A farmer’s cooperative on the Congolese island of Idjwi is sowing the seeds for what could be its own sustainable — and profitable — coffee industry.

Fair exchange, as they say, is no robbery. Easier said than done in areas like Lake Kivu in Eastern Congo, where import and export-based businesses have been decimated by two civil wars. Before the start of the troubles, in the early 1990s, the Kivu region exported 120,000 tonnes of coffee per year, generating 75% of the country’s agricultural export revenue.

Since the second war officially ended in 2003, the industry and its recovery have been stymied by political turmoil, chronic recession and loss of local expertise, after many farmers fled for the city when their fields became the battle-grounds between Rwandan militia groups and government armed forces during their neighbouring civil conflict. Despite the beginnings of western interest in drinking — and funding — Congolese coffee, exports in 2016 were less than 10% of pre-war levels.

Idjwi is a large lake island on Lake Kivu, home to around a quarter of a million people — equidistant between the Congo and Rwanda. It’s relatively un-war-torn, being so remote, but woefully underserved for amenities. According to research conducted by the Harvard Medical School in 2015, only 5.7% of individuals on the island are over the age of 40, suggesting a short life expectancy. Despite their own hardships, Idjwi has a reputation as a safe haven for refugees from the surrounding areas. The island’s coffee farmers, with no legitimate trading opportunities, were until recently smuggling their crop into Rwanda, risking death-by-drowning in the sudden storms that are a common occurrence on Lake Kivu, especially in the rainy season. Hundreds of lives have been lost this way. If the farmers land safely, there’s the real possibility of attack from thieves — and to top it off, no chance of getting anything close to a fair price for their coffee on the mainland. Watch Mama Jeanette tell her story to bring this to life.

Something had to change. In 2013, the coffee growers on Idjwi set up the Kivu Cooperative of Coffee Planters and Traders (CPNCK) to sell their coffee to international buyers instead of smuggling it into Rwanda. Ensemble Pour la Différence provided the finance to export the co-op’s first container of coffee. Each year CPNCK has increased exports and now generates income for 2,100 farmers.

Coffee is the main agricultural crop on Idjwi and CPNCK the means by which real improvements in the lives of thousands of farmers, their families and the wider community can be secured.

Research conducted recently by Ensemble on Idjwi demonstrates the cooperative’s importance to Idjwi’s coffee growers. By organising exports to international buyers they have negated the need for 98% of the growers who work with CPNCK to risk their lives selling to Rwandan buyers. Instead, the growers now earn over twice as much for every kilo of coffee sold to CPNCK as they once did in Rwanda.

The farmers are using this money to send their children to school, pay for medical care and improve their homes, but there’s still a long way to go before the industry can truly sustain the region.

Ensemble’s research also found that the majority of farmers have to supplement their income with other jobs — many work in the fields or repair buildings. A large proportion of the money earned by the farmers is spent on educating their children — between 40–80% of earnings. Training is needed — and would be welcomed by locals — to maximise yield and crop quality. Crucially, there needs to be a way for CPNCK to increase the volume of coffee it buys from local farmers and exports to international buyers.

The demand is there. International buyers are now flocking to Kivu in search of quality coffee. CPNCK’s cupping scores (a score from 1 to 100) are between 86 and 87 (over 85 is classed as speciality coffee) and there is no shortage of interest amongst big coffee buyers, including Starbucks and Blanchard’s.

Clearly, CPNCK needs to invest in their business to expand. The co-operative can supply 25–30 containers per year, but this potential is stifled by a lack of finance that currently limits exports to just 4 containers per year. Ensemble is working with the co-op to raise the funds, along with advising on bringing in new international buyers, with the long-term aim of doubling membership and increasing their coffee exports to 15 containers per year. This would have a huge impact on the quality of life of the farmers and benefit the Islanders. Fairtrade, indeed.

For more information about CPNCK or Ensemble Pour La Différence contact Vicky Nida (vicky@ensemblepourladifference.org) or Mike Beeston (mike@ensemblepourladifference.org)

Ensemble Pour La Difference

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A social business incubator that empowers entrepreneurs in Eastern Congo to drive positive social and economic change

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