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August 10, 2011

DRCongo: fresh start for coffee producers

by Badylon Kawanda Bakiman

Long years of civil war and instability set off a crippling decline in coffee production in the Democratic Republic of Congo: the country's output in 2010 was less than a tenth the harvest twenty years earlier. Now the DRC government has a strategy to bolster recovery of the sector.

In the eastern province of South Kivu, coffee cultivation is being encouraged in all eight districts. Dozens of nurseries have been set up, carefully tended by local farmers.

"In June and July 2011, we handed over 414 kilogrammes of arabica coffee seeds to these eight territories to cultivate," says Nkamizama Bola, the sector chief for the National Coffee Bureau (known by its French acronym, ONC) in Bukavu, the provincial capital of South Kivu.

From January to June 2011, Bola says, the ONC produced over 250,000 seedlings, distributing more than 170,000 to a hundred planters working on 580 hectares across the province.

In Orientale province, also in the east of the DRC, the actors involved are growing the robusta variety of coffee. All is being done with the collaboration of the Provincial Steering Committee, a technical body created by the Ministry of Agriculture to follow up on the revival of coffee growing in the selected provinces.

"Nearly 700 hectares must be used for growing arabica coffee in Bandundu province (in the south-west of DRC). We have been training growers since June. We have already done a lot to popularise new growing techniques," explains Marc Tunieka, engineer and president of the committee in Bandundu.

"The cost of the recovery plan for Congo's coffee sector is on the order of 100 million dollars. About 50 percent is coming from the government, allocated in the 2012 budget," says Thomas Kembola, president of the National Committee for Monitoring of the Coffee Sector at the agriculture ministry.

The Strategy Document for the Recovery of the Coffee Sector 2011-2015 stresses that by 2015 the country wants to achieve a production level of 120,000 tonnes of coffee. The document outlines the government's plans to reinforce activities all along the value chain, including research, production, processing and marketing, as well as local processing and consumption.

According to experts, Congo's export volume fell from around 119,320 tonnes of coffee in 1989 to just 897 tonnes in 2009, and less than 6,000 tonnes in 2010, due to numerous factors such as the civil wars of 1997 and 1998.

But armed conflict is only part of the picture: the upkeep of coffee plantations and processing facilities has been neglected or abandoned; the big buyers have disappeared...

"Our greatest fear is linked to climate change," worries Joseph Katenga, an expert in coffee cultivation. "Drought could have a negative impact on production despite new methods that have been introduced." He recommends that the government makes improved, high-yielding varieties available in all six coffee-producing provinces.

Bonzeme said roasted coffee will be sold to the international market at a price of up to 4,400 dollars per tonne. Each producing region will have an agency charged with buying raw coffee from producers at around 380 dollars per tonne. The coffee will be harvested in April and May.

The plan has its doubters. "If the government has not restored the coffee sector over the past five years, will it really accomplish anything now, in the few months before the elections? I don't think so. We won't be distracted [from government's actual track record]," says opposition MP Leonard Lumeya Dhu Malegi.

"The country was in a big hole when we came into power," retorts Prime Minister Adolphe Muzito. "The government is striving to re-establish, bit by bit, many economic activities simultaneously to stimulate the national economy. There is no attempt at distraction here, we're putting everyone to work."

"The idea of relaunching the coffee sector is good. But the government must invest heavily and ensure follow up if it wants to have good results," said Arsène Ngondo, vice president of civil society in Bandundu.

IPS

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