In the 1970s and 80s, the Lake Kivu region at the border of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda was one of Africa’s leading exporters of coffee. But a wave of violence that began in the 1990s, coupled with poverty and disease, has claimed the lives of over 5 million people, displaced many more, and destroyed much of the country’s coffee market—shrinking production from 110,000 metric tons in the late 1980s to about 50,000 metric tons in 2009.
Despite the odds, the 4,000 smallholders in the region have continued producing coffee, albeit with old and rudimentary equipment and with little access to international markets. To sell their coffee, they had to smuggle their crop across Lake Kivu into Rwanda, traveling at night in small boats. Without buyers and little institutional support, quality and productivity declined precipitously.
Recognizing that reliable incomes from coffee could help bring stability to the Kivu region, and that it has the potential to become a beacon of coffee quality, World Coffee Research partnered with a consortium of organizations to restore quality and increase productivity.
WCR is assisting the $6 million dollar project by surveying, genetically testing, and providing high-quality local varieties for farmers, as well as field testing promising, lesser-known varieties on demonstration plots. To increase farmer yields, we are analyzing organic soil treatments including manure and compost. Kivu farmers practice intercropping, so we are also evaluating crops including soy, peanuts, ground nuts, and Niebe to see which have the most favorable interactions with coffee.
But helping farmers grow more and better coffee is only half the battle. The Kivu region had virtually no infrastructure for processing and marketing coffee; WCR is also therefore providing technical guidance on the installation of 3 new coffee washing stations and a cupping lab in nearby Bukavu, and helping connect farmers with buyers. The first coffees from the project were sold in 2014 to Starbucks.
Kahawa Bora Ya Kivu is a cornerstone in the renaissance of Congolese coffee. The project is increasing incomes for Kivu coffee farmers through technological interventions, including coffee variety enhancements, soil fertility improvements and intercropping practices. WCR’s contribution to the project is specifically tied to improving yields and quality since higher yields directly translate to higher incomes; and higher quality brings more stable relationships with buyers. The building of 3 coffee washing stations will have a lasting impact on the region, giving coffee producers a safe place to sell their coffees with quality controls in place to maximize quality premiums.
WCR is also collaborating with the local Universite Catholique de Bukavu to ensure that an applied research program can continue to support local farmers in making informed and economically meaningful decisions regarding varieties, plantation renovation, inter-cropping and fertilization for years to come.