In our first meeting in May 2013, Gilbert Makelele explained the situation for the coffee farmers on Idjwi in a manner that was both earnest and urgent. Idjwi is a large island in Lake Kivu where coffee has been grown for more than half a century. Gilbert leads the coffee co-operative (CPNCK) on the island and is trying to unite the thousands of small subsistence coffee growers so that they can sell their coffee direct to the USA or Europe, anywhere he says, except Rwanda.
He told us that coffee from all around the DRC shore of Lake Kivu is smuggled to Rwanda on the opposite shore where it is bought at discount prices. This is the situation for 100% of the coffee grown on Idjwi and has been since anyone can remember. He said that storms on the lake sink the boats laden with beans and that hundreds of Idjwi coffee farmers have died. We learnt that those farmers who make it to Rwandan shores are often attacked and some are killed. Later we were to follow up on his account and talk to many people on Idjwi, including Mama Katambara whose own husband died smuggling coffee to Rwanda. She told us there are more than 1000 coffee widows on the island.
We made this short film about the situation:
Working with our partner Falling Whistles, we pulled together the money to pay for a container of Idjwi coffee beans and safe transport it to Goma where the beans were milled. Matt Smith, a far-sighted and helpful buyer from Westrock agreed to purchase the container and ship it from Goma to the USA, a process that completed in December 2013.
Inspired with this first success, CPNCK have since sold a second container, again financed by Luminosity with support from Falling Whistles. We are also offering advice on operational management and road-mapping and are now in the process of selling a third container.
Step by step the coffee farmers on Idjwi are opening up an alternative to Rwanda, one that saves lives and creates possibilities for a better future. We hope that a similar story will unfold for other coffee farmers around Lake Kivu. The SOPACDI co-operative in Minova have sold containers of coffee with help from Twin Trading, but the rest of the region continues with the dangerous journeys to Rwanda or, in some cases Burundi where they have to accept discount prices.
The land around Lake Kivu grows naturally good coffee and holds out the promise of a better future for the coffee farmers. Gilbert knows this and is determined that CPNCK will continue to seek buyers and continue to improve the coffee quality from Idjwi. We are supporting him and we hope that momentum will grow and that Kivu will one day be recognised not just for the quality of its coffee but also for the price the people have paid and continue to pay.