The Myth of Congolese Coffee

Idjwi Island on Lake Kivu, DRC. Photo: @mightypeacegram

I thought Congolese coffee was a myth. 

I heard these words during a workshop organized by one of New York City’s major roasters; the instructor said this after I told her that I was importing delicious coffees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (also referred to as DRC or Congo). The instructor thought Congolese coffee was a myth because she would hear people rave about it, she heard whispers about its uniqueness, but she never saw it anywhere. Due to its absence from the market and the fact that, despite studying the industry and having worked in coffee for years, she had never tasted Congolese coffee, it had taken on a mythical status in her mind. As a newcomer to the industry (Mighty Peace Coffee turned 2 in September), I was shocked to hear her say that.

In her defense, Congolese coffee has historically been absent from most coffee roasters’ menus and importers’ offering sheets. Those who know it, love it and want more, but they’re often frustrated by its lack of consistent availability and the logistical difficulties of operating in DRC. Additionally, I’ve heard painful stories from importers and roasters about past experiences regarding significant delays. Nevertheless, they largely agree that once the logistics can be figured out, as we have at Mighty Peace Coffee, Congolese coffee will become a go-to in America because of its unique versatility as a single origin and blend component. 

Fact Vs. Fiction

The mythical status of Congolese coffee correlates to a degree with the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the fact that its people and landscape have fascinated storytellers and mythmakers in literature and Hollywood for centuries, including Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness published in 1899, which was inspired by the horrors he saw throughout his travels in what was then called Congo Free State during Belgium’s King Leopold II’s rule. According to a literary critic, Heart of Darkness, had been analyzed more than any other work of literature that is studied in universities and colleges.1 In Hollywood, Congo, a blockbuster about killer gorillas starring Laura Linney, was released in 1995 and grossed more than $150 million at the box office. 

The aforementioned King Leopold II, whose regime had a policy to cut off the hands of Congolese who didn’t meet rubber production quotas, will soon be the subject of a Ben Affleck produced film.2 Virunga, one of DRC’s most well-known national parks and the home of endangered mountain gorillas, was the subject of a documentary released on Netflix in 2014. Leonardo DiCaprio and Barry Jenkins have signed up to produce a movie adaptation of this documentary as well. Oscar-winner Ryan Gosling traveled to Congo and served as the photographer for Congo Stories, a book published in 2018 which tells stories of Congolese activists and leaders. Golden Globe winner Robin Wright narrated When Elephants Fight, an award-winning documentary, produced by Mighty Peace Coffee’s Chairman, JD Stier, about the role of tech companies on supply chain transparency in the mining sector. The Congo River, Africa’s second-largest river after the Nile, and its rainforest, the second largest in the world after the Amazon, have long fascinated explorers and storytellers who have all contributed to the Congolese myth. 

As a result, when it comes to Congo, fact and fiction often collide.

In the Global Coffee Landscape

As we distinguish the facts and fiction of Congo and its coffee, let’s first understand the data about where the DRC currently stands in the global coffee landscape. It is estimated that more than 70% of its coffee is smuggled into neighboring countries, most notably Rwanda and Uganda, where Congolese farmers can earn 15% more money than if they were to sell it locally.3 This issue only partially explains why Congo’s contribution to global coffee exports stands at a paltry 0.14% as of this writing.4 High operating costs are an important part of the problem; they can be between 66% and 133% higher5 in DRC than Uganda for example. In an industry where stakeholders across the value chain worry about low margins, these high costs explain why many are staying away from Congo. 

While some avoid the DRC altogether, others have been investing in Congolese coffee and its infrastructure. The Eastern Congo Initiative, the Howard Buffett Foundation, USAID, UKAID, ELANRDC, Starbucks and more have financed research, built washing stations and provided training programs to cooperatives and farmers. Higher Grounds in Michigan and Counter Culture in North Carolina were among the early adopters in America.6 Saveur du Kivu, the country’s premiere coffee festival, has been financed by Higher Grounds, among others, and it is a major opportunity for farmers and cooperatives to share their latest crops with international coffee buyers.

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The finest beans are then de-husked as they prepare for their journey from the African Great Lakes Region to the United States Great Lakes Region at our fourth generation family farm. #greatlakesconnection The DRC, once the bread basket of Africa, will for generations be home to the most fertile agricultural lands on earth, the African Great Lakes Region. The region’s rich tradition of specialty coffee, which has produced some of the finest coffee on the planet, has been preserved – now becoming the industry’s best kept ‘secret’. Join us as we make the transition from resource wars to sustainable mighty peace and a legacy we can be proud of. ☮️ • Join our Peace Trade at the link in our bio. • • • #MightyPeaceCoffee #PeaceTrade #PeaceTribe #PeaceTradeLove #CongoleseCoffee #Seed2Table #FairTrade #DirectTrade #WomenSupportWomen #CoffeeLover #StandWithCongo #PeaceVentures #StierForward #Sustainability #OrganicCoffee

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Congolese coffee is highly versatile; its flavors vary from the fruity, with red plum, cantaloupe, stone fruit, plum, cherry, and licorice notes, to the creamy, with white chocolate, vanilla, and hazelnut. It stands on its own as a single origin or a great complement to blends. The volcanoes, elevation, Lake Kivu, and the rich and fertile soil create ideal conditions for unique beans. Some of the roasters whom I’ve introduced to Congolese coffee sometimes compare it to great Guatemalan and Ethiopian coffees. I believe these comparisons are more a testament to human tendency to compare the new to what we’re familiar with. We do that in sports, for example, as people often compare LeBron James to Michael Jordan, but as familiarity increases with Congolese coffee, we expect these comparisons to cease and for people to view Congolese coffee on its own and not in relation to other great coffees. 

Vision for Growth

Congolese coffee won’t be a myth to many for much longer. It’s starting to appear on more offering sheets, and speaking with fellow importers across the country, they’re looking to import more of it in 2021, with quite a few asking for insights on Mighty Peace Coffee’s supply chain given our local presence in the country. Additionally, in the past few months there have been a series of announcements about investments and initiatives in Congo from Nespresso and a few importers.7 

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“This is a great joy and pride for this place, we see a lot of people coming from everywhere thanks to the coffee and it makes us very happy.” – Seth Maseti⠀ ⠀ Mighty Peace Coffee was born out of the Congolese peace movement by an international team of business leaders, coffee experts and innovators, community organizers and human rights defenders. From Seed-to-Table, Mighty Peace Coffee delivers the best quality single origin beans from the heart of the Congolese peace movement.⠀ ⠀ #MightyPeaceCoffee #PeaceTrade #PeaceTribe #PeaceTradeLove #CongoleseCoffee #Seed2Table #FairTrade #DirectTrade #WomenSupportWomen #CoffeeLover #StandWithCongo #PeaceVentures #StierForward #GreatLakesConnection

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As a Congolese immigrant who now calls New York home, I dream of my country’s coffee not being an afterthought or an exotic option that roasters try once every few years, but rather a mainstay for coffee brands across the country. I’m working towards making this dream a reality because I know coffee can be a catalyst for inclusive economic transformation. A cash crop like coffee cannot be the only vehicle for development, but it can play an essential role. It will spark an increase in skilled jobs, industrialization, and private sector-led economic growth that will expand the country’s narrative. It’s the reason why I came into the industry. It’s the reason why we launched a social impact importing startup two years ago. 

This vision for inclusive economic growth will come to fruition through the mythical Congolese coffee bean. 

1. Bloom, Harold, ed. 2009. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
5. The Cocoa and Coffee Opportunity in the DRC, ELAN RDC, UKAID, April 2019
6. Assessing the growth potential of Congo’s Coffee & Cocoa Sectors, Center for Strategic International Studies