infrastructure that existed before the violence and unrest. In this environment, it's not difficult to see how crucial a stable, tradable commodity (like coffee) can be for a country. You only need to look next door to Rwanda, DRC’s diminutive neighbour, to see that success is possible.
Over the last decade, however, there has been a concerted effort to establish, improve and grow both the production and export of coffee in the DRC. The Virunga Coffee Company is one such agency that aims to support this aim by bringing investment, technology and its expertise to help thousands of farmers improve the yield and quality of their crops.
Since it’s formation in 2011, the VCC has established 7 central washing stations in North and South Kivu, along with several dry mills as well. Formerly, farmers would usually be hand-pulping their coffee, a high-input, low-output process that also drastically affects the quality of the coffee itself. With centralised stations, individual farms and co-ops are able to pass cut this process out, ensuring a higher quality end product.
What is important throughout this entire process is the emphasis on giving farmers and workers the expertise and tools they need to grow the highest quality coffee they can. A better bean means a better price at auction, which is at the end of the day the most important thing for the thousands of Congolese employed in the coffee industry.
Growing and processing the coffee is, unfortunately, only half of the story when it comes to the DRC. Without access to foreign markets, the work of farmers and families would be in vain. And that’s where, again, outside investment is needed. For a coffee-power like Brazil the time between processing the green beans and getting them to market is usually matter of weeks. For coffee producers in the Congo, it can take up to 4 months. Previously (and in some areas, this is still very much the case), most Congolese coffee would simply be smuggled out of the country via its neighbours - which would mean hefty bribes and diminishing returns for farmers and co-ops.
Now, bribery has been replaced by bureaucracy, which whilst in theory should be better, creates its own issues. Officially, coffee in the Congo has a very low tax but - in practice - these rates prove much higher. Add to this the poor infrastructure of both roads and rivers, and you’ve got yourself a particularly stressful journey.
This is, however, a system that the Virunga Coffee Company help farmers to navigate, making the best of a situation that - whilst needing reform - is not going anywhere any time soon.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance that coffee could have for a country like DRC, but we must recognise that what can hopefully end up providing stable, safe livelihoods for millions of Congolese is still very much in its infancy. It is also important to view this industry in the context of the Congo itself, exploited & terrorised by outside powers for much of its history.
For this reason, many feel that Congo’s recovery must come from the country itself, rather than being propped up by outside powers and pressures. It is a difficult tightrope to walk, but one that we feel is important to support, and one that the Virunga Coffee Company understands well. So please enjoy this beautiful, unique Virunga Reserve whilst you can - just be sure to spend a bit of time thinking about the journey its been on to get there.