The relationship between Equal Exchange and the farmers in northern Nicaragua has survived war, embargo, revolution, counter-revolution, and epic hurricanes.
SOPACDI is located in Kivu, DRC, an area that has been wracked by ethnic- and gender-based violence that has destroyed the local economy and all but virtually extinguished the coffee sector. Coffee used to play an important role in the economy, however, years of warring factions and low prices gave the farmers little hope.
Economic collapse has forced many Congolese to smuggle coffee into Rwanda by traveling across Lake Kivu and engage in 'Troc', a bartering system used to get animals, other food products and supplies. This was one of the only ways to get anything for coffee due to the low prices offered in the DRC.
Smuggling the coffee is very dangerous activity, and as a result, many people have lost their lives trying to get a better price and access to any market they can. The lack of businesses and income generating activity has pushed the DRC into deeper turmoil and this has had violent repercussions. Decades of insecurity, fallout from the Rwandan genocide and the Congo civil war has left the coffee sector neglected or abandoned. Due to these circumstances, most of the coffee produced is coming from small coffee farmers that with old or rudimentary equipment and little access to international markets.
Coffee is the answer
In 2002, Joachim Munganga founded SOPACDI as a means to bridge ethnic strife and to tap into the international specialty coffee market. He wanted to focus on connecting people and creating incomes through coffee. He started with his own farm, and with his uncle, Albert Ngaboyeka, worked to rehabilitate an old, run down estate with a central washing station for the co-op to process coffee. When SOPACDI connected with Twin Trading in the UK in 2008, SOPACDI began to access the international coffee market. Twin designed and obtained funding for a program to assist them with business skills and to begin rehabilitating the farms and improving the infrastructure, including building the first new central coffee washing station in the country in over forty years.
"We didn't really know what a co-op was or what it would look like. Twin Trading has been there, encouraging the farmers to grow coffee and getting things started again," said Joachim Munganga.
It is important to recognize the pivotal role that our friends at Twin Trading have played in helping SOPACDI to organize as a co-operative and to work tirelessly to improve production and infrastructure at the co-op. The DRC is a difficult place to work and our alliance with Twin has helped to connect Equal Exchange with this incredible work. Our friend and ally, Richard Hide from Twin, has been instrumental in the development of this co-op and as I listened to Richard reflect on this experience, which he called "the most extraordinary experience of my life in coffee," I could see the deep bonds of friendship and admiration between Joachim and Richard. So much has been accomplished, yet there is so much more that needs to be done.
From inception, SOPACDI’s aim has been to bridge ethnic groups and to produce the highest quality coffee possible. Each year the membership of SOPACDI grows and today, SOPACDI has more than 3,200 farmers in the coop, speaking a variety of languages, including Kirundi, Kihavu, Kinyarwanda, Swahili and French. Over 20% of the members are women, many of these women are widows, some who lost their husbands as they tried to smuggle and barter coffee across the lake to Rwanda. However, the women are working to find their voices in the co-operative; many participate in co-operative meetings and have been very vocal about their situations as mothers, widows and farmers.