New Fair Trade Organic: Congo
Country - Democratic Republic of the Congo
Region - South Kivu
Territory - Kalehe
Name - Mapendo
Washing Station - Buchiro, Chebumba
Altitude – 1480-2000m
Variety – SL-28
Process – Fully Washed, 12 Hours Dry + 24 Hours Wet
Drying – Raised Beds
Certifications – Fair Trade, Organic
Coffee in the DR of the Congo
Africa is the birthplace of coffee. We have likely all heard the story of a young Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi whose herd stumbled into the magical coffee plants. They danced and danced until Kaldi’s curiosity got the best of him and he joined the caffeine-fueled dervish.
It is easy to image coffee spreading through Africa from that one fateful night, but things in Africa can be complicated.
The history of coffee traveling from Africa to the Americas is also a bit more well-known, or at least well documented. Coffee moved from Ethiopia to Yemen, Yemen to (eventually) Java (most say via a small layover in India), Java to France, (yes… that’s right… France, where coffee does not grow - but just one tree was placed in the most opulent green house in the world), from France to the “New World,” and the rest is history. This is the history of a variety of Coffea Arabica called Typica.
What is much less known and spoken about is the backdoor journey that coffee took from Africa back to Africa. Most of the coffee growing in Africa today are varieties that were not cultivated in Africa. The main variety that took this route back into Africa is a variety of Coffea Arabica called Bourbon.
World Coffee Research is an organization that tracks the genetics of coffee varieties to better understand the biodiversity in coffee so that we can make better choices in where to plant each variety of tree for it to flourish. Here is an excerpt from their website about this exquisite variety that was a cultivar born in the hills of Yemen –
Records show that the French attempted to introduce this coffee from Yemen to Bourbon Island (now La Réunion) three times, in 1708, 1715 and 1718; recent genetic studies have confirmed this. Only a small number of plants from the second introduction and some from the third introduction were successful. Until the mid-19th century, Bourbon coffee did not leave the island.
French missionaries known as Spiritans (from the Congregation of the Holy Ghost) played a major role in the dissemination of Bourbon in Africa. In 1841, the first mission was established in La Reunion. From there, a mission was established in Zanzibar in 1859. From Zanzibar, one mission was established in 1862 in Bagamoyo (coastal Tanzania, called Tanganyika at that time), another at St. Augustine (Kikuyu, Kenya), and another one in 1893 in Bura (Taita Hills, Kenya). In each of the missions, coffee seeds originating from La Réunion were planted.
The St. Augustine seedlings were used to plant large swaths of the Kenyan highlands, while the Bagamoyo seedlings were used to establish several plantations in the Kilimanjaro region on Tanzanian side. As soon as 1930, a Tanzanian research station at Lyamungo near Moshi began a formal coffee breeding program based on “mass selection” of outstanding mother trees found in the neighboring plantations planted with Bagamoyo seeds. (Mass selection is also called massal selection and means that a group of individuals are selected based on their superior performance, seed from these plants is bulked to form a new generation, and then the process is repeated). This research station is the ancestor of today’s Tanzanian Coffee Research Institute (TaCRI) main research station.
The seedlings from Bura were brought to another French Mission in Saint Austin (near Nairobi) in 1899, and from there seeds were distributed to settlers willing to grow coffee. These introductions are the origin of what became known as “French Mission” coffee.
Recent DNA fingerprinting has shown that old Indian varieties known as Coorg and Kent are related to the Bourbon-descended varieties. This indicates that in 1670, the first seeds sent out of Yemen to India by Baba Budan likely included both the Bourbon and Typica groups. This may mean the Typica branch separated from Bourbon when the Dutch brought seeds in 1696 and 1699 from India (not from Yemen, as is often told).
Bourbon was first introduced to the Americas in 1860 to southern Brazil, near Campinas. From there, it spread north into Central America.
Now you may be thinking… “Ok. That is the story of Bourbon, but what does that have to do with this coffee from Congo? I am pretty sure it is listed and an SL28 Variety.”
You are correct. This is an SL28 variety, which is a derivative of this Bourbon branch of the Coffea Arabica genetic tree. To be as clear and transparent as possible, we will again simply share what WCR has to say about this variety and its propagation in Africa –
SL28 is among the most well-known and well-regarded varieties of Africa. It has consequently spread from Kenya, where it was originally selected in the 1930s, to other parts of Africa (it is important in Arabica-growing regions of Uganda, in particular) and now to Latin America. The variety is suited for medium to high altitudes and shows resistance to drought but is susceptible to the major diseases of coffee. SL28 is notable for its rusticity—a quality meaning that it can be left untended for years or even decades at a time, and then return to successful production. There are SL28 trees in many parts of Kenya that are 60-80 years old and still productive.
SL28 was selected at the former Scott Agricultural Laboratories (now the National Agricultural Laboratories, NARL situated at Kabete—more information below). Individual tree selections made at the Scott Laboratories during the 1935-1939 period were prefixed SL. Forty-two trees of various origins were selected and studied for yield, quality, and drought and disease resistance. SL28 was selected in 1935 from a single tree in a population called Tanganyika Drought Resistant. In 1931, the senior coffee officer of Scott Labs, A.D. Trench, conducted a tour of Tanganyika (now Tanzania). According to historical documents, he noticed a variety growing in the Moduli district that appeared to be tolerant to drought, diseases, and pests. Seed was collected and brought back to Scott Laboratories, where its drought resistance was confirmed. It was widely distributed until superseded by its progeny, SL28. SL28 was considered the prize selection of this period of intensive breeding.
Recent genetic tests have confirmed that SL28 is related to the Bourbon genetic group.
Coffee has been a major part of the Congolese agricultural make up since the 1940s. In the 1960s-1980s coffee was a major export and reached a peak (over 2 million bags) in the 1985/86 season. Around 70% of the coffee produced was grown on plantation-style farms. These were highly efficient and effective at producing a lot of coffee at affordable, exportable prices, but these were also managed in a very colonial manner. Laborers were not being taken care of.
As Congo has returned to a more democratic system, coffee farming has been diffused out from plantations to smallholder farmers. Now plantations make up only about 5% of the overall coffee production.
Due to climate and a lot of other factors, Congo has also been known for growing far more Robusta (87%) than Arabica (13%). The farms that focus on Arabica variety production (generally coffee in the Bourbon family of varieties) are clustered in the Eastern Highlands of Lake Kivu just along the borders with Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda. This is where our coffee comes from.
Coffee production in Congo has been in severe decline for four decades. In the early 1980s they were producing 120,000 metric tons per year, and in 2020 they produced less 30,000 tons.
There are a lot of things that have caused this decline in coffee production including political, climate, costs, climate change, and more. The political changes over the past 35 years seem to have had the largest impact. Congo has suffered civil war, currency changes, and culture shifts that have forever changed the way things operate. Many of the areas where coffee grows, along borders with Rwanda and Burundi in particular, have been hit the hardest.
Organizations, small and large, have sprung up to bring revitalization and new shares of equity back to farming communities. One such organization is our partner for this coffee, Mighty Peace Coffee. Mighty Peace is founded and run with a mission to “provide coffee connoisseurs, specialty enthusiasts, and ethical businesses with the highest quality coffee, while sharing the stories of Congolese friends and partners to inspire, educate, and end poverty, injustice, and conflict worldwide.”
When we first heard the story of Mighty Peace and what they were doing in such a distant and challenging coffee region we were instantly intrigued. However, for us to purchase coffee, the quality also must be there. We have a fundamental belief that higher quality coffee improves the quality of the lives it touches. Paying inflated prices for lower quality coffee can create temporary price bubbles that later do far more damage in delicate growing areas. Quality must be firm for higher prices to remain sustainable and for equity to begin to take firm room.
We anxiously received coffee samples and were blown away by the quality. Truly, some of the very best coffee we have had from this region. We were able to select a particularly special lot, which Mighty Peace has named Mapendo.
Mapendo, Swahili for “love,” is farmed in 16 separate lots by 4,200 farmers, nearly 40% of which are women. Mapendo farmers produce fully washed coffee that has been certified FTO since 2009.
There are 3 washing stations that work to combine their top lots to create this coffee, including one large and two mini washing stations. A fourth station is under construction along with a brand-new lab for cupping and quality control.
Finding a coffee of this quality is tough. Finding one with such a rich mission attached to it is a miracle. Frankly, every delicious cup of coffee we share is a miracle. The work that goes into creating and protecting high quality in coffee is hard to articulate in a blog or even a volume of stories, facts, and figures. A picture paints a thousand words, and we believe that the experience of an amazing cup of coffee can speak the stories from a thousand mouths. The beauty in a cup of coffee can awaken us to more than a day’s work or study.
We invite you to pick up a cup and listen to the stories it holds. When you are drinking this coffee, hold in your mind and heart the brilliance and vitality of the lives a half a world away who joyfully grew these seeds just for you and this moment. Know that the shared joy is impacting your life to be just a little bit better, and you are doing the same for there. What a gift it is that we are all able to share in. Coffee is Love - Kahawa ni Mapendo.