Cultivating potential on Lake Kivu

Coffee from the South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has the potential to be good. In fact, if history is any guide, it can be great. “There used to so much money in [coffee from the region] that they were transporting it out of here using airplanes back in the 1950s,” says Dr Timothy Schilling, who is working with World Coffee Research (WCR) to try to revitalise the industry in DRC. The son of one of the world’s richest men, Warren Buffett, and a prolific philanthropist with a strong agricultural background, Howard Buffett saw the potential for the revitalisation of the DRC’s coffee industry on a recent visit to the region. The result is the Kahawa Bora Ya Kivu, or Kivu Specialty Coffee Project. A WCR team visited South Kivu in early 2013 as part of the US$5 million project, which is being funded by the Howard Buffett Foundation in partnership under a Global Development Alliance with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Catholic Relief Services (CRS), and Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI). The project will provide research into the best ways to assist local coffee growers to increase productivity, quality and market access. South Kivu is located in the eastern part of the DRC, Africa’s second-largest nation. The province is located on the western banks of Lake Kivu, which lies along the border of the DRC and neighbouring Rwanda. After almost two decades of internal conflict in the central African nation, however, the Kivu Specialty Coffee project is about much more than just supplying the world with more specialty coffee. For many young men in South Kivu, joining one of the militias that still terrorise the surrounding regions can seem like the only way to make a living. It is hoped that renewed growth in the coffee industry will provide an alternative. According to figures from the DRC’s National Coffee Office, the nation’s coffee production peaked in the late 1980s at around 110,000 tonnes per annum.  However, the industry declined steadily during the latter stages of the Mobutu regime, which was ousted in 1997. Since then it has continued to struggle, with production running at about 50,000 tonnes in 2009. In that time, conflict in the nation had been rife and exports were relatively minute – around 10,000 tonnes per annum. Schilling estimates that, at present, South Kivu is producing just 5000 tonnes per year. Willy Mulimbi, who is the CRS project leader, says there are still many challenges facing the region. What coffee exists is poorly maintained and grows haphazardly, he says. Most plots are not well tended and the coffee plants are dispersed irregularly among other crops. Often the plants are 40 years old or more and the roots have been damaged due to plowing close to the tree base in order to plant other crops. Add to this the fact that some plants are of varieties that are not resistant to rust and seed production is in a parlous state, it is hard not to despair. The people also face massive social and economic challenges, Mulimbi says. “Most of these people lost their resources and family members during the period of insecurity,” he says. “Few livestock being raised, plant disease, low income and weak seed system security are some key points that come to increase their food insecurity.” It is not just coffee production in the region that is challenged, Mulimbi says. Another of the key crops, banana, is being destroyed by the banana xanthomonas wilt disease.
“Banana is known as the bank of all the farmers,” Mulimbi tells Global Coffee Review. “As it produces all year round, every time you need cash or food you just get in your banana plantation and cut some bananas that you take to market. “A coffee farmer told me that he has been told by his parents: ‘Plant coffee and banana because these two crops will maintain you during your oldness.’ The same man asked me: ‘Right now coffee is abandoned and banana is disappearing. What are we going to become?’” The Kivu Specilaty Coffee Project aims to address this by testing 30 new rust-resistant varieties in three different locations around South Kivu. Although the experimental trials will not be complete until 2016, the results should determine which varieties will produce significantly greater yields and quality than current varieties being used there. In the meantime, the project is working on improving productivity through scaling up the best existing varieties and introducing new agricultural practices such as investigation into fertilisers that can be used in the area.  Plans are afoot to import the California Red Worm from Rwanda and train locals on the culture of worms and how to produce highly nutritive organic fertilisers from their pulp piles.  WCR is also planning to bring in an organic fungus-bacteria complex that helps in the degradation of pulp. It is hoped that these initiatives will increase yields by 50 per cent (to 7500 tonnes) by 2016 and by 100 per cent (to 10,000 tonnes) by 2020. In addition to this, WCR will work with locals to develop quality assurance protocols right throughout the production process, including the establishment of cupping labs for better quality evaluation. Finally, WCR will provide marketing support for the coffee coming out of the region by developing a brand for Kivu coffee, running buyers trips and taking the coffee to trade shows around the world. Farmers in South Kivu also face problems with onerous government regulations, which prompt some people to smuggle their coffee to Rwanda, which lies on the other side of Lake Kivu. However, this comes with its own set of dangers. “This activity of taking coffee by fraud is generally done by night and many families lost their members who sank in the lake,” Mulimbi says. However, Schilling believes we need only look to the success of neighbouring Rwanda to see the potential for improvement. Riven by domestic conflict in the late 1990s, Rwanda only began to produce specialty coffee about a decade ago. The result has been spectacular, with coffee now accounting for more than 50 per cent of the nation’s exports and Rwandan coffees grown on the other side of Lake Kivu being highly sought after on the world market. The past year has been a peaceful one for South Kivu, meaning people are able to try to improve their lot free of the threat of violence. Schilling says there is a strong entrepreneurial spirit among the people that will sit them in good stead once the fundamentals are right. “All they need is a prolonged period of peace and they will prosper,” he says. “We want to show these farmers that this is business. This is money. They can make real money out of this crop.”

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