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Dave Olsen featured in The Seattle Times discussing Eastern Congo Initiative

Ben Affleck’s Eastern Congo Initiative brings a message of hope to small-coffee-bean farmers, writes guest columnist Dave Olsen.

Dave Olsen 2By Dave Olsen
Special to The Times

IN the final weeks of 2014, nearly 40 tons of coffee arrived at the Port of Seattle after a journey halfway around the world, from the hands of farmers in the eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the doorstep of the world’s largest specialty coffee company: Starbucks.

In the 1970s, the republic (then Zaire) was one of Africa’s leading exporters of coffee. Roughly the size of Western Europe, the republic has enough arable land to feed one-third of the world’s population. Sadly, decades of war and instability have decimated the country’s coffee market and claimed millions of lives in the region, while communities have been forced to rebuild multiple times.

I’ve just returned from a trip to the region, with Eastern Congo Initiative, where I saw the incredible potential for sustainable agricultural production. Despite the harrowing tragedies that have touched so many, there is this sense of opportunity and resilience that I’ve seen firsthand. And it’s both powerful and humbling.

The initiative’s economic development work has focused on targeted private investment in the republic’s agricultural sector, to create opportunities for the Congolese people. We’ve seen this through our partnership with Seattle’s Theo Chocolate, which has sourced quality, organic cocoa from eastern Congo. This partnership resulted in a highly successful series of Congo chocolate bars, creating a stable source of income for families across the region.

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Dave Olsen serves on the board of Eastern Congo Initiative founded by actor Ben Affleck.
Yet cocoa is just one example of the republic’s agricultural promise.

Despite the odds, the towns and villages that dot the highlands surrounding Lake Kivu in eastern Congo have quietly produced some of the world’s greatest arabica coffee beans, and there is potential for a great deal more. This potential is what inspired me to join the initiative’s board of directors after more than 20 years at Starbucks, where I had the privilege and responsibility to travel around the world in search of the kinds of beans being produced in Congo today.

The initiative, in partnership with the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, Catholic Relief Services and the U.S. Agency for International Development, is training and supporting more than 4,000 coffee farmers to drive increased quality and quantity of their production, through environmentally sustainable practices. Working through three local coffee cooperatives, the initiative is helping build local business acumen and increasing access to previously unavailable financial services to catalyze market growth.

The coffee’s arrival in Seattle marked the first export ever made by the initiative’s partner cooperatives, which more than tripled farmers’ revenue in comparison with the previous year. This is no small feat, and continued growth could be truly transformative — not merely for the republic’s coffee industry, but for the farmers, their families and local economies.

The potential to increase the revenue of Congolese small-scale coffee farmers, also called smallholder farmers due to the relative size of their farms and reliance on family labor, has only just been tapped. As the quality and supply of the coffee crop improve, household incomes significantly increase, giving farming families the opportunity to send their children to school and improve their access to health care. Sustainable coffee production like this can serve as a vehicle to drive opportunities for social and economic development and will contribute to improving the security for rural populations in the republic.

Congolese farmers often call coffee the “green gold from the field.” With increased production and quality, I have little doubt that one day soon Congo’s coffee sector will become a model for long-term agricultural success. When that time arrives, it will be because of the commitment of the initiative, Starbucks and so many who played an important role in this extraordinary success story.

And as we enjoy Congolese coffee, we help the Congolese people write a new, hopeful chapter in their country’s history. Through this seemingly simple act, we will make an incredible difference in the lives of farmers and their communities.

Dave Olsen serves on the board of Eastern Congo Initiative founded by actor Ben Affleck. Olsen was at Starbucks for 27 years.