Grauer’s gorilla in the wild, left, and Lake Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The story of a war-torn region redeemed by the bean
By Megan Smithyman
The Democratic Republic of the Congo, situated in the heart of central Africa, is considered to be the most bio-diverse country on the entire continent. Iconic African wildlife such as jungle elephants and white rhino roam throughout the country’s four national parks. It is one of the few places on Earth that great ape species, such as gorilla, chimpanzee, and bonobo, call home. Its lush forests and equatorial climate mean that the DRC is also an excellent region for growing some of the best sweet bourbon coffee varietals in the world.
But despite the country’s wealth of natural resources, decades of war, genocide, and political unrest has condemned many of the country’s 68 million civilians to lives of poverty, disease, and violence.
The lack of businesses and income generating activity pushed DRC into deeper turmoil and left the once productive coffee sector neglected or abandoned. Most of the coffee farmers could no longer bring their harvest to market and fled the region, while others resorted to smuggling their beans into Rwanda to barter for food and supplies. Smuggling coffee is very dangerous and many people have lost their lives in the attempt.
Due to these circumstances, the little amount of coffee still produced in DRC was coming from small farms with old or rudimentary equipment and no access to international markets. All of that changed when Joachim Munganga founded the SOPACDI co-operative.
SOPACDI (Solidarité Paysanne pour la Promotion des Actions Café et Développement Intégral) was founded in 2002 to tap into the international specialty coffee market. The co-op is located on the shores of Lake Kivu, which straddles the border between DRC on the west bank and Rwanda to the east. Munganga started with his own farm and worked to rehabilitate an old, run-down estate with a central washing station for the co-op to process coffee. It wasn’t until 2008 when SOPACDI partnered with the UK’s Twin Trading Company, that the doors to the international coffee market were opened. Together, they designed and obtained funding for a program to assist in mastering the business skills required for international trade and to begin rehabilitating the farms and improving the infrastructure. They began by constructing the first new central coffee washing station to be built in the country in over forty years.
Since then, SOPACDI has grown to include more than 5,200 farmers, 20% of whom are women. In a region infamous for rampant sexual violence, SOPACDI has been a leader in promoting gender equality and supporting the widows of those farmers who died trying to smuggle their beans into Rwanda. In addition to the revitalizing their lost coffee economy, SOPACDI has earned the distinction of being the first Fairtrade Certified co-op in DRC and was also named 2014’s Sustainability Award recipient from the Specialty Coffee Association of America (now SCA). They even hosted DRC’s first internationally recognized coffee cupping competition, Saveur du Kivu, in 2015.
Economic stability saves lives, and not just human ones. Poor economic conditions result in the rise of eating and selling bushmeat, further endangering the sensitive wildlife of DRC. As the animals are hunted, their numbers drop and they retreat deeper into the dense jungle. As logging companies and farmers clear away the forests at an alarming rate, they provide poachers an even greater access to hunt. That is, of course, unless the forest and the animals who live there can become a better economic resource to the people of DRC as a sustainable living ecosystem. Such is the hope of shade grown coffee.
Coffee trees love the shade and they naturally thrive under a jungle canopy. Many coffee farmers additionally supplement their resources by growing shade loving food crops, such as banana and avocado, alongside their coffee trees, all within the natural infrastructure of the forest. By weaving the livelihood of the farmers into the success of a thriving jungle ecosystem, they are simultaneously supporting sustainable commercial goods and conservation.
Grauer’s gorillas are the world’s largest apes and they are found only in the Congo. During the last two decades, their population has plummeted by an estimated 80%, which is why the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund has set up a program to help save them. The program is based on their success working with mountain gorilla populations in Rwanda. These efforts include daily protection and monitoring, tracking the gorilla groups, scientific research, data collection, local education programs, and community engagement.
By employing the local Congolese people to protect the gorillas, the Gorilla Fund helps foster a love for these creatures within the community while also creating an economic benefit. They now operate a permanent research and conservation field station in the core of Grauer’s gorilla range, working closely with traditional landowners and other local partners to help ensure the future of the species and countless others at risk in DRC.
California-based Thanksgiving Coffee supports the economic renewal of DRC by partnering with SOPACDI to bring import Grauer’s Gorilla Congo Coffee. Not only does the purchase of this coffee promote the livelihoods of the SOPACDI farmers, but 25% of all online sales benefit the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and their continuing efforts to conserve and study the great apes of DRC.
Coffee changes the world, but it is quite possible that there is nowhere on Earth more profoundly impacted by the humble coffee bean than the Democratic Republic of the Congo is right now.
Everyone can take part in helping stabilize this unique ecological treasure for future generations to enjoy by simply enjoying a good cup of coffee. Not just a cup, but a just cup.