• Journey to the Congo - to cocoa, vanilla and chilli

    from Gregor Sieböck

    I've never had so much chocolate in my luggage. Simone and I travelled with 11 kilograms of the finest chocolate to Africa. Sepp Zotter produced a separate special edition of the Congo chocolate, to hand them out on-site to the cocoa farmers in the heart of Africa - there were 300 bars in the end. Helmut Mayr, the sales manager of Zotter, brought them over especially before our departure and also brought two cooling bags, to prevent the magic from melting in the heat of the African sun!

    We travelled by plain to Uganda - it wasn't my preferred way of travelling but for lack of other alternatives, we had no other choice. I'd been researching for two weeks whether we couldn't travel to East Africa by cargo ship, but all shipping companies that normally transported passengers declined: the pirates of Somalia are apparently way too dangerous. Another alternate route would have been to take a ship to Egypt but due to the unrest, cargo-shipping companies don't allow their passengers to go ashore there. And even if, one would still have to travel through Egypt and South Sudan by train. I researched in adventure trip forums to see if anyone had taken that route with train and ship in the past few weeks, but everyone advised against because there was just too much unrest. Because I love my life, we simply had no other option than to fly.

    Approaching Entebbe in Uganda: the airport was nestled amidst an area of abundant vegetation. A grey heron stalked across the runway, between the landing strips grew tall grass and it was green everywhere, not grey as it had been in Qatar. Who is really richer, Africa or the bone-dry Arabic peninsula? In fact, it seemed as if we'd landed in lotusland. On the way to the city fresh fruits and vegetables towered on the side of the road, the garden plots and fields seemed to bear a rich harvest, everything was blooming... but what the people make of that is of course a different matter altogether. Plastic waste was strewn everywhere across the landscape and it was dusty: from now on, dust was our constant companion - no matter where we went! It was dry season - not a single drop of rain in three weeks!

    Clemens delivers vanilla, chilli and cocoa from the Congo to Zotter
    Clemens delivers vanilla, chilli and cocoa from the Congo to Zotter
    In Kampala, the capital of Uganda
    In Kampala, the capital of Uganda

    We met Clemens in Kampala - he distributes cocoa, vanilla and chilli from the Congo - and that's where we meant to go over Christmas. We had prepared everything and were ready to go! At first we delivered the 300 bars of Congo chocolate to make our rucksacks lighter and then we planned our next course of action. Clemens runs his office in Uganda and also wanted to travel to the Congo with his family in the next few days. We agreed to meet at the border. It wouldn't be a border like we were used to from other countries, because on the Ugandan side, one first has to go through a police check, then comes the emigration authority and also the military to check the documents. On the Congolese side, it starts with the immigration authority, then one has to pass a special security authority, then the health authority and only then can one enter the country... and then there are even more military checks. Basically, a random guy in possession of a machine gun stretches a cable across the road and asks for money; which one is gladly prepared to pay because he starts waving around his gun more and more energetically, to emphasise his desire for money... Congo is different... but for now we were still in Uganda. So Clemens drew us a map: "Up north are the Ruwenzori Mountains and in the south is the factory where we process cocoa and vanilla. A bit further north are the rebels. That's an area where one really shouldn't go." Suddenly we realised that in more than half of the cocoa-growing areas, Ugandan rebels were active. Before we left I'd done some research and found out that the M-23 rebels that are active in the Rwandan borderland had just agreed to a ceasefire, which is why we had decided to go there. But now we learned about the Ugandan rebels that were still active. Clemens also described the entry into the Congo as a great challenge and so Simone and I slowly started to wonder what kind of trip this would turn out to be. What had we gotten ourselves into? At the same time we knew that we had to pay attention to signs to not put ourselves in harm's way unnecessarily - we love our lives and act, if necessary, right away; because we wanted to return home stronger, not weaker. This requires awareness!

    After we'd found our accommodation, we went out for dinner. It was already dark in Kampala and tons and tons of motorbikes were out and about, which offered their taxi services. You could simple stop a motorbike, get on the back of it and get a ride - of course without helmet, which isn't exactly safe, considering that the motorcyclists adhered to no rules and rode every which way. There were also no streetlights and no pavements. Which meant that, if worse came to worse, pedestrians had to jump into the roadside ditch to not get run over. At the entrance to the restaurant stood two security guards who searched our bags, they wanted to look into every single compartment. We found out that said restaurant had been blown up in a bomb explosion a few years ago.

    In the morning we flagged down two motorbike taxis and took them to the bus station. One of the employees said: "Get on quickly, the bus is about to leave any minute!" We paid, got on and waited... how long is 'any minute' in Uganda? It took 1 1/2 hours until the bus finally started moving and we realised that waiting must be one of the favourite hobbies of the people here. We also waited, since we didn't really have another choice. We were the only white people on the bus, the rest were black people. And it was crowded because there were 6 and not 5 travellers in the last row - actually 7 because there was also a little girl who sat with us. But what was a great joy for us were the street vendors. Whenever the bus stopped in a village, a whole troop of them came running to sell cooked bananas, chapitas, manioc and drinks through the windows. We ate like kings: the warm chapitas and the sweet and still warm bananas. Delicious!

    Bus trip to the Congolese border
    Bus trip to the Congolese border
    At the border
    At the border

    At the Ugandan-Congolese border we met up with Clemens once again. While our passports were handed from one official to the next (four employees sat in the immigration office alone, each of them checked passport and visa and then the document vanished into a backroom, where it continued to be checked extremely thoroughly), we sat outside the building and watched the events. A truck stopped next to us. It was loaded twice as high as its driver's cabin and swayed worryingly; but the driver hadn't stopped to unload, he was only worried about an empty plastic bucket which, while fairy well affixed, dangled next to the driver's door and seemed to obstruct his view. Then a woman walked past us, balancing a tub containing 10 blood-smeared goat's heads on her head and all these goings-on were again and again wrapped in a dust cloud whenever a vehicle went past - if Uganda had been very dusty, the Congo was even worse - we wouldn't have thought it possible, but the African dust scale seems to have no limit and whenever we thought it couldn't possibly get any dustier, we were taught better. Welcome to the Congo! At least the stench wasn't as pungent as on the Ugandan side; but that might have been because a light breeze was stirring and dispersing the various scents.

    The trucks to the Congo are fully loaded
    The trucks to the Congo are fully loaded
    First glimpse into the Congo
    First glimpse into the Congo

    The journey could continue, our entry had been authorised (what an honour!) and now I thought; off we go; into the Congo! Corine, Clemens's wife, drove our bus and the adventure could begin - but it ended abruptly when we were stopped by the police after one kilometre. They asked for some kind of document that we didn't have, which meant we had to wait and wait and wait... finally, Corine's brother appeared as if out of nowhere and solved the problem; no idea how. He also took over the steering wheel of our mini bus and manoeuvred us henceforth at breakneck speed into the Congo. I have experienced many different styles of driving during my travels around the globe and so far, the Latin-American bus drivers had been at the top of the list of hazardous rally drivers - but as with the dust scale, the Congo was now once again in the lead. And so we raced across a dirt road with giant potholes, that were often 30 cm deep, for the next two hours until it got dark and our trip was suddenly interrupted. A young boy used the authority of his machine gun to span a steel cable across the road and stop traffic. Soon an argument broke out between our driver and the young boy - the latter beginning to wave about his gun more and more energetically until I asked what he wanted. 2000 Ugandan Schillings is what he wanted - a bit less than one Euro and our driver didn't want to pay. I reached into by bag, paid, the steel cable was removed and we drove on: I will not get into a discussion with a guy who asserts his power with a gun!

    It was dark in the Congo: the villages had no electricity and so they also had no streetlights. Only those with a generator at home had electric light and that is were people came together - usually it was a small shop or bar; but otherwise it was dark.

    We reached our destination and I was completely exhausted; our rally trip and the dust had worn me out. Throughout the whole trip I had to balance my SLR camera on my lap to prevent it from hitting the dashboard at every pothole - because that would spell the end for my camera and would mean that this trip to Africa would turn out to be really expensive. But the camera survived this parforce run. Clemens had already arrived before us because he was travelling with a motorbike and could thus more easily bypass the potholes than we in our mini bus could. Simone and I were assigned a room in the house and then one of the first statements of our host was: "A few thousand soldiers of the military have moved into the mountains today. It's not looking good! Christmas is usually a good time for an attack." Hallelujah, that would be something and surely a Christmas to remember!

    Congo chocolate and kids
    Congo chocolate and kids
    The governor collects two bars of chocolate... and is well protected while doing it
    The governor collects two bars of chocolate... and is well protected while doing it

    Clemens moved to Uganda in the late 90s with the German GTZ (Association for Technical Cooperation) and then established is vanilla plantation in Uganda. He has also been working as a consultant for vanilla cultivation in the Congo since 2003. When his vanilla plantation in Uganda was disowned in 2006 due to political unrests, the farmers in the Congo were just harvesting the first vanilla beans. Which is why Clemens bought their products and transferred his business from Uganda to the Congo. In 2006, he met Josef Zotter for the first time at the Biofach (a trade fair for organic food) in Nuremberg, who has ever since bought his vanilla in the Congo - because Clemens was the first supplier worldwide to put organic vanilla produced under fair-trade conditions on the market.

    The factory in which the vanilla and cocoa are processed
    The factory in which the vanilla and cocoa are processed
    Collecting firewood
    Collecting firewood

    Working in the Congo is anything but easy for Clemens. Because he lost a lot of money due to the dispossession of his vanilla plantation in Uganda, he had to rely on external financing from then on. This is very expensive locally, with an interest of 12%, which is why the collaboration with a German eco bank arrived at the opportune moment for him. The contract was all signed, sealed and delivered when the M-23 rebels attacked the nearby city Goma in 2012. Following this, the bank withdrew the line of credit at the last minute because it was too risky for them to invest in the Congo. The cocoa and vanilla production was already in full swing, the farmers had to be paid and so Clemens was forced to resort to local banks - at conceivably bad terms.

    The kitchens
    The kitchens
    Don't be scared
    Don't be scared

    Another challenge when running a business in the Congo is the widespread corruption among politicians - they expect a small contribution for each task. Once everything's finally ready to be transported, the next obstacle is that each kilometre from the Ruwenzori Mountains to Mombasa is expensive. We've experienced it ourselves on our journey here: someone owns a machine gun and simply spans a steel cable across the street. The cable will remain until you have paid. Of course the customs officers also want to be paid - it's like a modern robber baronry! Unless one knows how to work differently, to opt out of the lack and behave consistently - but then the first thing to do is to focus on what is good in this country, what works well in one's own life, instead of paying attention to what is not working, what is bad and what needs to be changed. In this case, the thoughts turn into their own prison and the scope of action becomes smaller and smaller. Thoughts create matter and energy will eventually always flow to where we direct our attention.

    Ride with Kasereka to the vanilla and cocoa plantation
    Ride with Kasereka to the vanilla and cocoa plantation
    A vanilla shrub
    A vanilla shrub
    Vanilla beans and cocoa beans
    Vanilla beans and cocoa beans
    A vanilla bean
    A vanilla bean

    Clemens purchases the cocoa, vanilla and chilli from 650 different regional farmers in total. Of these, he knows 100 farmers by name and 200 more by sight. Their total cultivation area is 2000 hectares, of which about 1000 are planted with cocoa and 30 with vanilla. The rest is used to grow other agricultural products such as cassava, bananas, beans or oil palms, or serve the farmers for their self-provision. What Clemens requires of the farmers, however, is that they run their entire business organically if they are to deliver to him. With cocoa, one worker can cultivate an area of 4 to 5 hectares a year, with vanilla it is significantly less. A worker with 300 working days a year can just about manage one hectare of cultivation area - and during the blooming period, the farmers need as much as 4 to 5 workers per hectare, because each blossom needs to be pollinated by hand. Vanilla is an orchid and thus grows very well in the shade. But even aside from the pollination it is a plant that needs a lot of attention. Again and again, mulch material needs to be worked in, whereby one needs to be very careful to not damage the roots. The roots of vanilla are just below the surface and if one steps on the ground around the plant, the roots get damaged. But aside from fungi that can infest the roots, there are not many pests that can infest vanilla. Which is why it is relatively easy to grow organically. In the case of cocoa, that's a bigger challenge: scale insects can be chased off with soapy water or an oily solution, but the Black Dot Disease, a widespread fungal disease in the Congo, is hard to fight organically. If a cocoa plantation is infested, up to half of the harvest can be lost. When farming organically, one can only counteract this by airing the plantation very well, which means that less cocoa trees per area are planted.

    Until recently, Clemens also delivered Bird's Eye Chilli to Zotter. This is one of the hottest chillis in the world. Birds eat the chilli peppers to rid themselves of intestinal parasites and then excrete the seeds again. Only once they have gone through the bird's digestive tract are the seeds germinable and can be bred. So it is a very special chilli.

    Bird's Eye Chilli
    Bird's Eye Chilli
    Bird's Eye Chilli
    Bird's Eye Chilli

    Cocoa of the Forestero variety grows in the Congo. Ten kilograms of cocoa yield about 4 kilograms of fresh beans and, subsequently, 1 kilogram of dried cocoa beans. In the case of vanilla, 5-6 kilograms of fresh beans make one kilogram of export-ready, dried vanilla beans. Clemens buys the raw materials of both cocoa and vanilla and his 14 employees process them entirely in his factory, to have the best control over the processing. The current yearly cocoa production is 100 tons, although there is a potential for 300-400 tons per year. So far, Zotter has received all his vanilla and also 25 tons of cocoa from the Congo.

    The great vanilla season is from August to January, when the main harvesting is done. The time from blossoming to ripeness is 8 to 12 months in the lowlands (at the foot of the Ruwenzori Mountains at an altitude of about 1000 metres) and 10 to 14 months in the highlands (in the mountains). The beans are separated into different lengths: the short ones are 14-15 cm long, the medium ones 16-17 cm and the long ones 18-19 cm, some also 20 and 21 and a few are even as long as 22 cm. After delivery, the beans are first washed and then sorted into the different lengths. The short beans are then blanched for two minutes at a temperature of 62 degrees Celsius, the medium ones for 2.5 minutes at 62.5 degrees Celsius and the long ones for three minutes at 63 degrees Celsius. The challenge in the Congo is that no electric oven with exact temperature control is available but the water is heated in a large kettle over open fire. Kasereka, the agricultural economist that works for Clemens, checks the temperature with a thermometer and then waits with a large kitchen timer next to the kettle to accurately measure the blanching time of the beans... and then there's the challenge of keeping the water at the right temperature using firewood. Subsequently, the fresh vanilla beans are dried in a dark room at 30 to 45 degrees Celsius for two weeks. After that, the vanilla is laid out in the sun for an hour each day for two months and stored in a room for the remaining time. In doing so, each bean has to be brushed by hand once a day to make sure that it remains flexible. The small beans are then turned into a vanilla extract and the others are, depending on size, sold has whole beans. Altogether, from cultivation to processing, vanilla is surely one of the most labour-intensive agricultural products in the world.

    The vanilla beans are washed
    The vanilla beans are washed
    The vanilla beans are processed
    The vanilla beans are processed
    The vanilla beans are dried first in the sun...
    The vanilla beans are dried first in the sun...
    … and then in a drying room
    … and then in a drying room

    Processing the cocoa is also an elaborate process and requires sure instincts and experience. First, the cocoa beans and their pulp are knocked out of their shells and then fermented in a box, the first three days anaerobic (without oxygen) and then three to four more days aerobic. After 48 hours, the cocoa is stirred to reduce the acid. For this, no device is used to measure the acid content, instead the acid is checked by nose. A successful fermentation can be recognised by the colour of the cocoa beans: if they are white, black or red on the inside, the fermentation was not okay. The cocoa bean should be dark brown. After fermentation, the cocoa beans are dried in the sun for two hours each day for two weeks. After that, the cocoa beans are ready to be exported.

    Cocoa
    Cocoa
    Sevasimir, a Congolese cocoa farmer
    Sevasimir, a Congolese cocoa farmer

    The soil in this region of the Congo is perhaps one of the richest on the planet, everything grows and thrives in abundance, the climate is pleasant; it would be perfect to live there - if there wasn't the corruption, if there weren't conflicts with rebels, if there wasn't exploitation and chaos. And yet, during our Africa trip, Simone and I felt that the changes - if they are meant to happen - can only spring from Africa itself, from the people who live there - from the simple people as well as the rich ones and the policy-makers. Turning the people into petitioners, to donate but then exploiting the land even further through internationally interconnected trade currents just isn't a solution. It's true - the situation is complicated and complex, because the Congo is a wonderful playground for Europeans, US-Americans and the Chinese precisely because of its incredible abundance of natural resources, tropical timber and agricultural products and many want to get rich on it - and yet the Africans also let it happen. For each offender there is also a victim... as Ghandi so eloquently said: "Be the change you want to see in the world." Change begins with ourselves, we need to act differently and no longer exploit the Africans, it then continues with the richer people in the Congo, that they don't exploit the poorer people and so that the poorer people don't have getting rich as their only goal, to then exploit others. For me, the key to a good life is gratitude. If I am grateful, then I am rich. As soon as you have made that decision, you begin to let go of the old habits of complaining and all your energy begins to flow into gratitude, abundance and extolments: praise the sunsets and the clouds and the trees and the birds and the people - don't be avaricious... and all of a sudden, a great abundance opens up. And abundance attracts even more abundance. My friend Martin once said: "He who has is given, and he who has little will have the little he has taken from him." Lack or abundance - it is a decision!

    We felt that it was time to leave the Congo. We went for a run in the morning of December 25th after having spent Christmas night in a tent outdoors. We had put it up in the garden in front of Clemens's house and it was an unusual tent night. Especially in the beginning we were surrounded by so many different energies and forces that I only busied myself with placing guards; then it got quieter, and yet the atmosphere was peculiar. Besides, we'd already done a perfect job and had, despite all the challenges going along with a research job in the Congo, very quickly found out everything we wanted to know. Although more would have been possible, the "price" we would have had to pay for that would have borne no relation to it and so we asked Eddie (Clemens's most important employee in the Congo) if he could get us a driver for Christmas day; because there is no public transport and even organising a car is a challenge - but Eddie is simply a special soul and incredibly warm-hearted. Within 20 minutes he had found perhaps the best driver of the whole region - a boy that works in the National Park office of the Ruwenzori Mountains as gamekeeper and nature park guard. He put on his uniform and drove us like a Sir! We drove leisurely but still swiftly. We simply passed all roadblocks - both the police's and the military's. They waved at us - but didn't want anything and didn't even check our documents. At the border, we paid our driver and gave him a bar of the Zotter Congo chocolate and he guarded it like a great treasure. He was so happy and grateful. Then he disappeared with our passports into the emigration office, asked us to wait a bit and after less than five minutes everything was done - yes, even though Clemens warned us of a tricky exit, it was that simple - almost unbelievable. Finally we were travelling cosmically again, just the way we want to travel. Everything is taken care of in a magical way and works out perfectly - we feel protected and grateful and learned from out Congo trip how important it is which people we are connected with and which forces we expose ourselves to - and it was once again exciting to watch how everyone creates their own reality. Our decisions and actions can lead us to good fortune and vitality, but also to lack and unhappiness! Are we missing gratitude and dreams? Or are we living them? And do we recognise that everything is interconnected in a special and mystical way?

    Wherever we went, we were soon surrounded by lots of children
    Wherever we went, we were soon surrounded by lots of children
    Our chauffeur to freedom... is happy about his Zotter chocolate
    Our chauffeur to freedom... is happy about his Zotter chocolate

    On the Ugandan side, we looked for a share taxi. There was a lot going on on this Christmas day and everyone was on their feet. There were feasts and celebrations and many people were looking for a means of transportation. We were travelling in a minibus with 8 seats and were sometimes up to 16 passengers. In the driver's seat sat not only the driver but also two more passengers. At long last, we also ran out of fuel exactly two metres before the place-name sign of Fort Portal, where we wanted to spend the night, and the car stopped. In Africa, many drive all the way to the stop; will it suffice or not? This relates not only to the fuel but also to the style of driving, which is often very close to being life-threatening.

    We were happy to arrive at our lodgings in Fort Portal and neither of us wanted to leave the bathroom. Each of us sat under a tap spouting warm water for more than half an hour - the simple hostel seemed like the most wonderful spa and wellness hotel to us!

    On the internet, we read the most recent news in the Austrian online paper "Der Standard" and saw it black on white: in the Christmas night from December 24th to 25th, the rebels attacked Kamango, a village about 70 kilometres away (where there is another important hub for Clemens for buying cocoa and many of his cocoa farmers work there), and killed 40 women and children - until the United Nations with a helicopter and the Congolese Army finally intervened. Hallelujah - the newspaper once again confirmed the feeling we had in that tent, when we spent Christmas night outdoors. It really was time to move on... time to live!