Buy DRC Muungano here.
Kiniezire, South Kivu
Nectarine | Honey | Cherry
I have only visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo once, a brief working visit more than six years ago now to support former non-profit colleagues implementing a project with small-scale family farmers there. I have traveled to 11 different coffee origins since then, but that DRC visit was so exhilarating and intense that the memories of it are seared into my mind and remain vivid today.
Before I went, I spoke with friends in the industry who had been deeply involved in the recent emergence of a DRC specialty sector. These were not people with a casual interest in Congolese coffee. These were people who were all the way in.
One was working with the Director of Virunga National Park, one of the world’s few remaining natural habitats for endangered mountain gorillas, to support the park’s conservation agenda by supporting small-scale coffee growers on the buffer zones around the park. One was working to support women in coffee-growing communities who had been victims of sexual violence during the country’s ongoin armed conflict, which has claimed millions of lives and displaced many millions more. Like I said, these were coffee folks who were concerned about more than just Congo’s coffee.
I took many pages of notes from those conversations, but one reflection stood out above all others. It was from a seasoned coffee veteran working on a project to revive the Congolese coffee sector that won the 2014 Specialty Coffee Association of America Sustainability Award. He told me, “Congo is a place where I feel more alive than anywhere else in the world. It is a place where anything can happen…and usually does.”
I came away from my visit feeling like he was right: DRC was a place full of possibilities, and not all of them good.
The threat of armed violence cast a long shadow over the coffee regions of Eastern Congo, fueled in part by a fight for access to DRC’s rich reserves of natural resources. DRC’s exports of oil and minerals used in high-tech electronics from cell phones to electric car batteries support the modern global economy and help generate fabulous fortunes overseas, but many people in conflict-affected regions of Eastern Congo live in extreme poverty.
And yet, the joie de vivre for which the Congolese are widely celebrated was perceptible the moment I crossed the border from Rwanda. The landscapes were breathtaking — fields of patchwork quilts stretched over rugged mountains rising from the shores of Lake Kivu to the foothills of two different national parks that are home to the endangered mountain gorilla. And everywhere around the lake, there was coffee — in the soil, in the air, on people’s lips, and in their imaginations.
To call it a specialty coffee renaissance would have been inaccurate, since the “re-” in renaissance implies a previous naissance. This was just a naissance, and it was thrilling — a massive country whose undercapitalized coffee sector had enormous potential for extraordinary social and environmental impact in a place where so many of the possible paths for rural communities were not positive ones.
It was similar to the birth of a specialty sector a decade earlier in neighboring Rwanda — that country moved from the margins into the slipstream of the specialty market in a matter of years as part of a broader effort to rehabilitate its rural economy in the wake of its 1994 genocide. That chapter remains one of the most compelling stories of specialty coffee’s promise to fuel local development and social reconstruction. But Rwanda is tiny and Congo is vast, stretching across almost the entire African continent. The people I met in Eastern Congo harbored a hope that its emergence as a specialty coffee origin would be even bigger than Rwanda’s.
I was excited about the opportunity to support that vision, but I lost the scent of that work less than a year later when I transitioned from the non-profit sector to Intelligentsia. Over the years, we were occasionally offered Congolese coffees by old friends, but passed on those offers in the hope of traveling to Eastern Congo to start building Intelligentsia’s first trading relationships there from the ground up. By the time I picked up the trail again a few years ago, the Coronavirus complicated our plans to build a Direct Trade relationship, so we began to give spot offers a chance.
This exceptional lot came to us thanks to the persistence of the good folks at Mighty Peace Coffee, a U.S.-based importer with boots on the ground in Eastern Congo committed to the vision of coffee as an engine of economic development, environmental conservation, and peace in the region.
It comes from Muungano, one of the country’s most prominent cooperatives and a leader in DRC’s push into the specialty market. We are late to the party, but delighted to be here, and to offer our inaugural lot of Congolese coffee. It is our first, but it will not be our last.
— Michael Sheridan
Director of Sourcing and Shared Value