For a long time, coffee from Mount Ruwenzori, as well as from several other regions of North Kivu province in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, was smuggled across the border to be sold in Uganda. Not being well paid, some coffee farmers ended up uprooting the coffee plants. Those who had kept the coffee trees did not take care of them. Quality being the least of their worries, it was the image of Congolese coffee that was eroded on the international market. Since 2014, a new wind is blowing in the region: the rebirth is carried out by cooperatives, like Kawa Kanzururu.
With the support of InfoNile thanks to funding from IHE-Delft Water and Development Partnership Program, I tell you how this cooperative’s fully-washed processing is restoring the image of Congolese coffee and bringing it into the class of specialty coffees.
By: Merveille Kakule Saliboko
Luseke, community-sector of Ruwenzori, territory of Beni, in the Congolese Nile Basin. At an altitude of almost 1,600 meters, we are at the coffee micro-washing station, a section of the Kawa Kanzururu Cooperative. It is 12:45pm, this Friday, October 8, 2021. Sitting on a bench, a loincloth tied on her head as a scarf to protect herself from the midday sun, a woman attracts my attention. Not because she is wearing boots, but because she is concentrating on sorting the freshly milled coffee. This woman is unique in the cooperative: not only does she have her own coffee field, but also is a machinist. That woman is Rebecca Kambere. “With the income generated over a season, I helped my husband send one of our children to school,” she says.
By the end of 2021, the cooperative was operating a total of 26 micro-stations. Up to 100 coffee farmers can be members of a micro-station, depending on whether their fields are located nearby. It is here that they rigorously process the coffee to give it the color of “lwanzururu”, the local name for the snow on Mount Ruwenzori. Because “Kanzururu”, in the locally spoken Kinande language, refers to “what is good and beautiful, white as the snow” of Ruwenzori.
To the coffee micro-washing station…
“At the field level, we harvest ripe, red cherries [from coffee trees]. Not too ripe,” says Joel Nyondo, in charge of quality at the Ibatama micro-station. Before being joined by the manager of this micro-station, Adelard Thembo: “When receiving the cherries at the micro-station, the coffee grower must have his individual delivery form. Here, we do the manual sorting to see if the member has sorted his coffee well. Then, we do the densimetric sorting by floating the cherries. Those that are lighter and float, we return them to the producer.” Then comes the pulping.
And that’s where the machinists, like Rebecca, come in. Pulping is done by putting water in the machine, to remove the pulp from the cherry. When the coffee is pulped, it is fermented with water and washed to remove the mucilage, a sweet envelope. For honey beans, the cherries are picked and sorted, they are wet processed but dried naturally: no fermentation step of the beans in water. Thus, the mucilage becomes one with the grain. This is the difference between fully washed and honey beans: for honey beans, the pulped coffee is dried with the mucilage to give it a sweet flavor.
After pulping, another sorting is done. “To put aside the pulp,” says the quality officer at the Rugetsi micro-station, Kasereka Vagheni Baraka.
After fermentation, we wash the coffee to eliminate any possible floating matter, then sort it. Then we place the coffee under shade for pre-drying for 4 to 7 days. Every 30 minutes we stir. After that, the coffee is ready for sun drying.
The manager of Ibatama added: “During the pre-drying, I also sort out some sizes”. The person in charge of quality in this section continues: “On average, the drying process lasts 2 weeks. Under direct sunlight, we do the drying from 8 to 10 am in the morning. Then we put the coffee under shade from 10 am to 4pm. After 4 p.m., the coffee is dried in direct sunlight.” In Mathungu, drying takes a little longer. “At home, because I don’t have enough sunlight, the drying takes 3 weeks,” says Bahundiro. “Toward the end of the second week, we start using the hygrometer to measure the moisture level. Once dry, at 11, 12 or 13%, I store and prepare the evacuation of coffee to the central office of the cooperative,” says the manager of the Ibatama section.
Upon arrival at the cooperative’s office in Lume, the coffee is in the care of Eric Kavutwiraki, head of the warehouse adjacent to the office. He and his team check certain measurements, such as humidity. “If it’s not yet 12%, I dry it again until it reaches the required level,” he says. As soon as it is dry, the coffee goes to the factory to get the green coffee out, ready for export.
…for centralized processing
The social impact of the cooperative is that coffee farmers spend less time processing coffee: because the processing is not done at the coffee farmer’s home but at the micro-station.
Rebecca Kambere is the only female machinist in the cooperative. When asked if she has ever trained other women, she says, “No, unfortunately. I have the impression that girls and women are not interested at all.” And young men? “Those are even worse. At least still the women, it happens that we spend days here washing and sorting coffee but not learning how to use the machine. And I stay here until the evening,” she confides.
Washing the coffee, processing it in the machine but also sorting it: She has been doing this since 2014, the year the cooperative was created. Per season, “we often reach 8 tons,” she says. Rebecca is modest with the numbers. The annual statistics (there are two seasons: the short season runs from February to May and the long season runs from August to November), show that Luseke’s coffee micro-washing station produces much more. Luseke reached 42 tons of cherry coffee in 2020.
Produce in quality, before thinking quantity
54 years old, mother of six children, Kambere handles the machine, to pulp the coffee. With all its difficulties. “Well, when the motor breaks down, I have to do it manually. With a hand-cranked machine. You have to transport the water that will be used in the wet processing of the coffee. Even sorting the coffee is a pain,” she says. This is the price to pay to have a superior quality coffee, appreciated on the international market.
The coffee of the members of the cooperative is picked when it is ripe, when it is red. It is brought to the micro-washing station to be treated the same day. By wet process. The micro-station is a unit of 20 to 100 coffee farmers. This was the gamble taken by Rikolto to raise the level of coffee quality in the region when this Belgian NGO implemented a coffee program in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, with support from the Common Fund for Commodities, CFC. The program included two other cooperatives: the Kawa Kabuya Cooperative (Lubero-Beni territories) and the Société Coopérative des Planteurs Novateurs du Kivu (located on the island of Idjwi, in South Kivu province).
Starting with quality was contrary to the principles put forward in the DRC’s coffee sector rehabilitation programs, implemented by NGOs.
The few projects that tried to focus on the issue of quality also had obvious problems in their design: one such project, for example, proposed to build two large coffee washing stations in North and South Kivu. Two provinces where Arabica coffee is produced in abundance, but where feeder roads are either covered with long foliage or muddy if they do not exist at all. This poses enormous logistical problems. The relief of the region pleads for micro-stations rather than large ones. Moreover, micro-stations are the model most used today by cooperatives and private companies.
Another CFC-funded project, executed by COOPAC holding in Rwanda and Congo, since May 2017 relies, for example, on the construction of 5 washing stations, in contrast to the decentralized micro-station model implemented in the CFC-funded project executed by Rikolto that ended in 2017.
Rikolto’s CFC-funded program ended in December 2017. And this NGO says it won its bet. In April 2018, the organization noted in its end-of-project report to the CFC that “the prices at which the cooperatives sold Kivu 3 specialty coffee varied between $2,700 and $8,000 per ton with an average price of $4,500 per ton. Currently a consensus is emerging between buyers and cooperatives for a floor price of $4,409 per ton.”
From 2014 to 2017, according to the Rikolto report, ordinary Congolese coffee was hit with a negative differential of between $8,465 and $14,814 per container compared to the price set on the New York Stock Exchange. On the other hand, the coffee from the cooperatives accompanied by Rikolto received a positive differential of at least $21,164 per container sold. Between the two types of coffee, a difference of $29,629 to $35,979. In 2018, a trader in Butembo reported losses from a depreciated international container. He was asked to take back his coffee because it could not be purchased. Quality, a limiting factor.
“Yield quality high when wet processed”
Patrick Bakwanamaha, an agrochemical engineer, heads the coffee and cocoa laboratory at the agribusiness unit of the Christian Bilingual University of Congo, UCBC, in Beni town. Among the coffees he has already tested in the lab is one produced by Kawa Kanzururu. “This one [Kawa Kanzururu’s coffee], I found it better,” he says quickly.
For him, the quality of coffee starts in the field, but in the case of Ruwenzori’s coffee, one aspect must not be forgotten: the processing method, which changes the situation. “Arabica, its yield [quality] seems high when it is processed in this way. Some friends have tried dry processing, but it didn’t give a good yield. When the coffee is processed wet, it is drained, so it is not exposed to other substances that can attack it. Even if there is no sun, the little heat it receives is enough to dry it quickly. Since we got rid of some envelopes that do not disturb it”.
River water, developed springs… There is a bit of everything in the micro-stations: for some, the water comes from a developed spring less than ten meters away; for others it is necessary to go to the river more than half a kilometer away on steep slopes to wash the coffee before returning to dry it at the micro-station. Leopold Mumbere coordinates Rikolto’s coffee program in DRCongo. According to him, “to wet process one kilogram of coffee cherry, you need between 3 and 5 liters of water.”
Prior to 2014, most coffee farmers at the foot of Mount Ruwenzori processed coffee dry. Often dried on the ground, this coffee contained many stones and impurities.
In September 2017, the owner of a coffee hulling unit in Beni town showed me a bag full of small stones in a corner of his factory. “Crooked coffee farmers add pebbles to the coffee to make it weigh more in order to earn more,” he confided.
Especially before 2014, coffee was picked and dried in bulk, with ripe and unripe cherries still green. Coffee farmers were strip-picking, as opposed to picking, which is now done through the cooperative. Even today, many coffee growers who are not members of the cooperative continue with this practice. The “pilonné”, the name given locally to this “natural” coffee, had ended up tarnishing the image of Congolese coffee on the international scene. “Imagine, you harvest the green coffees and the red ones, you mix them and you bring them … Actually, someone who is aware with his tongue, he will know that it is a mixture of ripe coffee and unripe coffee. If you harvest unripe coffee, the one who has a well-informed tongue will say that no, this coffee is not ripe,” says Patrick Bakwanamaha.
Scores that open doors
Since 2015, Kawa Kabuya has always occupied first place in the Democratic Republic of Congo chapter of the Taste of Harvest competition organized by the African fine coffees association, AFCA. Except in 2018.
With the score of 85.5 percent, the Kawa Kanzururu Cooperative took first place in this competition, a culmination of the efforts already undertaken by the member coffee farmers of this cooperative, opening doors to the international market a little more.
Among those international buyers is Higher Grounds. In early February 2018, this American company made this announcement on its website when it launched the sale of Kawa Kanzururu roasted coffee: “Today, we are very excited to launch a coffee that is truly the first of its kind. Through our exploration of Congolese coffee and the relationships we’ve developed there over the past few years, we’ve gotten to know the farmers of Kawa Kanzururu, a young cooperative that is offering an innovative economic model to the surrounding communities.”
For, “the DRC’s exceptional coffee is emerging on the world stage. Kawa Kanzururu’s coffee exemplifies the uniqueness of Eastern Congo: heirloom Bourbon varieties grown in rich volcanic soil and nurtured by generations of farmers whose work has gone unrecognized and unrewarded for too long.”
Except that the land of Ruwenzori is not volcanic. Jürg and Barbara Lichteneger, two geographers with a passion for mountains, explored Mount Ruwenzori in January 1977. In “Ruwenzori or the whims of the weather”, an article about their expedition to the moon mountain published in 1978, we read: “Ruwenzori, Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro are the “big three” of Africa and are often mentioned together. However, Ruwenzori differs from the other two in several respects. One of them is geology. While Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya are mighty volcanoes, Ruwenzori consists mainly of primitive rocks. These are pressure-raised rock masses, a geological horst, at the eastern edge of the Central African Gap. Their formation is attributed to Post-Miocene thrusts. Flattened shoulders, corresponding to phases of tectonic rest, demonstrate it perfectly.”
“The altitude, the latitude and the composition of the soil give a taste of “caramel” and “chocolate” to this specialty coffee”, Rikolto writes in an internal note about the Kawa Kanzururu cooperative to be shared with potential buyers of the cooperative’s coffee. With “caramel” and “chocolate” being two adjectives given by Taste of Harvest tasters, the profile drawn up by Rikolto in a note to one of its financial partners, the EFICO Foundation, states that Kawa Kanzururu’s coffee is planted on “lime-clay soils”.
And the coronavirus in all this?
The DRC reported its first case of covid-19 on March 10, 2020. In the aftermath, measures were put in motion by the Congolese Government. With government offices closed and in full lockdown, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought its share of difficulties such as labor management.
“To gather a batch of coffee, you need a lot of manpower. But with the corona and the social distancing measures, we had to do with few people. This had two consequences. The first was that it took much longer than expected to assemble the batch and ship the coffee. If the preparation of the container could take 15 days, because of the corona it took at least 25 days. The second consequence is that as the days of work accumulate, it becomes more difficult to meet the budgetary limits for coffee packaging expenses,” Roger Kasereka Tata Wa Makolo, the cooperative’s managing director, says in an interview published on the Rikolto website.
But so far, no one working for the cooperative or a member has caught the virus. “Thanks to the barrier measures put in place,” says Roger. Indeed, hand-washing kits have been installed in the cooperative’s office and in each coffee micro-washing station.
Certification, for “a better tomorrow“
“The Kawa Kanzururu cooperative has signed long-term partnership contracts with Malongo and Volcafé. As part of the “memorandum of commitment” with Volcafé, Kawa Kanzururu sold two containers at $3.09/kg. The memorandum was signed between Volcafé, Coopade, Kawa Kanzururu, Virunga Foundation and Farm Africa,” reads the 2019 annual report of Rikolto in DRCongo. The report states that ”the Kawa Kanzururu cooperative will be able to claim more income under the said agreement as soon as it is certified as a fair trade cooperative.”
“A price of $3.09/kg is far too low for this coffee and will give less income to the cooperative,” comments Puissance Mwandu, an agro-economist and teacher in the agribusiness department at UCBC.
No wonder that with this price, the cooperative decided not to work with Volcafé anymore. The long-term partnership continues with Malongo, a company for which “the strengthening of the social organization and the assurance of outlets at a guaranteed minimum price allow small producers to earn a dignified living”.
According to a January 2021 internal memo from the Kawa Kanzururu cooperative, the partnership with Farm Africa and Virunga Foundation (which manages Virunga National Park on behalf of the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation, ICCN) is part of a larger European Union-funded agricultural development project covering several areas of North Kivu and several value chains.
“This project will focus on the coffee value chain and will be structured around 4 themes: agriculture, processing, financial management and marketing. Thanks to this partnership, the cooperative is now certified: Organic, Fair For Life, and Fair Trade”, reads the note signed by the director.
“The organic and fair for life certificates were co-financed with PASA-NK through Rikolto,” says the Belgian NGO. PASA-NK is the “Projet d’appui au secteur agricole dans la province du Nord-Kivu”. It is a project funded by IFAD. Rikolto is the lead organization in the Arabica coffee sector of this Congolese government program.
Kawa Kanzururu obtained the organic certification in 2020. This certificate, whose standards must be maintained annually, has a validity period that runs until March 31, 2022. The organic certification has been renewed for one year, to end on March 31, 2023. In addition to this, the cooperative obtained, also in 2020, the Fair for Life certification (valid until April 30, 2024), a kind of antechamber for the Fair Trade certificate. The Fair Trade Certification came in 2021 (valid until February 11, 2025).
The counterpart for the certificate is to support the development of water points and agricultural feeder roads beneficial to the micro-stations and the inhabitants of the area, but also hospitals and scholarships for members. But these benefits are not yet visible on the ground because the first bonuses began to arrive in the second half of 2021. It’s when the members will be at the annual general assembly that they will decide what to do with the money coming from the certification.
“I feel like it’s now that the cooperative has just started working.” These are the words of Prince Maliva, agronomist supervisor and certification manager at Kawa Kanzururu Cooperative, after an interview at the Mathungu coffee micro-washing station. Prince was referring to the certificate premiums that the cooperative is starting to collect. With certification, “it’s a guarantee that we have a market for our coffee,” according to Prince Maliva. This is good news, as the cooperative’s membership continues to grow, from 523 members in 2014 to over 2121 affiliated coffee farmers in 2021.
Need for diversification
This three-year partnership – which runs until June 30 of this year – is based on fully washed coffee, but not only: “The Kawa Kanzururu Cooperative also produces ‘natural’ coffee from the coffee of its members who are far from the micro-washing stations,” says Adelard Palata, agronomist in charge of the coffee sector at Virunga Foundation.
“It’s K5,” says the director of the cooperative.
“The project started with a single wet coffee process. Three other processes (the ‘natural’, ‘white honey’ and ‘black honey’ processes) were tried in the three cooperatives. The results amazed the buyers to such an extent that during 2017, 600kg of these coffees were exported to Belgium. An intention of a buyer from Taiwan remains for a first contract of 9 tons”, we read again in the CFC end-of-project report of Rikolto.
Except that in the meantime, the diversification of treatment methods has not followed. Better, it is observed a return to square one. On September 6, 2019, Rikolto wrote the following on its website to present its ambitions through PASA-NK, a project that had just started a few months earlier: “Currently, all the micro-washing stations make washed coffee, the famous ‘fully washed’. The cooperatives will be invited to experiment with processing other types of coffee in their micro-washing stations: “natural” coffee and “honey bean” coffee. (…) Diversification of products implies diversification of buyers. Halfway through this project, nothing has moved in terms of coffee diversification.
Remunerative prices for coffee farmers
Members need to feel the growth of the co-op in their pocket. “I already bought a motorcycle; here it is over there. I also bought a plot of land. I also just bought a new field,” says Eliezer Nyanza, a coffee farmer from Rugetsi and former president of the local coffee micro-washing station. Because it is on the financial level that everything is at stake: Well paid to support themselves, coffee farmers will be professional and the sector will be sustainable. But for this to happen, the cooperative must be able to sell more. At good prices.
Kavugho Yambuka, a mother of six, has been a coffee farmer in Rugetsi for 28 years. She owns her own coffee field, “bought with chicken”. Thanks to the coffee, her children are in school. In February 2018, as Higher Grounds prepared to release Ruwenzori coffee to the U.S. market, she sent this message to coffee consumers, “Uh well, drink our coffee. Give us a fair price so we can earn more. So that’s my message: an even higher price.” Why should consumers continue to drink this coffee? Yambuka’s answer: “We will continue to process our coffee according to quality standards…”
In his internal note, the director of the cooperative warns: “For the marketing of these coffees, it is necessary to have potential buyers and then to have access to bank credits.” A serious challenge that Rikolto had proposed to take up within the framework of PASA-NK.
“To market, you need access to credit”
For the credit component, things are not going as planned: a sum of $1.2 million spread over five years had been slipped into the project as marketing support to be used as credit or guarantee funds for four coffee cooperatives, including Kawa Kanzururu. The option was never exercised by the PASA-NK project coordination unit. Already the project has been delayed in getting off the ground, but there is also the administrative burden.
According to a source close to the case, in the annual work plan and budget, PTBA 2022, the project’s coordination unit grants a line of $124,000 to Rikolto. At Rikolto, they prefer to temporize: “Even if it is in the PTBA, not all the conditions are met. Also, the project coordination unit has reduced the number of beneficiary cooperatives from 4 to 2,” reveals a source close to the case. This may create tensions between cooperatives, as Rikolto is considering not giving priority to the Kawa Kanzururu cooperative and COOPADE “since they already have access to a significant line of credit from Root Capital through the partnership that links these two cooperatives to Virunga Foundation/Farm Africa”.
As part of a USAID-funded project, Farm Africa is linking nearly 30 cooperatives in the Great Lakes Region of Africa with Root Capital. Among these cooperatives are COOPADE and the Kawa Kanzururu cooperative, which are supported by Farm Africa/Virunga Foundation as part of the European Union project around Virunga National Park.
To protect itself from the fluctuations of merchant coffee prices, Kawa Kanzururu plans to roast some of its coffee. To sell it in the region, both urban and rural. And the rural market will be the members of the cooperative who will consume the coffee made in DRC. Countries like Ethiopia have managed to protect themselves from the fluctuations of the New York stock market by consuming a good part of their production.
A step in the right direction?
Nicodème Mulumba wa Kasongo, director of the Beni sector at the Office National des Produits Agricoles du Congo, ONAPAC, a public institution having in particular the supervision of the coffee growers and the collection of the related taxes in its attributions, is clear: “We must produce so that we can earn something. And in order to earn this, whether it is very consistent, the product must first have added value. And added value means transforming these products into finished products. And this is how we are going to encourage the population of Beni, Butembo and all its surroundings to start consuming our local coffee production. We have very good quality coffee that is appreciated all over the world”.
Then question: “Concretely, what does ONAPAC, a public institution, do to support the coffee farmers around Mount Ruwenzori?” The answer of our interlocutor is evasive: “We are in the PASA-NK. We accompany Rikolto, so we provide technical assistance. But on the organizational and logistical level, Rikolto is the leader”. So it is on Rikolto’s side that we must look.
We asked Rikolto what is being done to support the local coffee consumption component of the PASA-NK project. We received no response. At the beginning of the project, this organization had made this commitment on its website: “The last component of PASA-NK is the promotion of local coffee consumption. The viability of the sector in the DRC depends on it. Indeed, the coffee sector is solid in coffee-producing countries that consume most of their production themselves. A country whose coffee production is consumed locally is sheltered from the fluctuations of the New York stock exchange. Thus, producers get a better and stable price. In Congo, for the moment, the coffee consumed locally is nothing more than imported coffee in soluble form, the quality of which is not always up to scratch”.
The market for roasted coffee is there
When asked if the Congolese consume coffee and don’t see it only as an export crop, Bakwanamaha of UCBC says, “The crop is there! In every baraza out there, what do they say when you walk in? “Did you bring the kawa for the bazee?” It means there is this culture of drinking coffee. Wherever we sleep in the bereavement there, what do they buy for the people who are going to spend the night around the fire? It’s coffee! We don’t buy tea, we don’t buy cocoa. But it’s coffee that we buy there.”
In June 2018, Leopold Mumbere participated in the coffee-cocoa forum-expo in Kinshasa. The director of ONAPAC then shares the chilling figures. “13,000 tons of coffee powder imported against 12,000 tons of green coffee exported according to the Central Bank of Congo,” reports Leopold.
A market that a growing number of Congolese players want to conquer. Thus, in North Kivu and South Kivu alone, there are now about thirty players who roast coffee. A craze that Léopold Mumbere, himself one of these actors with his company LM Coffee, does not particularly like: “It’s a good thing at the beginning, but practice and experience show that they all end up bankrupt because their competition is blind and counterproductive. This is the case with credit unions, wine houses, etc.”
This is not the first time for Kawa Kanzururu
If today the cooperative wants to roast some of its coffee, it should be noted that this is not a first for Kawa Kanzururu. In June 2018, “Taarifa ya Kawa Kanzururu”, the internal newspaper of the cooperative posted in the coffee micro-washing stations to inform members, published the following: “KAWA KANZURURU IMETENGENEZA KAHAWA YA UNGA. Kwa wote wanamemba wetu na wasiyo kuwa wanamemba wawe tayari kutumia kahawa hiyi bora arabica, kwa bei raisi, kupitia ma duka na MSL zetu hapo karibuni. 50g ni 500FC, na 100g ni 1000FC.”
Translation: “Kawa Kanzururu has just roasted coffee. Our roasted coffee is ready for sale in the stores. To all members and non-members to be ready to buy this good Arabica coffee, at low prices, in the stores and our micro-stations in the near future. 50 grams is 500 Congolese francs, and 100 grams is 1000 Congolese francs”.
So why did the Kawa Kanzururu cooperative experiment come to an end? Lauraine Kipuruka, a graduate in agribusiness from UCBC and a coffee connoisseur in Beni territory, suggests an explanation: “I believe that purchasing power had a part to play, but also the competing product “café mon amie” because its price was 300 CFA francs and the population was already used to this price.” To this, we must add, according to Lauraine, the fact that “some farmers do artisanal roasting of their coffee for consumption.”
Seeing Ruwenzori coffee farmers earn more through price stabilization via roasting and selling coffee locally is a wish that more than one person wants to see come true.
He, links the adoption of good agricultural practices to the income generated by coffee at the household level. There is still a long way to go. It is also difficult to know if the cooperative has learned from the 2018 experience, as it did not want to answer our questions on this subject.
Let’s hope that the Ruwenzori coffee farmers will be seduced by the short circuit model to help their cooperative. Let’s hope that this time will be the right one for the cooperative to take off in this part!
This story was supported by InfoNile in partnership with Code for Africa, with funding from IHE-Delft Water and Development Partnership Programme.