Growing Specialty Coffee in Times of Conflict: Case Studies in East Africa – 25 Magazine, Issue 8

Growing Specialty Coffee in Times of Conflict: Case Studies in East Africa – 25 Magazine, Issue 8

TThe Great Lakes region of Africa is perhaps the most conflict-ridden part of the world.

Dr. JOSEPH KING explores the role of specialty coffee across two case studies of conflict and development efforts in Rwanda and Eastern Congo. All photos by Dr. King.

The peoples of the Great Lakes region are as diverse as its ecosystems, geographically marked by volcanoes, rainforests, savannas, and lakes. Numerous tribal groups, national boundaries, and political alliances spread across an area including the countries of Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, and the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Conflicts have persisted in the region for much of its history – perhaps the most dramatic conflict was the Rwandan Genocide from 1993 to 1994 – but the roots of that atrocity extend into the colonial period and before, with continuing repercussions today.

The conflict dynamics in the Great  Lakes region have been a complex mix of ethnic tensions, colonial social architecture, inequitable access to natural resource endowments (extractive mining and oil industries), and weak government institutions. Tribal affinities cross national boundaries with a relatively free flow of communities, exacerbating the various conflicts and causing further instability with large movements of refugees and militants. The issue of displaced persons from the Rwandan Genocide 25 years ago is one of the ongoing points of political disagreement between the Rwanda and Congolese governments today. Rwanda and Congo themselves have been in active conflict with each other – only recently have we seen a serious partnership built between the two to resolve border disputes and collaborate to create economic opportunity around Lake Kivu.

Past: Rwanda

After 1994, the Rwandan people rebuilt their country by securing their borders, national reconciliation, and systematic restructuring of economic opportunities. Rwanda understood that strategies were needed to assist communities in overcoming these conflict dynamics and to create stability in the region. Leadership became focused on accountable governance that directly addressed the needs of all people in Rwanda. Rwanda is a rural country: like much of Africa, it is a country of farmers with little broad-based alternative livelihoods available, making on-farm solutions essential to rebuilding the country. Rwanda knew that agriculture, as a preoccupation throughout the country, had to be a key strategy in the post-conflict recovery. Conflict is often caused or worsened by inequities between different components of society; non-agricultural development efforts tend to focus on urban centers, further exacerbating conflict.


Laetitia Mukandahiro (left) and Rachel Dushimiyimana (right) cup coffees at a lab in Huye, Rwanda. Having a cupping lab within the community close to cooperatives was important to increase quality and drive home the connection between quality and price.


As part of its accountability, the government created detailed roadmaps for the transformation of the agricultural economy. Those roadmaps became critical for the future success of Rwanda, laying out the issues to be addressed and the proposed solutions. Specialty coffee became one of those essential solutions.

Initially, local communities didn’t hold much store in coffee. Its first hurdle was its provenance: introduced to the region by European missionaries at the beginning of the twentieth century, coffee was used as a cash crop by colonial powers in the subsequent decades. Its second hurdle: coffee is inedible, so you couldn’t feed it to your family or livestock. Colonial structures also usually provided only one outlet to sell coffee cherries with no pricing power. As a result, there was very little perceived value in the crop. After the genocide, when communities began to recover and look for opportunities, coffee was initially dismissed in favor of the more immediate need of food security for the country.

With many of the French and Belgians having fled the country by the end of the conflict, the last colonial systems were largely destroyed: there was no longer a ready market. However, coffee – the crop with little value – was resilient to the conflicts. It is one of the key perennial conflict crops that is able to both survive conflicts and help communities recover from them. Farmers were beginning to uproot the heirloom Bourbon varieties when an opportunity was identified to use the trees to help the recovery of the rural economy. Coffee was a ready resource throughout the country. And it could be quickly rehabilitated for the benefit of everyone by a program focused on organizing farmers to deliver a quality product.

The Rwandan post-conflict strategy was heavily focused on rural enterprise and organizing agriculture production. Where before, coffee was a colonial/post-colonial activity, the re-energized coffee industry in the new Rwanda would be farmer owned by community cooperatives. This empowerment amplified the post-conflict economic and social recovery: it allowed women and orphans from the genocide to have hope in the future of the country. Once the quality of the plants and production was realized, the specialty coffee industry paid attention and assisted with the development of the sector. But it took great effort to organize farmers and build the management capacity of the cooperatives. Farmers largely knew how to tend the plants and harvest the crop, but lacked experience in managing the cooperatives as companies, making international transactions with foreign roasters, and delivering the quality product needed for international markets.


Edwige Musabe of the SPREAD Project (right) and Stephanie Curs of Texas A&M University (left). SPREAD (Sustaining Partnerships to Enhance Rural Enterprise and Agribusiness Development) is an alliance of US, Rwandan, and European institutions, organizations, and industries funded by the United States Alliance for International Development (USAID).


The Rwandan coffee redevelopment focused on delivering quality, environmental, and economic sustainability and competent cooperative management. Cooperatives benefited from the government priorities of agriculture development, from the international coffee industry being excited about a new origin of specialty coffee, to the consumers being able to contribute to the post-conflict success of Rwanda. But all of this was dependent on the Rwandan people and leadership making profound changes to the country. The leadership was serious about its commitments to eliminating corruption, promoting foreign investment, opening markets for exports, and supporting farmer-led cooperatives. Good governance and local management were critical. In the last few years, the leadership in Rwanda continues to extend the progress through a focus on farm-to-market road networks, rural electrification, and education for every child.

Ongoing: East Congo

Across the border in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the on-farm dynamics are very similar. North and South Kivu (the eastern Congolese provinces bordering Rwanda) used to be a center of mass colonial coffee production decades ago, now withered due to perennial instability and conflict. It has the potential to be that again and become another great origin of specialty coffee; coffee has the potential to be a critical tool for the economic development and stability of the region. However, the off-farm dynamics of Eastern Congo and Rwanda are in stark contrast: where Rwanda has been able to focus on good governance and accountability, the large country of Congo remains mired in conflict. Today, Rwanda has perhaps the least corruption in Africa; Congo is listed among the most corrupt. Only now (December 2018, at the time of writing) has the Congo’s first democratic election occurred since the country’s independence in 1960. The largest force of United Nations peacekeepers is still present throughout the country, and armed militia groups still operate throughout much of North and South Kivu.


Coffee dries on raised beds outside of Bukavu in South Kivu, DRC.


Much has already been done to empower the coffee industry in Eastern Congo. In South Kivu, new varieties have been introduced, cupping labs established, and cooperatives are being strengthened in order to create economic opportunity in rural communities. The hope is that this creates some areas of stability where progress can take hold. But this cannot be done in isolation – it needs to be in partnership with a government focused on eliminating corruption and barriers to exporting coffee to international markets. In addition, there remains tension between newer farmer-led cooperatives and the old colonial systems that – unlike Rwanda – persist in Congo. While both provide income to farmers, cooperatives are seen as the future that creates local empowerment and ensures the quality necessary for the high-valued specialty market. Cooperatives allow for greater transparency in the value chain and for farmers to become valued partners of the specialty coffee industry.

Looking Ahead

The Kivus remain difficult. Even though coffee production is present, active conflict and the outbreak of Ebola in North Kivu (August 2018) threaten the growth of the industry. Despite this, several specialty coffee companies have made commitments to Kivu cooperatives to support the future of coffee in Eastern Congo. This support provides the needed pressure for government accountability, improvement for specialty coffee research and development in the region, and training for cooperatives. The structure of Rwanda’s agriculture development is a good starting point for creating stability in Eastern Congo: despite the mistrust and history of conflict between the two countries, the learnings from the growth of the specialty coffee industry in Rwanda is being used to strengthen specialty cooperatives in the Kivus.

Coffee plants at a new nursery in a cooperative in South Kivu, DRC. It had been years since new plant material was available to the cooperative’s farmers to replace and expand their farms. This nursery was replicating local varieties, but alongside this, new varieties from outside DRC are being tested locally as part of the World Coffee Research international multi-locational variety trial to introduce new genetics into DRC.


Specialty coffee has been a change agent for many places around the world recovering from conflict. It has connected former subsistence farmers to international markets and created mechanism to provide high-valued diffused development throughout society. It is a key driver of the success of Rwanda recovering from horrific genocide and it is being used as a tool to help Eastern Congo recover from decades of instability. As a conflict crop, it helps communities recover and rebuild, using market forces to transform subsistence farms to sophisticated partners in a global supply chain. Specialty coffee, uniquely among agricultural commodities, creates hope in a better future. ◊

Dr. JOSEPH KING is the Managing Fellow of the Conflict and Development Foundation at Texas A&M University and Senior Advisor to the Center on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University.

Interested in learning more? “From Conflict to Coffee: Overcoming Barriers for Coffee Growers in the Democratic Republic of Congo” is one of the Humanities and Social Sciences lectures on offer to attendees at the Specialty Coffee Expo in Boston (April 11-14). View the full schedule at

LEAD Scholar SMAYAH UWAJANEZA wrote about her own experience living and working in specialty coffee in Rwanda. Read the SCA News Online Exclusive here.


Identifying Conflict Resistant Crops

Policymakers and development practitioners can more effectively equip rural communities during conflict by understanding the characteristics of conflict resistant crops. This allows for planners to be proactive with focused development assistance rather than being reactive with disaster recovery. There are complex relationships between armed forces and rural communities before, during, and after conflict that need to be understood and respected in order to promote food security and post-conflict recovery.

Communities may still function even in the presence of armed forces, and thus conflict resistant crops allow for production of food while minimizing economic loss due to conditions of conflict. From an agricultural economic point of view, “conflict resistant crops” demonstrate a tolerance to conflict by household production quantities falling at a slower rate – or even increasing – when compared to other crops during periods of conflict. A conflict resistant crop has a comparative advantage to farmers during conflict.

[para 3] Also embedded in the idea of conflict crops is the notion that not everyone in a conflict becomes a displaced person. Many communities continue to operate and survive during conflict. Building a framework for identifying and using conflict crops by policymakers is a relatively new area of scholarship advanced by the Center on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University. Under this framework, “conflict crops” (and livestock) meet at least some of the following criteria:

  • Require significant processing
  • Are difficult to transport
  • Have flexible harvest times or short growing seasons
  • Does not ripen all at once
  • Require little labor or less time-sensitive labor/inputs during growth periods
  • Are in close proximity to households and rural centers
  • Maintains future productive capacity even if momentarily ravaged


Crops which meet these criteria change depending on country and environment, and, while a diverse set of crops could be considered to be “conflict resistant,” the Center on Conflict and Development suggests that the unifying characteristic is the difficulty with which an armed group might profit from the crop, either by consuming or selling it. While these attributes can be inconvenient for the producer, he or she can more easily adjust to the inconveniences than roaming bands of combatants. Many parts of DRC (and other conflict communities in places such as Colombia, Iraq, Myanmar, and Afghanistan) have existed under conflict conditions for decades and have had to adapt – people still need to eat and farmers still farm.

Among conflict resistant crops, specialty coffee is unique: there are plenty of other high-value agricultural commodities (cocoa, vegetables, cut flowers), but they are very difficult to implement in a cooperative model that delivers as much benefit to individual farmers as specialty coffee. Cooperatives allow farmers greater market power as partners in the value chain. While most other agricultural development can improve the lives of farmers – increased food security, increased livelihoods, better nutrition – a well-executed cooperative model of specialty coffee production can transform communities well beyond just having more food available or a marginal increase in income. Through cooperatives, farmers see significant financial incentive of improved value for improved quality and are more concretely linked to international consumers.

Coffee has proved to be a valuable commodity for sustaining families and communities during conflict and an important asset supporting recovery from conflict.


Special Thanks to Our Issue 8 Sponsor, Bellwether

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