Muungano translates to “togetherness” in Swahili. It is the perfect name for the cooperative that produces this tremendous coffee, located on the slopes of the western banks of Lake Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). According to Craig Holt, founder of our importing partner Atlas Coffee, it is indeed this togetherness, this group ownership and skill, that allows such great coffee to come from the Congo.
This is my first experience with a coffee from the DRC. Personally, I was quite surprised when the sample showed up at the shop. I knew that the DRC, like many African nations, produced coffees. I did not expect it to produce exceptional coffee. What little I knew about the DRC was not pleasant.
Over the last 200 years, the DRC has shouldered a brutal history. It is a land full of natural resources, but since the early 1800’s its resources and people have been enslaved and exploited by Belgian colonialists and its own civil wars. The details are grim and ugly. After learning about them, I couldn’t understand how anything good could be happening in such a treacherous environment.
Craig reminded me that it is the hope of the Muungano members that is so extraordinary. In 2009, members first joined together and started using an old Belgian mill on the western slopes of Lake Kivu. They harvested Bourbon cherries, still growing on 80-100 year-old vines left by the colonialist. In 2010, Muungano exported its first container of coffee. This year, they plan to export five containers, two of which will go to Atlas Coffee. Over the last five years, the now 4,000 families belonging to the co-op have built three new washing stations and continue to carefully wash and dry the beautiful Bourbon cherries.
The drying techniques used make the coffees unique. Craig noticed that the use of raised beds and careful turning and monitoring are crucial for these coffees being able to hold up to export. They have to travel across land hundreds of miles (usually through Kenya) to be exported.
Muungano makes me uncomfortably excited. Its quality is surely worth more than the price we pay. When I look to the future, it is a cooperative like Muungano where I can clearly see how continued purchases by Blueprint could make a very large impact on its aim toward quality production. Sadly, I also fear that our attention and intentions could also bring attention to Muungano and highlight how precious and valuable its coffee is. With the history of violence and exploitation in the DRC, I fear that this resource will fall into the wrong hands. As Craig reminded me, we must just keep hope and togetherness with the producers of Muungano.