Hope for Congo

Marceline Budza

Marceline Budza is empowering women in the Democratic Republic of Congo to stand as equal, confident, and capable women in coffee.

At three years of age, Marceline’s parents would bring her a cup of coffee to wake up each day. Like most Congolese, coffee was prepared in the artisanal way: roasted in pans and ground in a pestle.

Back then, Marceline saw coffee only as “black and a little bitter”. These days, it’s her profession. Marceline wakes up each morning glorifying God. She drinks a cup of coffee after taking care of her husband and son, goes to work in the office or coffee fields, and continues to drink a cup of coffee every two hours.

Marceline grew up with a strong appreciation for coffee farming. Her grandfather was a producer and his efforts afforded Marceline’s father the privilege to study and support his family. In turn, it’s given Marceline a career.

“When I was a child I dreamt of being a journalist at an adult age, but with the difficulties of life and my family victimised, I began to think otherwise as an agronomist, to be useful towards the Congolese women, my family, as well as the whole world,” Marceline tells BeanScene.

She committed to her goal and completed an agronomy course, specialising in pyrotechnics at the Evangelical University in Africa. Marceline was fortunate to study, but says her memories of a woman’s worth growing up were not so positive. For centuries, Marceline says men from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in Central Africa have viewed women as inferior – “a baby-making machine” with the role to raise the children, do housework, and cultivate coffee fields.

“When I was a child, I remember that women were treated as worthless,” Marceline says. “They did not have the right to speak in public, nor eat with men. Her opinion on any subject was not important, and some did not have the right to study. All decisions were made by men.”

This view has started to change in major DRC cities, but not in rural villages. Community groups are using gender systems called GALS (Gender Action Learning Systems) to encourage women and men to work together equally, but more work is needed. As such, after completing her studies and workeding as a course assistant at different universities, Marceline started Rebuild Women’s Hope (RWH), a non-profit organisation for women cooperatives in Bukavu in 2013.

In a country that has been plagued by conflict, corruption, and violence against women for more than two decades, Marceline says establishing RWH was a big step towards supporting women in the eastern DRC region.

“I was inspired by my mother, who raised me and three sisters on her own, to create an organisation to help women take charge of their own destinies rather than accepting the daily suffering, persecution, poverty, and violation of rights they face every day in DRC,” Marceline says.

“Many women in the Congo suffer injustice under all forms, and especially in the coffee sector. It is the women who do all the work in the field but when [it comes time to market the coffee] the man takes care of it. All the money from the coffee goes to the men. This income does not serve for the benefit of the woman and her children.”

Marceline Budza
Rebuild Women’s Hope has helped 1800 community members improve their coffee quality.

Through her determination, RWH has already helped 1800 community members (Idwji women) to develop literacy skills and provid educational lessons in income-generating activities, saponification, cutting and sewing, and regaining economic empowerment by establishing a women’s coffee producing association and small business practices. Marceline says it is important women understand they are not only the centre unit of a family, but capable of being financially independent.

During the coffee season, women work in coffee washing stations and sell the coffee. When the season is over, they are encouraged to get involved in revenue-generating activities that can help them provide for their needs and that of their families.

“Without the work we are doing with RWH, Congolese women would think that coffee is a culture of men, and there would always be gender inequality in the Congolese coffee world,” Marceline says. “For me, the equality of sex is so important because it is this way that the Congolese woman and coffee producers will recover their rights. Without gender equality, Congolese women will continue to suffer from all the injustices.”

 In the beginning, Marceline says training men and women about the equal management of household responsibilities and of the coffee fields was challenging because men still held the mentality that women were inferior. But in the past five years, thanks to RHW,  Marceline says many men are beginning to associate their wives in the management of family property and coffee fields. Some men give the coffee fields to their wives to manage and profit from, and others even admit that women manage the income of the household better than they do.

Despite having optimal conditions for coffee cultivation at altitudes up to 2000 metres, the quality of coffee production on DRC’s Idjwi Island in Lake Kivu has historically suffered due to low agronomy training and support, and a lack of export markets with coffee sold to middlemen who would smuggle it across the water in boats into neighbouring countries for resale.

Thanks to educational lessons and training on different processing practices through RWH, more than 1000 women have registered as farmers, and are encouraged to treat coffee with respect in order to produce a quality product and increase revenue. In 2016, cooperative members sold their first container of coffee to Coffeelac, one of DRC’s largest Arabica coffee export companies for distribution to Falcon Coffees in the United Kingdom.

In 2017, RHW won Saveur du Kivu, an annual specialty coffee cupping competition for cooperatives in the DRC. The result was mutually beneficially for the women and their communities who received a higher price for their coffee and could subsequently prepare for future projects, such as new washing stations and improved living conditions. Prior to the establishment of RWH, local communities built their homes from hute. Now, thanks to the higher income generated from coffee sales, the majority have built their homes out of sheet.

In recognition of her own work, Marceline received the Robert Burns Humanitarian Award in 2017, which recognises the selfless, vital work that is undertaken around the world to help others. Marceline was acknowledged for her role in helping transform the lives of women in DRC but says for her, the joy comes from sharing the stories and life experiences of Congolese women at an international level.

Her next goal is to see RWH and Congolese female cooperative producers speak independently with buyers without intermediary from men, embrace entrepreneurship, establish several coffee washing stations, and build their own coffee-drying mill.

“My dream is to see women become autonomous and independent because she is capable, to see women understand that despite [circumstances] they can always stand up and change things,” Marceline says. “[I want] the Congolese women to understand that they do not have to be discouraged in spite of the little opportunity they have, the challenges they face, or the violence faced.”

Marceline knows the fight is still real, but thanks to RWH, she will always have hope.

“I want to be an inspiration to many women who stop believing in a better future because of life’s problems,” Marceline says. “Hope is always possible as long as we live.

“Building the hope of women is to rebuild the hope of a whole nation.”