Travel Debrief: Democratic Republic of the Congo

Jonathan Robinson, founder of the Bean There Coffee Company, debriefs u|Chief on his recent trip to the DRC.


Tell us about your recent business trip?

Most recently I visited the small holder farmers we work with in the DRC through the Virunga Coffee Company in Butembo, which is in North Kivu (approximately 350km north of Goma).


What was memorable about the trip?

Travel is an incredible experience. I see first-hand the effects of direct and fair trade with small scale farmers. I always return enriched and more committed to our Direct Fair Trade business model – not only do we pay Fair Trade prices for our coffee, but we actively seek to establish direct and long-term relationships with our producers.

The DRC is a challenging environment, particularly because it is not frequented by international business people or leisure travellers, which makes it easy for local authorities to take advantage and try to maximise their revenue.

The roads and general infrastructure also make doing business extremely challenging. At times, the road trip between Goma and Butembo, which is a mere 350km, can take up to 10 days. The challenges, however, do not detract from the farmers’ incredible energy and passion. I was struck by the joy and commitment of the farmers and their real desire to produce and be rewarded for an exceptional coffee.


What was memorable about the trip?

These trips are primarily about relationship building. We work very closely with the producers of our coffee. Our annual visits are vital for keeping business relationships strong and transparent. During my most recent trip, we were able to secure a new lot of sundried coffee, which we can’t wait to introduce to the South African market.


What opportunities did you identify during the trip?

With its abundance in natural resources, the DRC has so much potential. The growth I witnessed in the coffee sector was so encouraging. I believe that if the DRC can sustain levels of peace and stability, the opportunities, for both coffee and many other industries (such as mining, hydroelectric power and agriculture) are endless.


What surprised you about the country?

Goma in the DRC is always surprising. The city in many parts is still covered with black volcanic rock from the 2002 eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano. This gives the city a raw, rough and sometimes disconcerting feel, but at the same time heightening the senses. You really do feel alive! I was also surprised by the extreme challenges of doing business, but encouraged that, despite these difficulties, many Congolese people are making things work.


How did you grow personally from this travel experience?

Whenever I drink a cup of coffee, I am humbled by the hard work and the many hands that make my enjoyment of that cup possible. Each coffee bean is hand-picked, and I will never take that effort for granted. Travelling to meet the farmers who produce our coffee reminds me of this fact.


Did you take away any valuable lessons or experiences that others can learn from?

Be grateful. In my family, whenever something goes wrong that is not really a big deal, we often use the phrase “first world problems”. Travelling to East Africa (the DRC in particular) gives perspective on life and reminds me of the many privileges and conveniences that I often take for granted.


What did you learn about the way the people of the DRC work and live?

One of the coffee washing stations we visited outside Butembo was just beautiful. The staff running the station take such pride in their work environment, with painted murals and planted gardens depicting the Virunga Company logo. I was impressed with what can be created, without a huge investment towards transforming a working environment. Dedication, positive attitudes and support of the whole team, create a healthy work environment – it’s not always about deep pockets and big budgets. 


Any fun memories?

A real highlight was the trek up to the Nyiragongo Volcano in the Virunga National Park in the DRC. The two-day trek covers some spectacular scenery. Once at the top of the active volcano, we slept the night around the crater, looking down into the hot molten lava – amazing!


Where would you like to go the next time you visit the DRC or the surrounding region for business or pleasure?

We try to visit different producers each trip. At Bean There we source coffee from Tanzania, Rwanda, DRC, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Burundi. Burundi and Tanzania are next on the list. Due to some political challenges in Burundi, we haven’t been able to visit in the last two years – we are looking forward to connecting with the Musema Co-op later in the year.


What did you learn about the people and the country itself that tourists could learn from?

Always tread lightly and humbly.

Constantly look for opportunities to learn.

It’s good to sing while you work…even if you’re out of tune!