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Congo tries to stage a coffee comeback

Sabri Ben-Achour Dec 17, 2014

Congo tries to stage a coffee comeback

Sabri Ben-Achour Dec 17, 2014

Coffee, it makes the world go round.  

A total of 145,202,000 bags of coffee beans were produced last year, picked and shipped from hillsides and fields from Burundi to Brazil, all so the world’s coffee lovers could revive themselves each morning. But in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, it’s the coffee that needs reviving. Thousands of Congolese involved in the coffee business here hope that a comeback in their sector will give the entire economy a lift.

Emile Ntamirabali Batera is one of those Congolese. He’s a coffee grower whose farm was all but destroyed during the civil wars that raged here, starting in the 1990s. “We slept in the forest during the war,” he says as he stands in the hillside field behind his house in Batamba. “My family and I would hide wherever we could during the night. We just bartered – beans for salt, that sort of thing,” he says.

The Bateras survived. Their coffee trees did not. “During the war the price of coffee beans went incredibly low, it just plummeted,” he says. 

Prices paid to growers in the Congo in 2002 reached $2.96 per pound, the lowest in the world. In the neighboring Central African Republic, growers were getting four times that amount. “I’d have to start picking at six in the morning, pick all day, then pulp the beans by hand,” said Bateras’ wife Josefina. “My hands would get exhausted,  I’d dry them, then carry them to market.”

It simply wasn’t worth all the work. So the Bateras ripped up their trees.

“Well, I left a few,” Emile says. “But only because I drink coffee.” The Bateras’ neighbors did the same.

Meanwhile, some large plantation owners found themselves in a different situation. Their fields were occupied by refugees and the government proved unwilling to impose a legal solution. The combination of all these factors strangled Congo’s coffee industry.

“A thread of history got broken,” says Dave Olson, a 40-year veteran of the coffee industry. He spent much of that time at Starbucks. Now he is on the board of the Eastern Congo Initiative, a development organization. He’s one of many business people, farmers, government officials and aid workers who believe Congo’s coffee industry can be rejuvenated. But he acknowledges that an industry isn’t like a piece of thread you can tie back together.  It’s more like a mirror – easier to smash than to fix.   

Still, with the help of businesses, governments, and charitable foundations, the Bateras – and 1,300 other farmers like them – are managing to glue the shards of the Congolese coffee industry together again.

We trace the journey from coffee bean to your mug. 


The coffee trees that already exist here are often old, but they grow exceedingly well. The Bateras are getting ready to plant some new trees. They’re laying down compost around their remaining trees to protect the roots during the dry season.


Unless you are trying to re-create the Belgian extractive plantation model, you need a co-operative for farmers to share profits. Farmers here helped assemble the Kahawa Bora ya Kivu co-op. Here, buyers for the co-op purchase raw coffee cherries from farmers by offering a down payment. They’ll get a second payment later when the cherries are exported.


The co-op brings all coffee cherries to its “washing station.” The co-op borrowed money to buy land for the station, where cherries are processed. The Howard Buffett Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development covered a pulping machine, which spits out pale coffee beans from one chute and red and yellow pulp from another. Machine processing results in much higher quality beans, while hand-processed beans can easily turn bad, taste funky, lose flavor and fetch little money.     

The pale beans, still encased in a tough membrane, are dried on long racks in the sun and turned to avoid developing an “onion flavor.”


Coffee beans that have been dried are referred to as “parchment” and are brought to a dry mill, a towering Rube Goldberg-like contraption of conveyor belts, shaking tables and billowing air tubes that whisk beans and detritus through the floor and ceiling. It cleans, husks and sorts the coffee into sacks ready for export.

Konrad Brits, CEO of Falcon Coffee, helped finance this facility – another piece in the complex task of rebuilding Eastern Congo’s coffee industry. Falcon Coffee is a global middleman, sourcing coffee for large buyers. Brits says a hard edge is driving his involvement in what is otherwise an international development project.

“Big multinational companies, top roasting companies, are concerned about where they’re going to get the raw material from to feed their factories in the next 20-25 years,” he says, standing in front of the dry mill he has helped finance. He and several partners have invested in Eastern Congo’s shattered coffee industry because he needs to source coffee into the global supply chain, and he sees potential. 

“The quality of the coffee that comes off the tree in Kivu is some of the finest in the world,” he says as he shoves his hands into a sack of even, waxy, blue green beans. 


The beans are ready for sale into the international market. The co-op is hoping the best beans will become specialty coffee. In a coup for the co-op, two containers were sold to Starbucks.


Once the processed beans are sold, the second payment is routed back to the co-op and the farmers. “We’ve gotten almost $1.75, nearly $2 a kilo,” says Emile Batera. “These are prices not seen in decades.” And, adds his wife, Josefine Batera, “it’s a lot easier!”

Partly through charity and partly through business, the pieces seem to be coming together for Eastern Congo’s Coffee Industry.

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