South Kivu, DRC
There is incredible potential for growth in a rejuvenated DRC coffee sector. With 75-80 million hectares of arable land, the country was once known as the breadbasket of Africa. Stretching from the high hills of Province Orientale, through the rainforests of Virunga National Park, and down to the smoky volcanic soil on the shores of Lake Kivu, Eastern DRC has been called “a paradise for coffee”.
However, the country’s coffee production potential has for decimated by conflict, corruption and lack of private sector investment. DRC’s official coffee production shrank from an average of 80 metric tons in the late 1980s, when the sector contributed about $164 million to GDP, to merely 20,000 metric tons in 2014, (according to the ONC- DRC’s national coffee bureau). At that time the industry is estimated to have provided farm and factory employment to over 800,000 households.
While Congolese coffee production is estimated to have remained fairly constant over the years at around 100,000 metric tons, for decades an estimated 50-80% of coffee was smuggled across the border to Uganda and Rwanda due to the lack of a viable market in DRC. In addition to the lost tax revenue from illegal exports, farmers received only a fraction of the the worth of their coffee and thousands of farmers are estimated to have died making the unsafe journey across Lake Kivu to sell their coffee in Rwanda.
Due to the political and economic unrest, investment in the coffee sector by private companies during the past 20 years has been almost non-existent. Private sector actors, such as Coffeelac, who do enter the market, face major barriers in corruption and inefficiencies within the system. Despite reforms in tax laws, hidden costs, “taxes” and exorbitant transportation costs often render coffee uncompetitive in the international market. The illegal exportation further exacerbates the lack of private sector interest as the illegal middleman are able to offer 10-15% higher prices to farmers due to lower production costs, further distorting the market.
Small scale farmers are the main source of coffee production in DRC. While the re-emergence of international exporters has improved market access for DRC’s farmers, they still face other challenges.
DRC’s coffee producers are some of the world’s poorest- most of whom live on less than $1/day. Lack of opportunities for education, access to finance, and equality for women hinder progress towards prosperity in the coffee industry and throughout society.
Beyond the political and social limitations, farmers face production challenges because of the poor levels of de-hulling and processing practices. The lack of processing equipment, washing stations, and knowledge of best processing options and agricultural practices further limits producers’ abilities to produce a high quality coffee. Additionally, there has been little price incentive to produce specialty grade coffee, as most legal and illegal coffee exporters provide the same price for coffee regardless of quality.