Coffee for peace in Congo
"Who is an ex-rebel?" I ask at the village meeting in Lemera.
Silence, a reminder of the death tolls that have plagued Eastern Congo the past decades overwhelms me. A young man sitting in a front row stands up. His baby face is ravaged by the horror he probably committed as a member of the Mai Mai rebel group. Another young man stands up, followed by another one, and another one. Slowly but surely, their stories come out. I can't help but smile. These kids are not interested in fighting anymore. Despite being in their late teens, they speak and act as grown ups. A recent change has reshaped their lives.
This is a story about courageous people and organizations that take risks, dare to challenge the common belief that there is no business to be done in conflict areas. In such contexts, activities that can contribute to restore confidence and hope, and rebuild the social tissue destroyed by decades of war are welcome. The coffee sector is doing exactly that: bringing hope, binding communities, inserting ex rebels in the life of villages. I talked to more than 30 ex Mai Mai rebels and ex child soldiers who have been reintegrated in the lives of the communities where they come from, thanks to partnerships between NGOs, cooperatives and businesses in the coffee sector. The ex-rebels were open and answered my questions. No, they are not planning on going back to the rebellion, even if their former boss offers them more than what they earn now. Why? Because they are tired of the war, of the chaos, of the lack of opportunities, of the violence. They are simply happy to be back with their families, to have a job related to coffee. There is a lot to be done.
The story of coffee in Congo is a proof that the way Congo is being portrayed in the media is not accurate. Congo is not only about World Wars, devastation, massacres, plundering, systematic and organized rape, corruption and rapacious state structures which constantly make it to the news. Congo is also a country of hardworking, courageous, inspiring and passionate people.
The past few months, I have carried out research in the Kivus, in Butembo, Goma, Minova, Bukavu, Uvira and Lemera to examine multi stakeholder partnerships in the coffee sector. My research is part of a PhD project focusing on the interaction between the private sector and peace and conflict processes in Central Africa. My preliminary conclusion is that partnerships between businesses, cooperatives and NGOs in the coffee value chain in Eastern Congo are contributing to peace by promoting fair, inclusive and sustainable economic development. This recent economic development is alleviating tensions between previously antagonistic communities, and it is contributing to social cohesion through the reinsertion of ex-rebels in coffee producing communities.
These partnerships bring all kinds of people together. Men, women, ex-rebels, ex-mine workers, young and old, from different ethnic origin, different villages work together with passion in the coffee sector. They have a common purpose, one narrative, they need each other to process coffee beans, wash them, dry them, sort them in order to add value to the beans. Coffee is a very demanding crop. The land has to be worked in a very particular, labor intensive way. Coffee beans need attention and care. And yet, coffee trees are very resistant, as resistant as the communities are resilient. Both survived the bombing and the plundering.
Coffee farmers learn from NGO's how to organize themselves, how to negotiate. They sell to the cooperatives, which in turn sell the coffee to one of the companies. As a result, coffee prices have increased (from .6 USD to 2.5 USD per kg), cooperative membership has skyrocketed (from 150 to 3,500), coffee farmers' increase in income lead to health and education improvements, and last but not least, peace is consolidated. Companies do not only buy coffee, they build relationships with coffee farmers, open up international markets and tell a new story of Congo.
It sounds too simple to be true: coffee for peace. And yet, the UN and government authorities have failed to bring peace to the citizens of the DRC despite numerous intricate peace plans elaborated behind closed doors. Most previous plans missed an essential grassroots component as well as a fair and sustainable livelihood connection. These are precisely the ingredients that form the success of the partnerships between coffee cooperatives from the Kivu's, international NGO's such as Oxfam and Solidaridad, and companies such as Schluter, and Sainsbury.
The story of coffee in Congo is a story about resilient communities that find the courage to work at their destiny in the midst of adversity and without government intervention. As we see in Congo, peace is not the sole domain of governments, or UN organizations.