GOMA, DRC— A cooperative in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sopacdi's, is helping to relaunch a traditional export and, at the same time, encourage the region's ex-combatants make a better — and less violent — living from coffee.
It’s a bumpy three-hour ride from Sopacdi’s headquarters in the town of Minova to the National Coffee Office in Goma, capital of North Kivu province. Getting certification for Congolese coffee was not an entirely smooth journey either, says Sopacdi’s president Joachim Munganga, as he travels back to Minova.
It took two years to get the fair trade certificate, he says, owing to the standards required for the organization of the cooperative, concerning respect for the environment and workers’ contracts.
The co-op started in 2003, but its breakthrough to the luxury coffee market came when it was introduced in 2008 to a British non-governmental organization, TWIN, which helps to pair producers in developing countries with supermarket chains in the West.
It was Britain's Sainsburys markets, working with TWIN and the British development agency, which first marketed Sopacdi under the fair trade label last year. This year the co-op won an organic certificate and it now has seven buyers in Europe, the United States and Japan.
Minova is a fast-growing town on the shores of Lake Kivu - many people trying to escape conflict have migrated here. Sopacdi’s office looks busy and organized, with files listing each coffee growers production and each workers' hours at the washing station where the coffee berries are processed.
Munganga says Sopacdi was created in response to pressing needs.
A few years ago, most of the coffee from the area was taken across Lake Kivu at night to Rwanda, and the sudden storms that blow up on the lake had drowned many desperate smugglers, along with their cargo. Coffee growers needed better access to markets.
The members were also looking for ways to reconcile communities divided by conflict.
The founders of Sopacdi, Munganga says, were trying to think what they could contribute to resolving the ethnic conflicts in the area, and they thought perhaps they should bring producers together and persuade them to organize themselves into a co-op. Members of rival communities now work together at the co-op’s different branches, electing their leaders and promoting group interests.
Congo’s high taxes on coffee exports are still an incentive for smuggling, however.
In Congo, the export tax is about 12 percent, says Munganga, while in Rwanda it is one percent and in Uganda it’s zero percent for coffee.
This is a lawless area. As VOA discovered later, a group of young men and boys was doing a victory run around the town to celebrate the fact they had just killed a bandit, who was also a soldier. They had left his body outside a military camp.
Sopacdi’s guided tour continued with a visit to a meeting of co-op representatives. The 3,600 members, who all work for themselves, are divided into groups of about fifty farmers, who elect their leaders, who in turn elect so-called sector representatives who elect the president.
John Buchugwazi, a sector chairman, said in an interivew with VOA that his hectare of coffee trees brought in about $400 last season. There are two coffee seasons in the year.
Coffee is more profitable than other crops, he says, especially as Sopacdi has shown its members how to get better yields and quality.
The cooperative offers the farmers a price about 25 percent higher than they could otherwise hope for, and the buyers are paying double the export price. Profits are plowed back into development and employing the many staff, including two agronomists, 12 monitors and about 170 other workers. Several of the monitors are women as are nearly a thousand of the co-op members.
A key factor in the co-op’s success at obtaining certification is its washing station, where a machine depulps the coffee berries — in other words removes the outer flesh.
Doing this process by hand takes ages and can mean loss of freshness, whereas the co-op’s trucks take the beans to the station for depulping, fermenting, washing and drying within hours of them being picked.
Many ex-combatants work at the washing station, which employs 161 people. Former rebel Habamungu Engavashapa says he is happy with civilian life. Now he spends his nights in a house whereas before he was spending them in the forest.
Ex-soldier Abdul Mahagi is also pleased with his new job.
He said he suffered when he was in the army but now he’s beginning to feel more at ease. Since working with Sopacdi he’s been trained as a machinist, he has a contract and is earning money and beginning to see how to organize his life.
The final test of the cooperative’s work is a quick cup of coffee.
There are more remote areas of the DRC, where armed groups are even more of a problem, which in theory could also produce coffee for the international market.
The key to qualifying for the gourmet grades of coffee seems to be having access to machinery which can process the coffee berries quickly. But even without that machinery, hand processed coffee beans have a ready market and once dried can be stored for long periods while the producers wait for collection.
So far, all of this has meant jobs and money for remote areas of Congo.