KIVU- The Congolese province of South Kivu has a dangerous past—and a complicated present. Lake Kivu, the lake that gives the province its name divides the DRC from neighboring Rwanda to the east.
After the 1994 Rwandan genocide, refugees poured into South Kivu to seek asylum while perpetrators set up outposts from which to continue the killings. This influx strained resources and exacerbated the DRC’s own long-lasting ethnic tensions, resulting in a series of civil wars that ravaged the country for nearly a decade.
A brutal war, a lost industry
Coffee farming had been decreasing in the eastern DRC ever since the country won its independence in 1960, but the civil wars caused production to plummet. Thousands of Congolese farmers were killed. Those who survived returned to find their homes burned, tools missing, and land ravaged by warfare. With no reliable export channels or quality control systems, coffee from the DRC earned a reputation for inconsistency and practically disappeared from the international market. This prevented coffee farmers in South Kivu from accessing premium markets; instead, they had to settle for depressed local prices.
In search of better economic opportunity, these Congolese farmers smuggled their harvest across the lake in rickety boats, aiming to exchange it for livestock and food on the distant Rwandan shore. Local coffee farmer Cecile Batumike remembers that dark time:
“I had to bribe the police to be able to cross to Rwanda by boat. I saw boats sink because the waves were huge. Many people in my village died that way, leaving their children orphans and without any kind of assistance.”
When the peace process eventually began in the early 2000s, a small group of coffee farmers set out to earn better livelihoods without putting their lives on the line. These 276 farmers banded together to create Solidarite Paysanne la Promotion de Actions Café et Development Integras [SOPACDI], one of the first coffee cooperatives in the entire country.
Better incomes through market access
SOPACDI quickly got to work, increasing production and promoting Congolese coffee on a global scale. Cooperative leaders traveled to international trade shows and showed the world that farmers in the DRC could produce high-quality coffee. This resulted in higher payments for hundreds, and eventually thousands, of farmers across South Kivu. These higher incomes provided farmers with the resources they needed to recover from decades of civil war. But the cooperative could only go so far alone.
To earn farmers a better, more stable price, SOPACDI needed to access premium markets and sign contracts directly with international buyers. These types of advanced contracts require credit, so that the cooperative can pay farmers on time for their harvest and fulfill their contractual obligations. SOPACDI signed its first international contract in 2008; but without credit, they couldn’t scale to more buyers. Unfortunately, due to the instability in the region, no lenders would finance them.
Except for Root Capital. In 2013, we made our first loan of $300,000 to SOPACDI—and we have been lending to them every year since. Over this time, we have grown their line of credit to almost $1.4 million, enabling them to sign more ambitious contracts and deepen their impact on the local community. To SOPACDI’s Chief of Administration and Finance, Joel Fazila, this financing has made a world of difference:
“I have always considered that the credit given to us by Root Capital is what makes our cooperative live.”
Investing in the whole community
Cooperatives like SOPACDI don’t only improve farmer incomes by linking them to better markets. They also invest in their communities. Over our six-year partnership, SOPACDI has installed dozens of coffee washing stations across the Kalehe territory where they operate. These stations improve the quality of members’ coffee, and thus the price they receive. The cooperative also provides job opportunities to youth—employing 150 young people each harvest season in agro-processing jobs at the washing stations.
These types of services are why businesses like SOPACDI are vital scaffolds in post-conflict countries. When they have stable, well-paying jobs, young people are less likely to resort to mercenary work to feed themselves and their families. Thanks to these job opportunities, Joel explains, “the young people who were in the militias, left the militias and came to work in coffee… they are workers at SOPACDI.”
Setting an example for others
The challenges for SOPACDI and its members haven’t gone away and the cooperative isn’t slowing down.
When they started, the team at SOPACDI felt alone. They were just one small business, trying to change the global perception of Congolese coffee while supporting their 300 farmer-members. Now they have grown to serve almost 12,000 smallholder farmers and families across South Kivu. The hills that surround them are populated by 35 coffee cooperatives that take their cue from the actions of SOPACDI. When SOPACDI became the first cooperative in the country to receive Fairtrade certification, other cooperatives followed suit.
Reflecting on the role of the cooperative in his life, Cecile remarks:
“We are now able to send our children to school, we are able to feed our families, and we are proud to know that our coffee is being sold on the international market.”
In the post-conflict DRC—deemed “too risky” to invest in by most lenders—access to credit from Root Capital has allowed Cecile and Joel to create a bright future for their community. One they could never have dreamed of when their country was at war.
Source: Root Capital
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