If you were to ask most Britons of a certain age what they drink in the Congo, then you’re likely to get an answer that has very little to do with coffee. But despite not enjoying the same lofty reputation as its near-neighbours, the Congolese coffee industry is now showing signs of recovery after decades of destabilising violence.
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What happened to Congolese coffee?
There was a time at which coffee in the Congo was booming – a shining example to the rest of the continent. In 1948 it became the first country to analyse and grade coffees. The country is rich in minerals, and home to several Great Lakes, which provide a superabundance of plant and animal life.
Coffee production in the DRC in recent years has been turbulent, with farmers having to risk their lives smuggling themselves and their product across Lake Kivu into neighbouring Rwanda (whose coffee industry now eclipses that of the DRC).
Scars still remain from the civil wars the country endured in the nineties, with production in 2010 being around a tenth of the harvest twenty years earlier. The genocide in Rwanda in the mid-nineties prompted an influx of refugees to pour into the Congo, placing a massive strain on the nation’s infrastructure. Among the many consequences of this was a downfall of the coffee industry.
What’s next for the RDC?
By the time the country had settled into a period of relative stability in the early 2000s, it had lost a lot of ground to the rest of the global coffee industry. New technologies and techniques had to be adopted if the DRC was to recover its former glory – and that meant considerable investment to build the necessary washing stations, and train the staff to use them. It’s only in the last decade that these efforts have paid off, with new washing stations being built and old ones refurbished.
Around four-fifths of Congolese coffee is constituted by hardy Robusta with the remainder being made up by the more delicate Arabica. The former is grown mainly in the country’s north-east, as it’s able to cope with the lower altitudes there; the latter is grown in the highlands of Kivu and Ituri.
Much like in Rwanda, coffee in the DRC has proven an unlikely source of salvation, providing workers with a source of income, and all of the dignity and purpose that comes with it. Leaving the obvious ethical merits to one side, it’s better from a consumer’s point of view if farmers are safe, happy and financially secure enough to focus their daily efforts on creating the best possible product.
Done right, Congolese coffee exhibits all of the same great sharp sweetness and clarity as those produced in Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda. With the right investment in infrastructure, and the formation of reliable co-operatives, we’ll be able to enjoy quality coffee from this part of the world in the future – and we’ll be bringing the best examples we can source to the Coffee Tasting Club.