In September 2018, the newly expanded Ensemble UK team visited South Kivu. What follows is a diary of the visit written by one of our newest recruits, Martyna.
A buzzing Sunday
Our journey started in Kigali, the Capital of Rwanda, which is where we landed early on Sunday morning, grabbed a quick coffee and embarked on a six-hour drive to the border crossing.
In England, the sparse news coverage about the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) had been dominated by the Ebola outbreak in North Kivu, so it was no surprise when we arrived at the border and were asked to wash our hands in chlorinated water and had our temperature checked by a small gadget placed near the temple. After a six-hour drive on smooth tarmac roads through Rwanda, the assault course of potholes we encountered on crossing into DRC was an immediate reminder of the challenges facing the Congolese.
Our first three nights would be spent in Bukavu and we passed our first afternoon in the Congo orientating ourselves around the city centre.
Travelling non-stop and suddenly being in a very new environment, made walking around Bukavu feel surreal. I was aware as a group we stood out and were viewed with curiosity, but we didn’t feel uncomfortable. There is a real buzz about the place. As it was a Sunday, people were dressed up, coming from and going to church. We walked around the Cathedral, Our Lady of Peace, which was brimming with people. We finished our walk around Bukavu with a drink of the local beer, Primus.
An entrepreneurial Monday
We had an Ensemble team meeting in the morning. It was great to finally meet everyone face-to-face. We were sitting on a balcony overlooking Lake Kivu. The time together was invaluable and well spent.
After the morning meeting, we met Innocent Misabiro at the Internet café he runs with help from Ensemble, Café Liaison Congo 1. We spoke about the history of Liaison Congo, how well it had been going and how the fluctuating currency, as well as the rise of smartphones and the departure of NGOs from Bukavu, has impacted it recently. The staff from NGOs would often come to Liaison Congo to continue working after office hours thanks to the strong and dependable Internet connection. When things were very good, a second café was opened, but the situation being as it is, this second café was recently closed.
However, the Internet café is far from redundant here, but the way it is being used has changed. We learned the café was recently used as an e-test centre by a returning NGO for a number of potential employee candidates. I enjoyed listening to Innocent’s entrepreneurial analysis of the organisation adapting to the evolving demands of its consumers.
An energising Tuesday
Today we met Domitile at the hydroelectric plant, SOCODI, she leads this fascinating project on behalf of a cooperative. Domitile explained how the hydroelectric plant works: a basin collects water from a stream, this water is then released through a turbine which activates a generator to produce electricity. The generator is connected to a transformer which transfers the energy to another transformer in the village. The transformer in the village decreases the voltage so it can be used by the village.
While the plan is to power two thousand homes, a trial is running with 50 homes. It is such a fascinating project — low cost and replicable in other locations where there are streams. The benefits are obvious, but they extend further than the benefits of providing electricity to homes, for example, a midwife from a neighbouring village approached Domitile to ask for their centre to be connected as there are many premature babies that need incubators — which need electricity.
In the afternoon, we visited Kivu Leather, a maker of high-quality sandals and shoes. It’s a difficult business when shoes are imported from China or elsewhere so cheaply, but Olivier is determined. The sandals and shoes are made from recycled materials. For example, a deep blue suede men’s boots were made from a handbag, some soles are made from recycled conveyor belts. Kivu Leather does not yet have a front-facing consumer shop, it’s going to be interesting to see what they do next.
A busy Wednesday
We visited Shalom and chose some colourful fabrics for the UK office. Narcisse welcomed us to stay a while. We watched people farm cassava.
Following Shalom, we visited Mudaka Fish Farm where they farm Tilapia. Like many of our partner projects, I can see how far ingenuity and the necessary resources can take you. We walked around the fish ponds and watched the fish respond to banging on food containers signalling feeding time. The setting is beautiful, surrounded by lush greenery.
We then went back to Patrick’s farm, Patrick is an Ensemble co-founder, and ate delicious fruit and saw Pineapples growing (a first for me!)
We then returned to Bukavu and had a late lunch in preparation for our six-hour boat journey to Idjwi Island. Before getting on the boat we encountered border control and an Ebola check. We were fortunate enough to travel in first class, which meant a lounge with small leather sofas to lie down on, but we also rented a room in case we wanted to go to sleep. The boat travelled at an incredibly slow pace but it gave us a chance to unwind. I saw more stars in the sky than I had seen for a very long time, standing on the deck, approaching Idjwi. From the port of Idjwi, it was a five-minute walk to our hotel, Hopeland.
Island life Thursday
The plan for the day was to visit CPNCK, the coffee cooperative and then to travel up to the Pamoja Wi-Fi mast. To do so, we travelled on the back of mopeds. The road was bumpy and we travelled up and down hills. It was quite an experience doing all this on the back of a moped but the moped drivers knew what they were doing which meant eventually (when I stopped clinging on for dear life) I was able to enjoy it.
At the coffee cooperative, they use a machine which cleans and sorts out the quality of beans. They then employ local people, mostly made up of women, to check the beans and remove lower quality ones that have been damaged by insects etc. The lower quality beans are still sold but for less money. CPNCK cooperative is doing well, the quality of the beans they are producing is high. The problem is they do not have the capital before each harvest to carry out the necessary work in order to fill the containers. They have a number of partners, including us. These partners have either provided loan funding like Ensemble or donations in the form of equipment. They are transparent regarding the help they are getting and I think this is helping them succeed.
Our second destination, Pamoja, is a community-owned Wi-Fi network. We passed the — huge and heavily fenced — masts of Vodacom and Orange. They provide 2G and 3G connection via a mobile phone but their coverage is limited. When you compare Pamoja to these masts there is such a difference, our mast looks like a baby compared to its parents further down the hill. But this doesn’t matter as it works! It has connected people who did not have the means to be connected before, a real game changer.
Friday business lessons
Today we were travelling back to Rwanda via Goma. The boat to Goma was only two hours. We arrived in Goma and took a taxi to visit Altech, a distributor of solar lamps and clean cookstoves. It was great to hear about the successes they have had and how they have organised themselves in such a way that they can supply solar lamps to people in the East, West and South of DRC. To do this they use ambassadors who go to the different villages to sell and distribute the solar lamps. The scale of the operation amazes me, Congo is the eleventh biggest country in the world, it is slightly greater than the combined areas Spain, France, Germany, Sweden, and Norway!
Overall, after visiting all these amazing businesses, two common themes stood out to me. The first, knowing your market and customers and the second, collaborating with those who share a similar vision. Both appear to be key to success. These two themes were perfectly encapsulated in our meeting with Altech. The founders of Altech, Washikala and Iongwa, are in-tune with the needs of their customers as they were both raised in households without electricity and with cookstoves that produced a lot of acrid smoke. They are also very open about their partnerships with different organisations that share their same vision.
A successful business requires ingenuity, resilience and creativity. I saw all these inspiring traits in each and every enterprise we visited during the week. What made this even more impressive is a number of these businesses have achieved success in a country where there are such financial and institutional barriers. I can’t wait to see how these enterprises develop and prosper in the coming years.