For those of us whose lives are plugged in from the moment the alarm on our phone wakes us up to the minute our electric toothbrush cleans our teeth before bed, it is difficult to get a sense of daily life in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo). To label the region poor or impoverished, while true, misses the point a bit. Most of the houses are constructed of mud walls and iron sheet roofing is a luxury. There is no electricity nor running water and only 18 phones per 100 people. Basic, everyday chores we take for granted such as laundry and cooking, require a significant amount of time and effort. It’s like stepping into a time warp to go back two hundred years to an agrarian society before the industrial revolution, a society still encased in physical brutality and violence we can hardly imagine. Especially for women, who not only have to worry about their physical safety, but are treated as second-class citizens and have no financial say or independence, this society is harsh and oppressive.
In Eastern Congo, infrastructure and government institutions across the vast rural territory are absent, rundown or malfunctioning. While things are improving slightly in urban areas, rural women still have few available opportunities. Saddled with the bulk of agricultural work, firewood gathering, water hauling and childcare, they have generally seen an increase in their labor burdens as the economy has further deteriorated. Population increase and migration have reduced the amount and quality of land available for food crop production, forcing women to walk for long distances before reaching their fields. Girls are always the first ones to drop out of education so they can help with the domestic chores.
Over the last eight years, Original Beans has led the effort to develop a sustainable cacao sector in the Virunga region in the DR Congo. As a result, 15.000 farmers now produce organic certified cacao across the region, incomes have tripled and on-farm deforestation rates have decreased by up to 50%. Establishing a cacao industry in Virunga was the first step to changing the situation of women in and through cacao farming.
Our Femmes de Virunga program is a three-pronged initiative to improve and strengthen the social and economic position status of women in Northern Kivu. The program sits atop three tent poles: establish a culturally supported economic position for women within the cacao sector; improve the overall social and economic situation of women (literacy and enterprise courses); develop and market a dedicated ‘women to women’ Original Beans chocolate bar to raise additional resources and engage women on both ends of the supply chain.
As March 8 is International Women’s Day, we will celebrate our amazingly strong and resourceful women cacao farmers throughout the month, detail each aspect of the Femmes de Virunga program and raise funds to help empower as many women in the DR Congo as possible.