Jim Ngokwey is a Managing Partner at Mighty Peace Coffee, an importing company working exclusively with coffees and communities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We met Jim, who is Congolese himself, in early 2019; but of course, COVID was soon on our doorstep. Nevertheless, knowing Jim has taught us a lot about the impact of, and, more importantly, the potential for, the coffee industry in the Congo. Through collaboration with Mighty Peace, we have developed a deeper understanding of coffee’s history as a Black history, in order to find our agency and place within it. Jim speaks very passionately about the core mission of Mighty Peace—to “support communities transitioning from war to peace in parts of DRC that have been victimized by the conflict.” He sees the potential for using the coffee industry intentionally to face the challenges that Congo inherited, and has chosen to take action through his work. We sat down with Jim ahead of the launch of our new Atlas Collection release, Congo Mapendo, to talk all things coffee, gender equity, and the impact of COVID-19 on coffee producing communities in Congo.
Q: We were so pleased to taste a women-grown coffee when you first offered us the chance to try it. Could you share about the decisions and goals to separate out this coffee grown by female producers in Congo? Was it a choice the growers made themselves? There is so much to learn about gender equity expressed in different places, and it seems to us that there is already a lot of value placed on women in Congo, so we’re trying to better understand that and learn from their strong example.
A: Before diving into the answers, I’d like to share that gender equity is important to Mighty Peace Coffee; we’re very proud to be led by women executives, Liza and Linda. We are working on initiatives to up-skill women in Congo to have more women understand the quality and business side of the industry and attain higher paid positions. We’re intentional about this as a lot of research out there shows that women spend most of their income on their families, a lot more than men, and that when you work on social impact, economic empowerment and poverty eradication, we believe women must have multiple seats at the table.
The decision to separate out Mapendo (men and women) and one exclusive from women producers, Mapendo Women, was spurred by an NGO operating in the DRC called Elan RDC. Elan RDC was financed by UKAID and its mission was to increase the income of at least 100,000 people across various industries in the DRC. Gender equality and social inclusion is one of its key pillars and that’s how the idea to separate into a women-only lot came about. The goal was to proactively identify women producers in the cooperative and seek their coffees specifically, help them improve quality, and increase their income.
Additionally, Linda has an extensive network in DRC and she always had great relationships with these producers, had tried their coffee in the past and early in 2020, and we started discussing how Mighty Peace Coffee could work with them. It started with free workshops that Linda would conduct with the cooperative, and as they started implementing her feedback, we started discussing working together on lots that we would purchase in 2021. The impact and feedback have been overwhelmingly positive and Mapendo Women will be on our offering list every year moving forward.
Q: When it comes to gender equity in Congo, or this group of women specifically—what’s their vision for their future?
A: They are working on various projects, many of which are around creating additional streams of revenue. Livestock and goat breeding in particular is a key project the women have worked on. Through this initiative they were able to raise and sell more than 1,000 goats, which is an important additional source of revenue for them and their families. A key priority for next year will be to evolve the goat project, to include chickens and pigs as well for further diversification and additional income streams.
Other short- and long-term projects include the construction of a clinic for women, to provide quality healthcare services in closer proximity to where producers live, to reduce and sometimes eliminate travel time to access healthcare. Another major initiative for the rest of the year and 2022 is to increase investments in AVEC (Association Villageoise d’épargne et de Crédit), which translates to Village Association for Savings & Loans. It operates like a credit union and provides loans to the community.
Q: The name Mapendo—love—is so powerful. Reading about the history of the women, some of them widows, was really meaningful to us. Was the name given to the coffee product first, or the community group first?
A: The name Mapendo came from conversations with our team on the ground and the producers; we wanted a name to identify the lots that are being produced for Mighty Peace Coffee and would represent the meaning and message they want to put out to the world through their partnership with us. That has been our approach with all offerings; brainstorm the message and meaning they want their coffee to have in the world, and name their offerings that way. This collaborative approach to naming the coffee, instead of naming it after the washing station or territory, fosters further ownership and engagement in this partnership, and allows the community to play a role in the story and meaning their coffee conveys to the world.
Q: We often talk about our shared challenges in this pandemic age. Could you share about the successes of the community of coffee growers that the Mapendo women are a part of? What do they feel proud of that they have accomplished over the past couple of growing seasons with the pandemic limitations?
A: Progress on the construction of the clinic and additional funds for the AVEC credit union were some of the brightest spots. But overall, the pandemic has been extremely challenging. Many producers abandoned their fields especially as buyers cancelled orders early on; times were particularly hard during lockdowns. As there wasn’t much traffic and much movement, their side businesses came to a screeching halt and many who expected to earn additional revenue through goats were hurt as their finances tightened. They weren’t able to provide veterinary care to their animals and quite a few ended up losing their goats.
Despite these extreme difficulties, there were examples of success in the pandemic; a producer named Charlotte Fikiri is one such example: she was able to take care of her goats and sell a few during the pandemic, and she used this additional income to purchase more land on which she’d produce and sell more coffee. There unfortunately weren’t many women as successful as Mrs. Fikiri, but as vaccines are starting to become available in Congo, we expect to have many more such stories next year.