Journey to Women Coffee Growers in Congo
They experience civil wars, massacres, domestic violence, and earn 50$ annually. Orr Rachlevsky travelled to Congo to witness Strauss Coffee project with women coffee growers on a remote island in East Congo, part of ‘More Than A Cup’ program, and came back (barely) with hope and locals gratitude to Strauss
Sunday morning, I packed my stuff for the journey to Congo. BBC writes that “millions in Congo face starvation due to civil war”, machetes massacres, cut off heads, mass graves, abducted and murdered Western aid workers. I find that these events took place 1,500km from my destination, Goma in East Congo, and breathe a sigh of relief. A few hours later, a friend from Goma texts me that the city is rocked by violent protests, fire exchanges in the streets &two people dead.
‘Why am I doing this to myself’ I ask, then I remember. I’m going to visit one of the Strauss Coffee project supporting Congolese coffee growers, part of an organization called Rebuilding Women Hope. The project is part of our Green Coffee sustainability program “More Than A Cup” in which we support women coffee growers and promote gender equity in coffee growing communities. As part of the program, led by COO Amir Levin and Zug, we have invested in building a new washing station on the remote Idjwi Island in East Congo.
On the Congolese side, after bureaucratic delays (there is a reason why DR Congo is ranked 184 in Doing Business Index), there are no protests anymore, but the streets are filled with armed UN peacekeepers. I haven’t seen so many weapons even in Israel. We drive to our partner, Coffeelac, factory, with locked windows and without taking out our phones.
Congo is one of the richest countries on earth in natural resources, and one of the poorest in everything else. Annual GDP per capita is $480, No 8 in the world:From the bottom. Recently, it became a hotspot for global coffee production. The NY Times reported that Starbucks and Strauss are interested. The annual production is 12,000 tons of green coffee, like the consumption of Strauss Coffee Israel alone. Equipment is outdated, Most existing washing stations were established by the Belgium to serve only the white farmers.
The speed boat journey on Lake Kivu takes 1.5 hours. Dozens of women, and some men, greet us with traditional songs. We walk to the washing station and the drying beds that were built next to it on the lake banks. The regional representative of Idjwi one-of-two kings gives a speech. “There is a saying in Congolese that without a woman, a house will fall”.
The project was the biggest employment generator on the island this year. Another welcomed side effect was the construction of clean running water system which replaced drinking the diseases prone lake water. Geena-Esther, the women rep, says “the project made us proud. It strengthened our self-belief. Thanks to Strauss, our lives improved”.
Rebuild Women Hope objective is to re-establish the value Congolese society give to a woman’s work and to empower women. “To rebuild the spirit of a woman, is to rebuild the spirit of a country”, writes Marceline Budza, the founder.
Still, most of the visit is led by men. They estimate, with a grain of salt, that the project led to 70% increase of household income from coffee, partially due to quality improvement – coffee from the project won a regional competition – and partially through improved transparency and cash-flow which allowed farmers to cut-off middlemen. Geena-Esther tells that in the extra income farmers have bought cows and goats. Yet the poverty is evident, and cannot be hidden behind fake Apple bags.The average household income on the island is $50, Annually. Exactly like the 1 box of Lego that I bought for my son in the airport on my way back.