Kawa Maber: A Committed and United Cooperative Working to Produce Exceptional Coffee!Nov 11, 2016
What connects a cup of coffee, tackling conflict, the pursuit of excellence and the conservation of the environment? To find out, you will have to ask the 2,300 coffee producers at the Kawa Maber cooperative in Ituri!
In the wake of the deadly conflicts between the Lendu and the Hema that destabilized the province of Ituri until 2003, UNDP launched a socio-economic reintegration programme linked to the development of the coffee sector in 2005. The programme’s main objective was to encourage social reconciliation and to create a source of income for former fighters and their communities. Coffee plantations are nothing new to the region and have been present in several communities since 1936 when they were first imported by the Belgians.
The coffee producers grouped together within the framework of the Federation of Arabica Coffee Producers of Ituri (FPCAI, by its initials in French), which represents 32 coffee farming unions comprising 200 to 300 to coffee producers each. In the beginning, nurseries were created and coffee plants were distributed to producers. Thanks to the FPCAI, the producers learned not only how to live and work together, but also how to process coffee for sale on the local market. The support provided by UNDP came to an end in 2007, but the producers continued to work in solidarity, producing coffee and selling it mostly on the Ugandan market. The entirety of the coffee produced in Ituri, estimated at more than 10,000 tonnes of commercial-grade coffee, was sold as parchment to Uganda for around two decades.
When NGO Veco launched its support project for Ituri’s coffee producers in 2014, it turned to the FPCAI to support affiliated producers and help them sell their produce on the foreign market in accordance with WTO requirements, mostly in the USA. Their guiding principle: to grow high-quality, organic coffee, for export and for a higher profit.
The Kawa Maber (“Excellent Coffee”) cooperative was born, and the producers began working hard to improve the quality of their coffee. In 2015, UNDP joined the initiative and provided support in the form of infrastructure construction projects and capacity building to help the cooperative on the road to full independence. Results came quickly: in 2014, the cooperative exported 17.1 tonnes of commercial specialty coffee to the USA followed by 33.42 tonnes in 2015! At the time of the last sale, one kilogram of coffee fetched a price of 4 USD.
Critically acclaimed coffee
Several micro-stations were set up in the coffee producers’ cooperative, where coffee could be washed and processed, and sections were formed. These micro-stations allowed for the collection and processing of coffee cherries to make parchment coffee; five kilograms of coffee cherries (berries gathered during harvest) will make, after processing and drying, one kilogram of parchment coffee. Once the parchment coffee has been collected by the cooperative, the beans are removed from their parchment in preparation for export as commercial grade coffee. One tonne of parchment coffee will make 800 kilograms of thoroughly-sorted, exportable, commercial grade coffee.
Since 2014, the coffee produced by the Kawa Maber cooperative has been evaluated at higher than 83% according to international rating standards. This is what earns it its place in the specialty coffee* category, guaranteeing it sells for a higher price. But the coffee producers are not resting on their laurels! They are working hard to produce an even better quality coffee and win a place in the most prestigious of categories: “gourmet coffee”. The positive international feedback that Kawa Maber receives ultimately increases the revenue brought home by the producers, as their produce is sold at a higher price. The cooperative is also currently working towards obtaining organic and fair-trade certification.
The members of Kawa Maber now want to increase their productivity and develop nurseries to plant new coffee trees. In 2015, nurseries set up in the various micro-stations allowed for the distribution of 300,000 seedlings, creating new fields, sprucing up old orchards and increasing the size of existing orchards. Local species of tree have also been grown in nurseries. Once replanted, these trees provide the shade necessary for coffee trees to develop, and the ensuing reforestation could have a wider mitigating impact on climate change.
Practice makes perfect
With a view to stepping up the continuous training of small-scale coffee producers, Kawa Maber has set up farmer field schools. There, coffee producers can share their experience and learn techniques for increasing productivity whilst preserving the environment: pruning coffee trees, constructing barriers against erosion, increasing shade by planting banana trees, composting, mulching techniques, bio-friendly ways to fight harmful pests such as borers…
What is more, the producers have developed a system of solidarity by forming common financial institutions, known as MuSo, to incentivize saving and group-based lending. Today, around 23 MuSo are in operation.
As the farming community is spread out over a vast territory with very little in the way of transport infrastructure, communication between the cooperative and groups of producers is mainly conducted by mobile phone. Farmers send text messages to inform the cooperative about the amount of coffee collected that day, the funds they have available and the state of the equipment in their area. Agents working for the cooperative regularly do the rounds on the ground, firstly to evaluate the quality of the produce in the coffee fields, and secondly to provide advice to the producers and ensure they adhere to the processing procedure used to turn coffee cherries into excellent quality parchment.
The cooperative’s communication and responsiveness is important to opening up niches in the market. According to Thomas Anman, supervisor from the Mahagi administrative district, one of the main assets of the cooperative is having opened up the market to international exports: “Before, we had to go and sell our produce in Uganda and pay taxes. Now, we export our coffee directly from our community and we are payed in the local currency, which has its advantages. Congolese francs can be spent directly on our children’s school fees”.
However, there are still considerable challenges to be faced to improve farmers’ salaries and living conditions. For the cooperative, access to commercial credit to finance coffee harvests remains the primary challenge to be tackled to allow for the immediate payment of producers. For the producers, access to micro-credit to finance their immediate needs remains an issue. Anifa, a coffee producer from the community of Afoyo and member of the Kawa Maber cooperative, says: “For the moment, if we face financial problems, we have to use our plantations as collateral to borrow money. It is important to put in place micro-credit mechanisms to counter the mortgage system. The lack of access to cash makes us vulnerable. Some farmers who lack money prefer to sell to Ugandan middle-men who offer low prices, just to make some quick money to be able to make ends meet”.
Pending new, appropriate credit opportunities for this productive and expanding platform, the producers at Kawa Maber maintain their hope and vision for a bright future: to produce coffee which is even more respectful of the environment, fair-trade and of superior quality.
*”Specialty coffee” has become a generic label covering a wide range of different coffees, which sell at a higher price compared to other coffees or are considered by consumers to be different from classic coffee brands which are widely available.