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In Eastern DRC, Ex-Fighters Make a New Life With Coffee

Bichera Ntamwinsa,23, picks berries from her coffee plants in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Farmer field schools and agricultural cooperatives can help smallholder farmers gain skills while strengthening their common voice. (UNESCO/Tim Dirven)

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From VOA Learning English, this is the Agriculture Report in Special English.

A cooperative in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is giving Congolese coffee exports a fresh start. The co-op is trying to do the same for former rebels and soldiers. They are being encouraged to make a better and safer living from coffee.

The co-op is called Sopacdi. Its headquarters are in Minova, a fast-growing town along Lake Kivu. Many people trying to escape conflict have moved there.

The co-op began in two thousand three. Last year Sopacdi began selling coffee in British stores. It had help from a British nongovernmental organization called TWIN and the British development agency. TWIN helps producers in developing countries sell to supermarket operators in the West.

Joachim Munganga is the president of the co-op. He says getting a "fair trade" certificate for Congolese coffee took two years. The group had to meet requirements involving respect for the environment and workers’ contracts. This year the co-op won an organic certificate and it now has seven buyers in Europe, the United States and Japan.

The purpose of the co-op is not simply to produce coffee. Joachim Munganga says the founders of Sopacdi were trying to find ways to help resolve ethnic conflicts in the area. So they brought coffee producers together and persuaded them to form a co-op.

Members of rival ethnic communities now work together at the co-op’s different offices. Sopacdi has three thousand six hundred members. They all work for themselves. But they also work together to elect leaders and promote common interests.

John Buchugwazi is one of the leaders of the co-op.

He says the co-op has shown its members how to get better yields and improve quality.

Coffee growers also needed better access to markets. Smugglers were taking most of the coffee from the area at night across Lake Kivu to Rwanda. Many of the smugglers drowned in the sudden storms that develop on the lake.

With the co-op, there are trucks that take the coffee to Sopacdi's own washing station. There a machine depulps the coffee berries that contain the beans -- in other words, removes the outer flesh. Doing this process by hand takes a long time and can mean a loss of freshness.

About one hundred sixty people work at the washing station. Many were fighters.

This former rebel says he is very happy with his new job. He now spends his nights in a house, instead of sleeping in the forest.