Although international donors, the market and the Congolese authorities recognise the benefits of coffee production, it is difficult for organisations working on such remote and troubled ground to forge links between producers and the other stakeholders in the sector.
Coffee is one of the many natural resources in Orientale Province, around 1,500 km from Kinshasa, the capital city of DRC. Along with gold, tantalite and precious woods, coffee is highly coveted by neighbouring countries but the Congolese state and local communities today earn only a tiny fraction of the profits that are to be reaped from its production.
Although the inter-ethnic conflict that ravaged the province ended officially nearly ten years ago, the situation remains tense and communities are still finding reconciliation difficult: as recently as August 2013 renewed fighting broke out between the Congolese regular army and a rebel group in North Kivu, a neighbouring province of Orientale.
The war has had disastrous consequences on the social fabric and the economy of DRC.. Domestic and foreign investors have fled, while infrastructure and skills have largely been destroyed. And despite growth forecasts of over 8% for 2013, the DRC remains at the bottom of the UNDP Human Development Index.
For over 20 years, ACIAR has been planning and implementing programmes to meet the needs of local communities and the priorities of international donors (United Nations and bilateral co-operation agencies). These include the reintegration of former child soldiers into society, the rehabilitation of women victims of sexual violence, microcredit, food security, etc.
But, lacking in resources and with little clout in Kinshasa, ACIAR is struggling to develop and roll out its long-term vision for justice and rural development in the province.
Nonetheless, ACIAR, in conjunction with SHIFT, a consultancy which specialises in fostering cross-sectoral co-operation, has presented a multi-year project for the coffee sector to donors, which it believes will act as a powerful lever for combating poverty.
In the north-east of Ituri, a district of Orientale Province, the majority of farmers depend on coffee for their livelihoods. Most growers tend between 150 and 300 coffee plants on plots that rarely exceed two hectares. They cultivate the popular Arabica variety which, despite recent price fluctuations, is set to enjoy continuing growth in demand.
Since the 1970s, the liberalisation of the coffee market, armed conflicts, the destruction of infrastructure, neglect of coffee plantations and absence of farmers’ organisations have all contributed to a catastrophic decline in coffee output in the region. In 1989 the DRC exported around 120,000 tonnes of coffee–80% of the value of its agricultural exports–but by 2012 this figure had dropped to 10,000 tonnes.
The vast majority of coffee grown in Ituri is exported illegally to Uganda where it is processed into green coffee. Around one third of Uganda’s exports of green coffee are estimated to come from the eastern provinces of the DRC.
Local growers with no other way of getting their harvests to market are forced to accept the exceptionally low prices offered by Ugandan traders. The abysmal state of the roads and the unofficial export duties imposed at the border are just some of the factors preventing growers from selling their crops themselves.
ACIAR’s project, due to start in 2014, aims to get coffee producers back into the value chain by giving them access to more favourable conditions for selling their harvests. Above all, the project aims to improve coffee production by raising awareness and making more widely available the essential tools that cannot be found locally. It also seeks to work closely with the Congolese National Coffee Bureau (ONC) to safeguard exports.
The profits from increased coffee sales as a result of such a cross-sectoral and integrated approach will help communities gain access to basic economic rights, such as education and health care, and contribute to the reconstruction of the province’s social fabric.
The programme is based on an earlier UNDP-funded initiative in 2006-2008 aimed at organising coffee growers and helping them to sell their production. Due to a lack of long-term funding the project was not continued. On the basis of this experience, along with its work with local micro-credit groups (mutuelles de solidarité) , and because its agronomists have been working with growers for many years on a day-to-day basis, ACIAR is now uniquely placed to accomplish this task. At the same time, it faces the most challenging situation of all–to find financing arrangements and investors.
During our mission to Ituri in August 2013, there was noticeable excitement about the coffee sector in Orientale Province. Bilateral co-operation agencies, which for years have all been targeting the bulk of their efforts on the Kivu provinces, were sending consultants on assessment missions; a Congolese businessman reopened the only coffee processing plant in Northern Ituri six months ago; an international NGO started constructing coffee washing stations; Ugandan traders, having heard about ACIAR’s initiative, are now contacting us to get hold of exclusive rights to sell the coffee produced under the project; the governor of Orientale Province is holding discussions with foreign investors, and so on. Unfortunately, Ituri has poor telephone and internet connections, the roads are in an appalling state and information is more difficult to disseminate than elsewhere. Consequently, ACIAR has been unable to find accurate details about any of these different initiatives.
A properly co-ordinated strategy is needed to constitute a framework for co-ordinating these various initiatives. For instance, the Strategy Document for the Recovery of the Coffee Sector 2011-2015, adopted by the DRC government, could prove to be the kind of framework required. However, without a co-ordinating structure which is in a position to take a holistic view and bring together growers as well as public and private sector stakeholders, any national strategy will struggle to deliver the hoped-for outcomes. And organisations such as ACIAR, with proven commitment to and expertise in the coffee sector, will remain isolated players.
Note: *Not to be confused with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), which runs as part of the Australian government’s development cooperation programmes.
For more on ACIAR, visit http://www.easterncongo.org/success-stories/cbo-database
See also www.oecd.org/development
© OECD Observer No 296 Q3 2013