The shadow of colonialism, with its imaginary borders, still stretches over Africa. The echo’s fade is slow. It’s an easy topic to avoid when talking about the present because we’d rather speak about hope and promise, especially when we’re talking about coffee. But European conquest, followed by pawn-takes-pawn decades of cold war between the US and USSR, left havoc in its wake, and much of that wreckage has yet to be cleared. To leave these legacies unvisited is a form of dishonesty, Pollyannaish at best. Coffee, labor intensive, requiring relatively significant infrastructure, and government involvement for visible export if not purchasing too, rarely endures upheaval unscathed. To talk about coffee in Africa is to talk also about the state of the world in which that coffee grows and what ignition may lie beneath.

Although The Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) is known as the birthplace of Robusta—and Robusta still grows wild in the jungles—the country has been better known for other things. Congo, then Zaire, hosted the famous “Rumble in the Jungle,” in 1974, a fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. This fight which, believe it or not, was originally dubbed “From Slave Ships to Championships,” was held only fourteen years after independence and less than ten years into the despotic and U.S. backed rule of Mobutu Sese Seko, who would remain in power for another twenty years. This historic boxing match, considered to be among the greatest sporting events of the century, was emblematic of Congo following independence. Mobutu paid each fighter 5 million dollars (almost 25 million each today), from a growing treasury that was increasingly his personal bank, and he was just getting started. He was careless with his country’s wealth and resources. Just prior to the famous boxing match, Foreman unexpectedly demanded an additional half a million dollars because he was the reigning champion and felt he should be paid more than Ali. Mobuto commandeered a plane from Air-Zaire to fly a government official to France to arrange the payment. In the late 70’s, when coffee prices were high, Mobuto would again use planes from the national airline to fly coffee directly from producing regions to hasten delivery to markets so he could skim his share of revenue sooner rather than later.

Mobutu became a billionaire on the backs of his people, but like all corrupt leaders who are interested in wealth above all else, he allowed his people and society to function just enough to keep the money flowing. He created eleven centralized marketing boards for exports, including one for coffee. Of these eleven board, only the coffee board remains. Although he was motivated ultimately by self-interest, his efforts to stabilize and organize did have some positive results, at least statistically. In the decade between 1970 and 1980, coffee grew from five percent of recorded agricultural exports to ten percent.

A coffee nursery in the Kahondo village

However, these statistics likely have as much if not more to do with the price of coffee than government efforts. When coffee prices were high, there was less motivation for producers to bypass the government through smuggling. There is a long history of some coffee from Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda, being grown in Congo.

Although commercial production of coffee did not begin in Congo in any meaningful way until the end of the nineteenth century, Robusta has been known to grow wild throughout the region for so long that 100 years ago Robusta was sometimes called “Congo coffee” regardless of where it was grown. Commercial production of coffee began with colonialism, which originally, from 1895 to 1908, took the form of the country being privately owned by Belgian King Leopold II and named the Congo Free State.

Leopold suppressed slavery and attempted to organize and encourage adoption of agriculture, but financial woes caused him to eventually allow private companies to extract rubber and ivory. It is perhaps an indelicate word, but nevertheless accurate, to say that the country then became a slaughterhouse. Millions of indigenous people died, either as a result of working as slaves, or from being murdered just because they were inconvenient. When news of these events escaped, the world was shocked, and eventually Leopold was forced to turn “his” country over to the Belgium state in 1908.

Despite the horrifying outcomes of Leopold’s paper ownership of Congo, there are other stories and a story of coffee in particular. In 1895, a well-known botanist, professor Lament (who, you’ll forgive the aside, wrote about the effect that cutting down trees has on the climate 140 years ago), toured the country and declared it so suitable for growing coffee that it could become a “second Brazil.” On November 21, 1896, Leopold issued an order “obliging” all tribal chiefs recognized by the state to plant coffee or cocoa. The thing was, Leopold wanted to tax the people, but first he needed the people to have an income he could tax. He provided the chief’s with seeds for free, built nurseries, and then paid farmers one penny for every tree that reached a certain size indicating it would survive and produce fruit. Once the coffee was harvested, the chiefs/farmers would be paid fifty percent of the value as fixed by the Belgian coffee market. King Leo would get the other fifty percent. In 1898, the King built a railway for transporting coffee from the interior.

A market in DR Congo next to the SOPROCOPIV dry mill

Thus, commercial coffee growing was introduced to Congo. Notably, the plantings included Arabica in the highlands in addition to native Robusta planted elsewhere. Where shade was not naturally available, banana trees were planted alongside the coffee. When coffee buyers tasted the first coffees to emerge from this effort a few years later, they were said to have good taste and aroma, but “some of the berries are too large.” Coffee industry observers of the time felt the country showed great promise. By 1905, half a million coffee plants were under cultivation. In 1908, as the King surrendered his control of the country, 41 tons of coffee were exported.

The shift in control of Congo from King Leopold to the Belgian state inevitably resulted in the arrival of colonist, some of whom took an interest in coffee farming. Around the same time, disease decimated much of the Arabica. The settlers transitioned to Robusta and by 1913 most coffee exported was Robusta.

From that point, the story becomes all too familiar. Europeans began to take over and consolidate coffee production into large plantations. Not surprisingly, European producers were paid more for their coffee than we ingenuous farmers. And so began the tradition of production volume being significantly higher than export volume in a country where internal consumption is less than one percent of production. Indigenous farmers discovered they could sell their coffee for higher prices in neighboring countries. It is estimated that in some years before independence, as much as 78 tons of coffee was smuggled out of Congo.

But in recent years, Arabica from the highland areas has begun to attract attention from specialty coffee roasters. With development commitments from large roasters and quality development assistance from coffee traders like Schluter, DR Congo is now on the specialty coffee map. Washing stations have appeared in every growing region over the last five years and the country has hosted cupping events. Olam currently has six lots of Congo coffee available from the Kivu region, including organic coffees that exhibit a savory sweetness.

Like many coffee growing regions around the world, DR Congo has a troubled past that has yet to be left behind. Fortunately, the story of DR Congo is far from over, and now specialty coffee is a part of the story.