Congolese Coffee, A Good Thing?

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One of the major advantages of my work du jour is that I come home smelling, no, reeking, of coffee. The roasting smoke infuses into my hair and my clothes. As freshly roasted and ground coffee is one of my favorite smells, I LOVE it, even though I’m pretty sure people on the train wonder why I bathe in coffee. I can even wipe a finger across my face and feel fine coffee granules coating my skin. Here’s hoping it’s good for the complexion!

This serves as apt a reminder as any that I’m not exactly in the fields, managing the canopies, monitoring the soil, dealing with the conditions of the less-or-un-developed parts of the world where coffee grows.

While I’m not involved in the agricultural aspect, per se, in the past four months and counting, I’ve evaluated green coffee from a smattering of wonderfully interesting places. Papua New Guineas, with their sharp, bright, citrus acid note are a top contender for my consistent favorites. Although Ethiopians, in no small part to their lore (arguably both the birthplace of humankind AND coffee?!?! Mind-splosion…), but also to the smooth, floral, winey characteristics also present in quality Kenyans.

I regularly taste coffees from all over the Central and South Americas, Asia (mainland and South Pacific), and in Africa ranging from the Ivory Coast to Ethiopia and Kenya. While many common coffee origins are no stranger to civil woes, today I tasted something rather unusual: Arabica from the Congo. Yes, the Congo is embarking on large-scale, commercial Arabica production. But is this a good thing?

It’s hard to comment intellectually or with originality on an area where I’ve never been, never known anyone from, and (with the exception of the massive civil wars and strife) know very little about. What I can say is this: isn’t it a good sign that a war-torn country starts to angle at least some of its resources to an agricultural cash crop? Isn’t is a step in the right direction that people, instead of being killed in droves, are tending said crops?

The tricky thing is that all is not roses (anywhere, but particularly IN THE CONGO for crying out loud–I hope that doesn’t sound woefully naive). Is it ethical for multi-national corporations to support industries where, in all likelihood, they are rampant with unjust, criminal activities? (Unfortunately, the coffee world seems to be swimming in this type of behavior so it’s not necessarily unique here.)

I feel the need to point out that my above rhetorical questions are 100% conjecture and–disclaimer–in no way represent the views of my employer. (Does that mean I can never get fired?) But they are questions worth asking and exploring. Although, again, my spare time is limited, I’m lazy, and there’s a movie on I’d like to get off my computer to enjoy.

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3 Responses to Congolese Coffee, A Good Thing?

  1. Miquel says:

    I have spent time in the Congo. Most likely the coffee you’re seeing is coming from the east in the same areas where the tea is grown, which is in the Kivu area (not 100% sure on this, but it would make the most sense given the climate there.) That was the region that saw the most amount of conflict in recent times and is admittedly in generally bad shape despite being absolutely beautiful in both nature and wild animals.

    There are several red flags that rise whenever products come out of conflict-riden areas:

    1. Is it actually from there? All kinds of “creative” exporting happens in this area to hide any manner of unfortunate things. For instance, it’s amazing the amount of coltan the Rwanda can export given that they don’t have any.

    2. Is it a front for something else? There was a Belgian fellow that friends of mine knew who was running a tea plantation solely for the benefit of being able to export rare minerals out of Congo.

    3. Can you visit the source? If you can’t follow up and perform due diligence on the source of a product from a “difficult” region in the world, then you shouldn’t be buying it.

    4. Most all of these “development” projects are crap. While they initially work to build some form of industry in a 3rd world, developing region, they have no long term exit plan that is realistic and exist more to fund themselves than develop sustainable business. It’s a great deal for them because if they fail, they just blame the unfriendly business culture of the government as opposed to their own ineptitude and inability to work within the given systems. High on my shit list right now are charity:water and without a doubt, the end-all be-all most horrible, do nothing but promote themselves group in the world, Invisible Children.

    You are right in assuming that even if this coffee project is on the up and up, some corporation is probably profiting on the backs of Congolese working in pretty crappy conditions. As you stated, this is nothing new to the coffee world, but it does little to help DRC in the long run as this is what’s been going on there for the last 130+ years, despite their “independence” that would state to the contrary.

    • Lisa says:

      This entire comment fascinates me. Why were you in the Congo? What were you doing there? When? Argh! So many questions, you’ve definitely piqued my curiosity…

      The only former war-torn region where I’ve spent any time is El Salvador. Actually, it was my work there that solidified my professional interest in agriculture and I haven’t looked back since. Your point 2 makes me sad (and intrigued!!!), and point 3 is a fair one. I work for a large company who purchases 11% of the global coffee market, so the higher-ups do tend to do their fair share of scouting and are deeply entrenched with vendors, growers, mills, and exporters. If I recall correctly, I read that Nespresso actually genetically tests their green coffee to ensure that it is from the correct origin–amazing(!!!) but not entirely pragmatic as an industry standard.

      Re: point number 4, I (unfortunately) agree with you wholeheartedly. While well-meaning, too many aid projects breed dependency. My background is in engineering (Civil) and I’ve long taken issue with, for example, the Peace Corps. Good people with good intentions, but negligible technical understanding of infrastructure (i.e. young, recent graduates who are “killing time” until they figure out what they really want to do with their lives, who can afford to take on such assignments because they want to travel–of course I’m generalizing here) get plopped into places in need, and install vital things like wells. What happens when they leave? The local community is left with sometimes non-native infrastructure that they (a) don’t know how, or (b) don’t want to deal with. In all fairness, I stopped following things like the Peace Corps goings-on around 2003/2005-ish, so it’s quite likely things are very different now. It’s sad because one thing I will never forget is the horrible fungal infection that I caught from swimming in the damn Rio Lempa–waste water treatment works, people from around the world, embrace it!

      • Miquel says:

        As hard as it may be to believe, I was in DRC completely as a tourist although learning not to take the sun lightly at the equator had me miss out on seeing gorillas as I was laid up with heat stroke for three days. That trip eventually led in to a now defunct project I worked on for several years which in turn taught a great deal about development and how it’s failing the world over. Much happier to be working in wine again.

        Peace Corps… That needs to be shut down now. The number of clueless kids I’ve run in to who don’t have a clue what they’re doing, stick together and don’t interact with the locals, and ultimately are just looking for a boost to their entrance letter to a Master program somewhere are too many to count. But, their development isn’t the only bad side. The people who work for it are treated worse than aging priests and nuns in the Catholic church. Having some kind of injury, especially if it requires long term care is essentially a death sentence. Viva American health care.

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