A very special coffee arrived at the roastery on Friday, our first ever DR Congo, from the Muungano cooperative. Ever since I first came across it on the cupping table and fell in love with its berry and chocolate notes, I‘ve been itching to get it in house so I could share it with our customers. After months of waiting it’s finally here and as we start our test roast procedures this is a good time to tell you a bit more about DR Congo, the Muungano cooperative and how they work.
Congo is the second largest country in Africa, with an estimated population of over 80 million people from more than 200 different ethnic groups. In the 1980’s and the beginning of the 90’s, coffee production in the rich soils of Eastern Congo was starting to gain momentum. But after the Rwandan genocide and the Congolese civil war, the infrastructure crumbled. Small farmers struggled with poor equipment and lack of reliable buyers. There was no stable security, lines of communication were fragile, and access to transport was sporadic and heavily reliant on the often unpredictable weather. With little financial incentive coming through the legal channels of operation, many had to engage in illegal activities to earn a living. As corrupt law enforcement took bribes to look the other way, much of the coffee was smuggled across Lake Kivu to Rwanda to be sold or bartered for food or other goods, costing the lives of thousands and orphaning thousands more children during the dangerous crossings.
In a country with this long history of conflicts destabilising society, the Swahili name of the Muungano cooperative proclaims a vision of hope for the future, translating as ‘togetherness’. Part of a growing coffee renaissance, the members of Muungano are reviving their industry by investing in individual and communal operations, building nurseries, washing stations, mills and cupping facilities. These investments create better prospects for them and their families. As people of Eastern Congo, the Bahunde, Bahavu, Bashi, Batembo and Congolese of Rwandan origin were divided by war but in the creation of the Muungano cooperative they are learning to work together, to collaborate in order to take control of their lives and livelihoods. The cooperative was founded in 2009, starting with 350 members and growing to about 5000 members today. They see investing in their coffee as investing in their families, and are committed to maximising the potential for high quality coffees that their land holds. The members and managers receive training and support in business management, contract negotiations and organisational transparency, as well as coffee specific agriculture, agroforestry, quality analysis and cupping.
Around one third of the Muungano members are women. Many of these women are widowed and the only breadwinners in their families, in a society with deep rooted gender inequality. Through the GALS initiative (Gender Action Learning Systems) female and male members have the opportunity to work together to highlight the imbalance of their roles and the benefits of addressing it. Empowering the women to take equal part in the responsibilities and management of their households and finances gives them a voice and confidence to take equal part in the cooperative as well. Says Zawadi Kalwira, widow and mother of four: “I am now a member of Muungano and I am happy to be one. I get a fixed price for my coffee, and in addition I get a second payment. As a member, I had the opportunity to learn GALS. GALS literally changed my life. I used to waste money taking care of men who were only giving me more children. My widowhood didn’t teach me any lesson in planning and managing my resources, but GALS did.”
Similar to Rwanda, congolese farmers still grow predominantly Bourbon coffee. The nutrient rich volcanic soils and high altitudes make a perfect foundation for quality production. Farms are small, only about 2 hectares each of which half may be planted with coffee trees, offering two harvests per year. And as is common in countries with limited access to certain resources, much of the coffee grown is organic by default, with producers using homemade compost and mulch rather than expensive chemicals. Members can also take the composted pulp from the washing stations back to their farms to use as fertiliser. The cooperative members grow coffee where they live, so take care to not use chemicals that can harm themselves as well as the land. Shade trees such as bananas serve to protect the coffee, benefit the local wildlife and provide additional food crops. Facing the pressures of climate change also means they have to plant trees, grasses and hedges to help prevent landslides, with root systems deep enough to keep the soil stable on the hillsides during heavy rains. Already FLO certified, they are undergoing the official processes for becoming certified organic, aiming to have this concluded in 2016/17.
The organic approach brings with it it’s own challenges with pests and diseases, whether it’s insects or bacteria. Just like neighbouring Rwanda and Burundi, DR Congo also struggle with the potato defect. This defect, which causes a single bean here and there to have a distinct smell of raw potato and an earthy taste, is extremely difficult to prevent and remove in the sorting process. It has become one of the most researched defects in recent years as the reputation of otherwise stellar coffees from these countries has suffered and prevented many buyers from taking the risk. We have chosen to accept the fact that in a bag of coffee here and there, a single bean might carry the potato smell, most evident when ground. But when the coffee is this good, we take the risk because it’s really delicious and we want to support the work of the cooperative. When we come across the defect ourselves, we simply discard those grounds and grind again. Should you come across a potato bean in your bag we urge you to let us know, as the frequency of the defect is valuable data and feedback for the cooperative.
Muungano collect cherries at three washing stations; two smaller ones in Nyabihere and Buchiro, and a larger, rented washing station and storage warehouse in Kiniezire. The washing stations receive cherry from the farmers, float them and sort them for over and under-ripes before pulping and channeling the parchment into fermentation tanks. There it will typically spend about 30 hours before being moved through washing channels where further floating and sorting takes place. After the washing channels the coffee is soaked for another 20 hours, before it is brought to tables for hand sorting. The parchment is then dried on raised drying tables, protected from the strong midday sun so as not to dry too quickly. The average time to dry the coffee down to about 12% moisture is 14 days, weather dependent.
The rented facility currently house their offices and cupping lab, but they are also building their own station and warehouse in Kiniezire which should be operational this year and will become the new home of the administration and quality control team led by cupper Ismail Bushashire. The coffee is dry milled in Goma, where final stages of hand sorting also takes place. Typically a job done by teams of women, it takes two days to sort 100 kg of coffee. The exportable grades of green coffee is then packaged and readied for it’s 1700 km, 15 day long journey via Kampala, Uganda, up over Lake Victoria to the Mombasa shipping port in Kenya. This coffee has had a long journey to get here, but we’re so pleased to finally have it in house and we’re thrilled to be able to share it with you very, very soon!
Photo Credits – Twin
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BLACKBERRY / CHERRY / JUICY