The Coffee Industry's Response to the Ebola Crisis in Eastern DRC

Guest post written by Sara Mason, Founder and Executive Director of SHIFT Social Impact Solutions and ID Coffees

According to health officials closely associated with the ongoing Ebola virus disease (EVD) outbreak response in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), of the more than 2,500 confirmed cases, as of July 18, it claimed over 1,700 lives. On July 17, 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).

While infrequent, Ebola’s scourge is not new for public health officials or communities within the region. Testing system preparedness and response measures already in place, the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa spread to several African countries, killing 11,325 before being contained. As a result, collaborative local, national, regional, and international efforts led to improved approaches to prevention, detection and response to public health events of International concern including emerging and re-emerging threats.

“Since the 2014-2016 EVD crisis in West Africa, nations have taken significant steps towards compliance with the International Health Regulations (IHR 2005) and implementation of the IHR Monitoring and Evaluation Framework (MEF-IHR) to prevent, detect, and respond to future public health threats.

One critical improvement in the way public health events are seen and tackled by national governments is the establishment of multisectoral coordination mechanisms called National One Health Platforms. Through One Health platforms, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone – the three countries most heavily affected by the EVD crisis of 2014-2016 – now have a coordinated approach to surveillance, early detection, and response to public health threats including diseases at the animal-human-environment interface.”

— Serge Agbo, former Regional One Health Technical Advisor, Preparedness & Response (P&R), a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)

Of course, there are always a number of uncertainties and factors that influence preparedness and response. In this case, localized unrest and insecurity in the province of North Kivu translated to delays in both detection and response. Further complications slowing the response and limiting responder access are linked to poorly maintained surface transport infrastructure, communications technology, and trusted messaging — both message and messenger.

More Than Maintaining Operations: A Call to Leverage Relationships and Networks

National governments, global public health institutions, intergovernmental organizations, and the development community play an essential role in both preparedness, detection and response. Commonly, in support of the health emergency response efforts, private sector resources are often leveraged to conduct research, advance the development, and expedite the delivery of vaccines, as well as timely assistance. However, there are pathways through which the private sector could be more intimately involved.

The ongoing outbreak affects an area where coffee is a primary economic activity — a livelihood for those directly and indirectly engaged in its production, treatment, transport, and export. As one of DRC’s leading coffee-growing regions, there are around 50,000 farmers who participate as members of cooperatives, throughout DRC’s eastern provinces, including the Ituri and Beni. This makes coffee farming one of the largest sources of income within rural communities throughout the region.

The interconnected design of the coffee value chain inherently links coffee farming communities and companies at every level. This is particularly important in DRC, where coffee quality, export volume, production, and processing capacity have dramatically improved in recent years. Additionally, in DRC, coffee not only represents commercial opportunity, it is entrenched in culture, and community. As part of that community, while the coffee industry is not equipped to orchestrate the response, it is possible that its assets, personnel, and proximity which has long-fostered trust through constant contact with the community could be leveraged for prevention, detection and response. By doing so, it may be possible to extend outreach efforts and deepen penetration in zones viewed by health systems as hard-to-reach.

Below, we look at how the coffee industry can effectively maintain support to communities and participate in the ongoing effort to contain the Ebola crisis in eastern DRC.

Increase Access to Health Care in Rural Areas Where Coffee Farmers are Located

The moment a patient or member of the community exhibits symptoms or has been identified as having come into contact with EVD, or a symptomatic person, time is of the essence. When Ebola strikes, the readiness of systems, capacity of resources, preparedness of personnel, and flow of communication determine the outcome. To effectuate a timely, accurate, and proportionate response, teams equipped with the right tools and practice capable of operationalizing safe testing and treatment environments, streamlining contact identification, and launching transmission mitigation plans must be in place in advance. In DRC, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) estimates that 70% of the Congolese population have little or no access to health care. In this case, limited resources, community access, and the preparedness of systems and personnel were contributing factors which caused delays in both early detection and response.

 Vaccination Delivery, Trusting the Messenger and Observing Precautions

While still undergoing trials, Merck’s recently developed Ebola vaccine approved for use under “compassionate use” rules, has proven highly effective during deployment in DRC. However, citing distrust in the message and messenger among members of communities with in affected areas, during a July 15 high-level meeting, public health official reaffirmed their commitment to align communications regarding preventive measures, vaccinations, and response efforts. Despite setbacks, as of mid-July, the WHO reported that over 160,000 people had received the vaccination as questions regarding future supply remain.

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Going forward, depending on the availability of the vaccine, this is another focal point where the coffee industry could play a vital role as a trusted messenger supporting vaccination delivery in coffee growing communities where the outbreak is most serious.

Proper screening, precautionary, and surveillance measures are essential to preventing the further spread of Ebola across the country and internationally. In support of the effort, drawing resources and expertise from the public, private, donor, and technical assistance provider communities established or reinforced municipal, provincial, and national entry and exit screening measures at key transit, transport hubs, and border posts. With the main coffee harvest extending through July, this is potentially another area where industry could play an important role in meet producers and communities where they are — utilizing the value chain network design and centralized screening points as farmers deliver their coffee harvests.

Engaging Entrepreneurs and Investing in Solutions

As DRC continues to recover from years of economic and political turmoil, a new chapter is being written and streams of commercially-minded and technology-driven entrepreneurs are emerging. In a country where only 6% of the population have access to the Internet, the hope for many generations is to not only improve access to technology, but to leverage investments in innovation, and technological advancements to harness solutions to overcome grand challenges and solve real-world problems that implicate their neighbors and communities around the world.

We are already seeing how the entrepreneurial spirit and mind are playing a frontline role in the Ebola response with Lokole’s award-winning digital solution presented at Kinshasa Digital Week. Developed by seven Congolese students, Lokole streamlines communications and data sharing across Ebola responder networks to improve coordination, resource allocation, and response time.

From healthcare delivery to farm management, Congo is home to many inspiring tech entrepreneurs who seek to improve the way things are done, can be, and what they will look like in the future. Lokole is one of many.

From roasters in consumer markets to traders and exporters with teams on the ground, by leveraging infrastructure, teams, and relationships already in place, the coffee industry is positioned well to support the Ebola response and inspire the entrepreneurial spirit.

If limited by resources or paralyzed by risk, private companies can assist directly by donating to the ongoing response, which presently suffers from a $54 million shortfall. If not the WHO, there are a wide range of international and national emergency response and health organizations who rely on donations to support prevention and assistance programs in ways that the government and others are unable to.

The needs are clear. The time to engage is now.

ÉLAN RDC