The Democratic Republic of Congo, previously known as Zaire, is a vast country with a long and complex history. Although considered one of the wealthiest countries globally in terms of natural resources, the country’s brutal colonial legacy and more recent political issues present significant challenges for the region and its 95 million people.
In terms of coffee, the DRC has a long history of growing and cultivation. It has a potential for growing specialty, some regions even referred to as a ‘paradise for coffee’, though coffee producers and exporters face enough challenges to make Congolese coffee a rarity on offer lists. That being said, the industry is going through a revival of sorts, particularly in the country’s eastern Kivu region where various initiatives are underway to improve the value chain and farmer livelihoods.
Democratic Republic of the Congo Coffee Growing History
The Congo Basin is the origin of many Robusta varieties cultivated across the world. In the late 1800s, a Belgian horticulturist shipped seeds from wild Robusta plants found in the DRC back to Belgium. The seeds were then grown in plant nurseries, transported across the world and crossed with other Robusta lineages. Belgian colonialists also established agricultural stations in-country in the early 1900s. Here, they bred and carried out research into crops, including coffee. Arabica varietals, particularly Bourbon, were also introduced into the region by Europeans and have a history of growing in the Eastern region of the country.
Following independence in 1960, coffee production in the DRC underwent several major changes. Around this time, the country evolved into a major coffee supplier, causing production to steadily increase. At first, the industry was nationalised, and President Mobutu Sese Seko adopted an ideology of ‘authenticité’ which meant that foreign-owned businesses, including coffee plantations, were seized from the owners. Land and profits were often redistributed to the benefit of the President and his closest allies, neglecting coffee production into disarray.
In 1972, the coffee industry underwent liberalisation when the Office National du Café (ONC) lost its monopoly on the purchase and export of coffee. For a while, liberalisation created plenty of competition for coffee farmers’ produce, meaning that some received fair prices depending on their location and access to markets.
By the early 1980s, coffee was the country’s most important agricultural export, and second in wider exports only to copper. However, the outbreak of civil war in the mid-1990s, alongside sector-specific problems such as crop disease, poor infrastructure, limited information for buyers, and excessive, unwarranted taxation all contributed to a significant period of decline in the country’s once thriving industry.
Over the last few years, however, efforts have been underway to revive the coffee sector in the conflict-ridden Eastern DRC. Dozens of development agencies, corporations and coffee value chain actors are working in the region to develop the necessary infrastructure, provide input, improve farmers’ access to information, and rejuvenate plants. Whilst the challenges faced are undoubtedly huge, these projects are contributing to an increased interest in what the DRC can offer the coffee market.
Democratic Republic of the Congo Coffee Farming
Historically, the production and cultivation of coffee in the DRC took place on large plantations owned and operated by European colonialists who used forced labour. At the time of independence, around 70% of Congolese coffee was grown on plantations. However, a combination of factors led to the steady decline of the plantation sector in the decades following independence.
The vast majority of coffee is now produced by smallholder farmers. Most farmers cultivate their coffee on less than one hectare of land and, in many cases, much less. It is common for coffee plants to be intercropped with subsistence crops, such as bananas and beans, which ensures food security for households.
Democratic Republic of the Congo Coffee Production Regions
Coffee grows across most of the DRC, though only three regions see the cultivation of Arabica - North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri, all located to the east of the country. Considered a ‘paradise for coffee’, the Eastern region benefits from high altitudes, good climatic conditions and fertile volcanic soil. Unfortunately, Eastern Congo also suffers from ongoing political and armed conflict, making coffee production and export particularly challenging here, though various are attempting to revive the industry.
In contrast, Robusta grows in almost all provinces in varying degrees of abundance with Equateur and Orientale being major producers along with Bandundu and Bas-Congo.
Democratic Republic of the Congo Coffee Types and Varietals
Both Arabica and Robusta are grown in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Though Robusta has traditionally accounted for the majority of production, these days Arabica is becoming more and more popular with farmers. Two of the most popular Arabica varietals grown are Bourbon, which does well in high altitudes, and Blue Mountain, a mutation of Typica that originated in Jamaica. A local variety of Robusta, called Petit Kwilu, is also found, having smaller beans and a milder, less bitter taste.
Democratic Republic of the Congo Coffee Flavour Profile
The flavour profiles and characteristics of Congolese coffees vary from zone to zone; flavour profiles for Congolese Arabicas are often described as ‘unique’ with tasting notes of spice, chocolate, black tea, dark fruits and citrus. These same cups are usually full-bodied and of a mild, balanced acidity.
Congolese Robusta production is concentrated in the Grand Nord region of the country, where beans are grown at around 900m elevation. Well known for producing excellent foam, Congolese Robusta has a well-rounded, full body, an intense aroma and flavour notes of chocolate, blackcurrant and nuts. The local adapted variety of Robusta, Petit Kwilu, presents a neutral cup and balanced acidity, making it ideal for blends.
Democratic Republic of the Congo Coffee Harvest Dates
Coffee harvests typically take place between March and July, with a fly crop occurring between September and January.
Democratic Republic of the Congo Coffee Annual Production and Export
It is estimated that, at its peak around the late 1980s, the country was producing around 120,000 - 130,000 metric tonnes a year. Although official exports have plummeted in recent decades, it is widely believed that production has remained rather constant at around 100,000 metric tonnes.
Of this produced amount, 11,000 metric tonnes were estimated to have been exported in 2020, though that is far surpassed by the average 100,000 - 120,000 metric tonnes annually exported in the 1980s. Evidently, there are significant discrepancies when comparing coffee production volumes and export volumes in a country not particularly renowned for having high domestic coffee consumption. But if that 89,000 tonnes of un-exported coffee isn’t consumed by the locals, where does it end up?
Currently, formal coffee exporters must pay large sums of money on taxes, duties and fees in the DRC, on top of the informal bribes that are also commonly paid to customs agents, border officials and militias. In total, an estimated 14-18% of the f.o.b value of a shipment goes to taxes, and the exporting process itself can take up to four weeks and 57 signatures for a shipment to be cleared for export. All these factors only serve to push farmers toward the illegal practice of smuggling.
Congolese coffee farmers in particular have a long history of smuggling their produce across borders, as they have often been able to fetch better prices or trade their coffee for food and livestock in neighbouring countries. In recent decades, thousands of farmers havedied making the unsafe journey transporting their produce across Lake Kivu in small rickety boats. It is estimated that upwards of 70% of DRC coffee production flows undocumented into Rwanda and Uganda where it is mixed in with local production.