A business battles violence and uncertainty in eastern DR Congo.
Roger Muhindo is proud of his chocolate factory, which he sees as a symbol of entrepreneurship in one of the world’s most dangerous places.
“We’re the first!” Muhindo proclaims this at the entrance to his factory, where ten staff create Virunga Origins chocolate, a locally sourced product.
Threats from armed groups and a lack of infrastructure are enormous, ever-present barriers to doing business in the unstable east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Over the last year, rebels in the region have slain roughly 1,000 people. The presence of barbed wire and armed soldiers on the premises serves as a reminder that the front lines are not far away.
In June, the UN’s expert group for DR Congo stated that, in addition to the ADF’s raids and kidnappings, government troops had collected cacao pods in abandoned farms and were illegally selling the beans in Uganda.
Despite the numerous issues, the Virunga National Park is able to keep the chocolate factory operational.
The famous wildlife park opened the plant in Mutwanga, Beni’s violence-plagued area, in January 2020.
The idea is to process cocoa on the spot, providing value-added jobs in the agriculture-dependent economy of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The company also intends to provide an alternative to joining one of the region’s many armed organizations by producing jobs.
“There are others who want to invest here, but they’re terrified because of the war and everything that goes on here,” Muhindo, the plant’s production manager, said.
Mutwanga and other communities were rocked by violent attacks blamed on ADF rebels last December, just months after the first chocolate bars were sold.
Over 200 civilians have been slain within a 20-kilometer (12-mile) radius of the chocolate factory in less than a year, primarily in rural settlements near cocoa farms.
The Islamic State (IS) has claimed credit for several of the ADF’s attacks against civilians and Congolese army posts since 2019.
The ADF is presented as IS’s affiliate in Central Africa (Islamic State Central Africa Province, or ISCAP).
“We deploy small teams everywhere to safeguard those who are in their farms,” said Antony Mwalushayi, Congolese army spokesman for Operation Sokola 1, the campaign against the ADF in Beni region.
Soldiers who steal cocoa for resale to traffickers are among their ranks, according to the manager of an agricultural cooperative that supplies Virunga Origins.
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