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Coffee soap factory helps east Congo women make ends meet

Nsimire M'Buhendwa used to spend long days working in fields surrounding her village in east Democratic Republic of Congo, only to return home with backaches and barely enough money to put food on the table.

But the mother of four's struggles eased after she joined a women's cooperative producing coffee and coffee-infused soap bars sold in five Congo provinces, Burundi and Rwanda.

"I used to be a woman that left home in the morning and came back in the evening with almost nothing, not knowing how my children would study," the 43-year-old said.

Started in 2018, Heshima Coffee has created a source of income for around 1,500 women and youths in rural parts of east Congo, giving out free coffee plant seedlings and connecting members to fair-trade buyers once beans have been harvested and processed.

"Members have the guarantee of selling their coffee at a good price," founder Solange Kwidja Kahiriri said in the city of Bukavu, where the cooperative is based.

Around 100 women are employed at a Heshima-owned factory in Bukavu that produces about 5,000 soap bars per week from coffee beans.

Large brown blocks are cut into neat rectangles and wrapped by hand despite regular electricity outages that can last up to two weeks.

Kahiriri said the main challenge was transporting beans from remote areas with poor road access.

"If we had power then it would be easier for us to modernize, which would enable us to work with machines," she said.

Despite these limitations, today Heshima Coffee growers can send their children to school without rumbling stomachs.

"If you look at the coffee sector ... women only work in fields but are not part of the commercial process," said Kahiriri.

"But what men can do, women can also do."

By Crispin Kyala

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