Over a span of 18 years, Dikembe Mutombo built a Hall of Fame NBA career that made his name synonymous with stifling defense and a trademark finger wag. In 1997, he established the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation with the mission to improve the lives of people in his native country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Mutombo also recently established Mutombo Coffee to revive the Congolese coffee industry.
A major accomplishment of the Foundation is the construction of a 170-bed hospital in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC. The hospital opened in 2007 and was built in memory of Mutombo’s mother. The hospital services anybody in need, regardless of their ability or inability to pay.
While certainly impressive and commendable, Mutombo’s latest endeavor involves building a thriving coffee industry in the DRC. “Rebuilding” is actually the proper term to use when describing the DRC’s coffee economy. In the 1980s, coffee was the country’s second-largest export, providing approximately $164 million to the economy. Connoisseurs prized Congolese coffee and rain-rich, volcanic soils in the Lake Kivu region provided ideal growing conditions.
However, recent decades of conflict and instability, much of it centered in the country’s coffee-growing east, have decimated output. Many Congolese people live without the infrastructure needed to safely operate their farms and easily reach international markets.
Mutombo announced the creation of a new coffee company in the first few months of 2021. He has placed special weight on not only providing economic sustainability and fair wages for farmers but spotlighting the unsung efforts of women farmers in the industry. The emphasis is especially significant given the DRC’s infamous struggles with sexual violence. Additionally, his work is important given that in 2018 an estimated 73% of the Congolese population lived on less than $1.90 a day. As the chair of the international distribution company, Cajary Majlis, Mutombo partnered with the DMCC Coffee Centre to bring coffee from the DRC to other parts of Africa and Dubai. Mutombo hopes to extend the coffee’s reach even further.
Perils of Congolese Coffee Farming
The Congolese wars between 1996 and 2002 significantly impacted the country’s export industry. Coffee farmers were forced to make a dangerous journey across Lake Kivu in small boats to smuggle their crops into Rwanda and neighboring countries. Locals estimate that 2,000 drowned making these trips. Those who made it were forced to accept below-market value prices for the coffee out of desperation.
Fortunately, many farmers no longer have to undertake this ordeal. The development of regional cooperative associations with stable international supply links has reduced some of the hurdles. However, numerous challenges still remain. Grenades and mines lie waiting in thickets around crops. Also, more than one hundred armed groups, such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda and the Allied Democratic Forces, still operate in the eastern DRC. Abductions and kidnappings also happen with some regularity, putting farming families at risk.
Bureaucracy and taxes pose additional hurdles and can reach as much as 13% of a shipment’s value. This total is far higher than in neighboring countries. Frequent delays involved in moving goods across the DRC border can needlessly increase prices even further.
Building a Market
There is also disagreement regarding the optimal strategy for marketing DRC coffee. Some argue the product needs to be sold at the lowest possible price in the highest possible quantities to reestablish the beans around the globe and compete with neighboring countries. Others believe higher prices targeting the burgeoning specialty coffee market are ideal. Congolese coffee shop owners say there needs to be more emphasis on building a domestic market.
Mutombo sees promise in his native country and so do others. A partnership funded by USAID, the Howard G. Buffet Foundation, Catholic Relief Services, Eastern Congo Initiative and World Coffee Research committed a four-year-long effort to help Congo’s coffee industry. The effort led to 4,000 farmers exporting their own coffee, which Starbucks sold in 2015.
Financial aid is flowing in to redevelop the region, and despite the obvious challenges, hope is on the horizon. With Mutombo’s track record of success and the personal touch of a native Congolese committed to prioritizing people over profits, Mutombo Coffee seems primed to bolster a region hungry to rebuild and thrive.
– Jackson Fitzsimmons