Project News

Interview with Café Kivu on building a fairer, more sustainable, local coffee brand and surviving a volcanic explosion

As most of the profit from worldwide coffee sales is generated outside the country of origin, local farmers are typically left with minimal income. By contrast, Congolese coffee company Café Kivu sources, roasts, packages and markets the best coffee beans from the Kivu region of the DR Congo locally, thereby fostering employment opportunities and economic growth within the country. It also means that the end product remains affordable enough for local consumers to enjoy.

With funding from PREO, the company plans to scale its roasting production using an energy efficient, cost-effective electric roaster connected to a solar hybrid plant. This reliance on clean energy will reduce the total carbon footprint from seed to cup.

Distribution will also be expanded through a franchise licensing and asset loan system, providing local entrepreneurs with a mobile coffee cart to promote the brand in urban centres. By reaching higher revenue and sales targets, Café Kivu hopes to progress towards developing export markets in the US, Middle East, and Asia. PREO has interviewed Café Kivu’s Jonathan Shaw to find out more.

Q: Can you tell us about the origin of your company, its place in the coffee value chain, and what you hope to achieve through it?

A: Café Kivu began with my own hunt for a great coffee product whilst living in eastern Congo. I was doing academic research in North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2014, and I would go on long hikes in the hills of the Semliki River escarpment near my research base. This area was full of thousands of hectares of arabica coffee farms, but it was impossible to purchase that very coffee in the areas directly adjacent to its production.

The only coffee I could purchase was instant coffee grown and packaged thousands of kilometers away. The viability of instant coffee as a consumer product in Congo proved to me that there was a market for coffee, but I couldn’t buy fresh roasted coffee grown near where I lived. I realised the major reason for this was a lack of access to energy. The necessary heat to roast coffee as well as energy used in processing and packaging was not available. So much of the value lost in exporting green beans and not providing any value addition locally was due to a lack of access to energy.

The obsession of Café Kivu is to capture as much of that value at origin – to reclaim the 85 cents on the dollar for retail coffee that is generated outside of the country of origin. It goes far beyond just increasing the price of beans to a farmer. Our vision is to foreground and make visible the dozens of local people at origin who are critical to the coffee value chain and the invisible forces – like access to energy – that make local value creation possible. With funding from PREO, we plan to introduce and scale sustainable roasting infrastructure using an energy efficient, cost-effective electric roaster connected to a solar hybrid plant run by our project Partner Nuru Energy while gradually capturing more value locally.

Q: What led you to choose Goma as a base for your company?

A: Goma is a beautiful city on the shores of Lake Kivu which serves as a link between the major population centers of eastern Congo to the north and south as well as to East Africa via nearby land borders to Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania. Goma offers good transportation, international airport links and reliable energy infrastructure from Nuru.

Q: Goma recently experienced a destructive volcanic eruption; can you share your first-hand experience?

A: At about 6 pm on the night of May 29 the power went out in much of the city and the night sky turned an ominous red. With no notice of any kind an eruption of lava had exploded out of the eastern flank of the Nyrigongo mountain about 15km north of Goma. By the next day over 2,000 homes had been destroyed, over the next week over 300 earthquakes had occurred, and fissures had opened up in the city. Much of the city evacuated on orders of the governor.

Q: How did the recent volcanic eruption in May impact your company’s operations and their sustainability?

A: While others take their unprocessed raw coffee to the borders directly for trade and exports, we are one of the few domestic coffee processors in the region. Our supply chain seized up since all of our raw coffee comes through the eastern part of Goma city that was worst affected by the eruption. We also lost at least 3 weeks of PREO project implementation time period, including delays to running our day-to-day administrative operations and importing / installing our electric roaster due to the logistic nightmares caused by the eruption. The flexibility of the PREO team allowed us to immediately jump back into the work as soon as we were able to return to the city.

Nuru Energy, our PREO project partner and the company operating the solar minigrid powering Café Kivu, was the only energy supplier to maintain operations for 100% of the time the eruption was occurring. People from all over Goma came to the Nuru grid to be able to find security, food and energy in incredibly difficult times. Nuru saw a spike in utilisation and the eruption doubled the load from grain millers. Nuru also provided an emergency connection to water piping facility that pumped treated water for 5,000 people. Some processors and exporters that were connected to the grid with a generator backup were able to continue operations but were impacted by sudden spikes in diesel prices and availability issues.

Q: How has your business responded to the eruption? What were the key lessons learned in terms of building business resilience?

A: The major roads that lead to eastern Goma were closed for 2 to 3 weeks and most of our raw coffee come from these routes. So, since our coffee supply chain suffered major setbacks, the coffee processing capacity came to a standstill in spite of being unhindered by the eruption and connected to a reliable electricity infrastructure. One of the key learnings from this experience will lead to a change in our procurement strategy, which will move to bulk procurement. This way, we can also benefit from economies of scale. We also plan to invest in additional electric roasting facilities and gradually phase out the gas-powered operations.

Also, one of the most unexpected outcomes is the demonstration of distributed energy’s resilience in an unstable geological environment that included a major volcanic eruption and 300 minor earthquakes. The decentralised solar system provided by Nuru was the only power system to remain 100% available during the entire period. We are so grateful for PREO’s commitment and interest in our project that demonstrates the resilience of decentralised, locally integrated solutions.