The Democratic Republic of Congo is a place of dualities. It’s rich in natural resources, yet has the world’s lowest gross domestic product. Its landscapes are idyllic, but they’re dotted with violent armed militia groups. And although its citizens have endured decades of war, violence and poverty, they maintain an unbreakably positive spirit.
Baraka Kasali was born in Congo but spent years studying and living in the United States. He returned to his homeland to find that conflict and economic insecurity have limited access to employment, education and healthcare for the country’s 75 million residents. There’s officially no war in Congo today, but multiple armed groups continue to terrorize civilians.
“I realized quickly that the greatest opportunity for Congo and its people rested in the agricultural sector,” Kasali said of his return home. Specifically, he saw great potential in growing cocoa as a low-risk way of generating income.
Due to Congo’s ongoing political instability, growing or harvesting natural resources can make farmers or producers the undeserving targets of conflict and violence by armed groups. But cocoa is the exception. It’s been described as nearly conflict-proof because the cocoa bean doesn’t become valuable until after it’s fermented and dried, and this takes time and knowledge—neither of which the armed groups have at their disposal.
“There was a sustainable opportunity for rural farmers if Congolese communities could develop business relationships with clients who valued not only quality, but the people behind the quality,” Kasali said. But creating business relationships isn’t easy for Congolese farmers. The country is located in the center of the continent and has very little infrastructure, which poses challenges for distribution. Ongoing security issues have also limited trade opportunities, as most buyers are looking for uncomplicated, reliable sources of cocoa.
Kasali found a natural partner in Eastern Congo Initiative—an organization focused on creating opportunities for economic and social development in eastern Congo. He joined their team as a program officer. Their Farmer Trust program is revitalizing the country’s struggling cocoa industry by helping farmers to produce higher quality cocoa while providing greater access to international buyers.
One of those buyers is Greg Pinch from Lush Cosmetics North America. Pinch takes a holistic approach to sourcing raw materials. “We have this money that we spend on [these materials],” he said. “Where can we direct that money to have the maximum amount of positive impact?” Pinch discovered that buying cocoa from Congo was a fantastic opportunity to purchase a high quality product while helping farming communities thrive.
Pinch traveled to Congo to meet hundreds of farmers in 2016. He learned they had used their fair trade premiums to build a school for their children and infrastructure for storing and sorting cocoa beans. He saw firsthand how doing business with these farmers contributes directly to improving their communities, and is glad to say that the company’s demand for cocoa is steadily increasing every year. In 2017, Pinch estimates he’ll source about 80 tons of the creamy butter from Congo.
Kasali is optimistic about the impact the Lush partnership will have on the farming communities in his home country. Lush was the first international cosmetics company to engage with eastern Congo’s cocoa producers, and Kasali hopes this will set a precedent for future business in the area. “Companies must listen to the farmers and work with them as partners,” he said. “Lush’s respect for the farmers in eastern Congo is setting a new standard for how companies should engage in the region.”
Photographer: Gerry Kahashy