Congo’s Specialty Brews Look to Be the ‘Future of Coffee’

Linda Mugaruka perched her nose above a steaming cup of coffee. Swilling and then spitting, she noted that it was clean and sweet with traces of fruit. On her clipboard she scrawled 94, a high score for a specialty coffee.

Ms. Mugaruka, 24, is one of few cuppers, or coffee tasters, from the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the only woman working as a cupper in the region. This spring, flanked by connoisseurs from South Korea and the United States, she stood over some of the most highly coveted cups of specialty coffee from her homeland at the nation’s fledgling annual coffee festival, held here in the eastern city of Bukavu.

At the gathering, called the Saveur du Kivu, or Flavor of Kivu, cuppers sought to discover new flavors from a nation troubled by conflict and political instability, yet believed to be one of Africa’s most promising producers of specialty coffee, with the potential to be one of the world’s biggest producers of commercial-grade coffee as well.

Coffee was once Congo’s second biggest export, after copper, contributing an estimated $164 million to the nation’s economic output in the 1980s. But during recent decades of conflict, exports dropped drastically.

Now, with millions of dollars in donor funding in recent years to build the coffee industry and help stabilize the region, coffee exports have steadily increased and farming cooperatives are attracting the attention of global buyers like Starbucks and the Israeli company Strauss.

This is despite an overall economic crisis in Congo, political turmoil over President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step down at the end of his term and violence including atrocities carried out by a government-linked militia that were cited by the United Nations.

During the first half of the 20th century, as the country was subjected to exploitative Belgian rule, extensive coffee plantations rolled through the green hills of eastern Congo. The country’s beans were roasted in coffee houses in Brussels and Rome, and its coffee was among the world’s finest.

The coffee industry was decimated after rebel groups marched through those fields in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and the toppling of Congo’s longstanding dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, in 1997.

Farmers fled to cities and even outside Congo, leaving their crops to rot as government security forces and militant groups tore through the countryside.

Read more at The New York Times

Chariese ElizabethComment