Goma — Entrepreneur Gilbert Makelele wants armed groups in his part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to wake up and smell the coffee.
"You should tell the population to grow coffee, as it's the best way for them to make money," he told a militia member during a recent visit to the town of Kalonge, where he and his fellow cooperative members have planted a nursery for coffee seedlings.
The Kivu Cooperative of Coffee Planters and Traders (CPNCK), which Makelele founded five years ago, has planted six of these nurseries in the Kalonge-Pinga-Mweso triangle, a hotbed of militia activity.
"If the young men in this area knew how much they could earn with coffee, they would not be interested in joining militias," Makelele told IRIN.
"A paradise for coffee"
Coffee, a traditional export crop, was virtually abandoned across much of North Kivu in the past 30 years. DRC's production shrank from 110,000 metric tons in the late 1980s to about 50,000 metric tons in 2009, according to the DRC's national coffee office.
CPNCK says it is giving away half a million arabica seedlings to help relaunch coffee's cultivation.
Many people in the Kalonge area, including members of armed groups, appear to be interested in planting coffee. The militiaman told IRIN he would like to plant the crop on his ancestral land of more than 100 hectares, but that he would first have to raise US$1,000 to pay the land registry for title deeds.
Uncertainty about land titles and the involvement of Congolese and foreign armed groups are just some of the problems local farmers will face if they decide to take Makelele's advice. Planting coffee is a long-term investment, prices have been volatile and the market is not as reliable as that for food crops.
Nevertheless, the crop has paid off for neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda, which have increased their production in recent years. The crop is Uganda's single most important export, and coffee and tea together account for nearly half of Rwanda's exports.
The recent history of coffee prices could also deter would-be planters: The New York market price for mild arabica, currently slightly above the inflation-adjusted average for the past decade, has fluctuated by more than 300 percent since 2003, and has trended downwards since the late 1970s.
But coffee's promoters argue that increasing demand in middle-income countries, plus the possibility that climate change could lead to the spread of diseases in coffee plants, point to higher prices in future - and bright prospects for Kivu coffee.
Additionally, the temperate climate in the Kivu region's hills is thought to be protection against coffee rust, the most devastating disease affecting arabica. Partly for this reason, World Coffee Research describes the area as "a paradise for coffee".
This optimism has helped to persuade several NGOs - including Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Oxfam, the Eastern Congo Initiative and the Fairtrade organization Twin - to launch coffee projects in the Kivu provinces.
Twin has helped a South Kivu co-operative, Sopacdi, replant coffee and improve yields, quality and post-harvest processing, enabling its 3,500 members to become the first producers in Kivu to achieve organic and Fairtrade certification.
Sopacdi has publicized the job opportunities it has provided to ex-combatants. A number of them work at a mechanized washing centre - paid for by Twin and employing 161 people - where the coffee berries are depulped and dried.
One of the staff at the washing centre, former rebel Habamungu Engavashapa, told IRIN he was happy with civilian life because he was able to spend nights in a house rather than in the forest.
Another ex-combatant, Abdul Mahagi, said Sopacdi had trained him as a machinist and given him a contract; he said he was beginning to see a way to organize his life.
Other workers at the washing centre, however, complained that their salaries, about $60 a month, were barely enough to live on.
The main opportunities that coffee co-operatives are likely to provide for ex-combatants in the short term would be to clear land and plant seedlings.
CPNCK has been employing 50 ex-combatants on these tasks at a rate of $1 a day, much less than they would earn in artisanal mining, but not insignificant in most of the villages, says Jean-Baptiste Musbyimana, an agricultural journalist based in Goma.
The returns could be more enticing for ex-combatants and smallholder farmers who are able to grow coffee for themselves.
For information on the profitability of coffee versus that of alternative crops, IRIN consulted Franck Muke, an agronomist who has studied coffee production in DRC and in Brazil; Xavier Phemba, CRS's agricultural project co-ordinator in Goma; and Sandra Kavira, an agronomist working for the International Fertilizer Development Centre.
Their data suggest returns from a hectare of 2,500 coffee trees could be two to three times as high as the returns from a hectare of maize or beans, assuming an absence of mineral fertilizers and only limited use of organic fertilizers.
Jean-Baptiste Musabyimana, of the Federation of Agricultural Producer Organizations of Congo (FOPAC), which does not promote coffee, said coffee is regarded as having several advantages over other crops, including the potential for intercropping with bananas, beans or legumes, which provide organic waste and additional profits from the same acreage.
Once the trees have been planted, coffee also requires less labour than annual crops and is less likely to be stolen.
"Armed groups won't cut off the berries and eat them," coffee plantation owner Eric Kulage told IRIN. "And the workers don't want the berries either, whereas when they are harvesting maize they always solicit some bags."
Coffee's major disadvantage is the cost of planting and the fact that the trees cannot be harvested for the first three years and do not reach their full potential for five to eight years. Muke estimated costs of planting 2,500 trees per hectare, and pruning for three non-productive years, at $850 to $950. These costs, and the risks involved, limit the acreage farmers will be willing to devote to the crop.
Helping DRC compete
A significant limitation to DRC's coffee industry is the lack of mechanized washing stations, which cut down on waste and help maintain product consistency. Washing stations are the norm in Uganda and Rwanda, but there are hardly any in Kivu, where producers depulp the berries by hand or sell the wet berries to merchants from Uganda and Rwanda.
Aid agencies are planning to install several washing stations at sites close to large population centres and to Lake Kivu. But Muke says this could be a mistake, as the lakeside areas have higher humidity, which is thought to promote coffee rust.
There could be social advantages to promoting a perennial crop in areas further from Lake Kivu, like Kalonge Pinga and Mweso, where many young men see joining an armed group as their most viable livelihood option.
"If they have a perennial crop to look after, they will want to settle down," suggested CPNCK's Makelele.
But a major obstacle to promoting agriculture in areas where militias recruit is, of course, insecurity. Although armed groups are unlikely to steal coffee berries, they might try to steal bulk loads of dried coffee from washing stations.
Plantation owner Kulage commented that, in his experience, armed groups had not succeeded in stealing and marketing large coffee harvests in recent years. He suggested that security forces might be deployed to protect washing stations during the limited periods when bulk loads of dried coffee are left there.
Oxfam's co-ordinator for North Kivu, Tariq Riebl, doubted whether any donor would accept the risk of building a washing station in a place like Kalonge. He noted that 90,000 seedlings had recently been stolen from a CPNCK nursery near Kalonge.
"If you mention that to donors, they won't want to hear anything more," he said.
But Makelele argues that the theft was not a problem because the co-op was going to give the seedlings away anyway.
"I am very happy about it," he told IRIN. "It shows that people want to plant coffee."
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]