After decades of conflict, many in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have lost heart, but some people will not be discouraged. In the midst of chaos, a young man set up a cheese business modelled on Swiss dairies.
Alex Kasole still has vivid memories of that morning in April 2012. As he was just about to head up to his mountain pasture, the telephone rang. "Stay home, boss! They're shooting," his assistant shouted into the phone. The Congolese army and the M23 militia had entrenched themselves in the Masisi mountains. The war broke out on Kasole's summer pastureland. It lasted for one and a half years.
Since then, the M23 has been defeated and the cattle graze undisturbed. Herdsmen joke as they milk the cows. Neighbors stop by to try cheese from the dairy farm Kasole manages, which belongs to the family of his brother-in-law. It is located near the village of Mushaki, 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Goma, the provincial capital. The Congolese call the region the 'Switzerland of Africa.'
Cows from Switzerland
One reason the Masisi mountains bear this name is the breed of cows to be found there, known as Brown Swiss.
Kasole's wife is from Switzerland. Her grandfather had brought the breed into the area at a time when Congo was still under Belgian rule. Brown Swiss cows as well as the Friesländer breed adapt to high altitudes better than African cattle.
"This here is an ideal place to raise cattle," Kasole says with delight. Several dozen Swiss Brown and Friesländer cows graze on the farm's 285-hectare (704-acre) upland pasture. The cows provide 400 liters (106 US gallons) of milk a day, which Kasole uses to make the popular Masisi Gouda cheese.
Cow bells to discourage cattle thieves
The cheese factory has glazed tiles, and the tub in which the milk ferments is made of metal. Other dairy farmers in the region produce their cheese in bathtubs standing in wooden sheds. Proper hygiene is important to Kasole. He has seen cheese factories in Switzerland and regards them as models for his dairy.
Visits to Europe have inspired the 33-year-old entrepreneur. Not long ago he went to see his parents-in-law in Switzerland and brought back cow bells – not for nostalgic reasons, but for a very practical one: The ringing of cow bells is supposed to alarm the herdsmen when bandits try to steal cattle at night. "I reckon I'm the only one in the Masisi region whose cows have bells," Kasole says with a grin. Other farmers are so impressed by the idea that they want to follow suit.
Luxury for the rich
Belgian monks had originally brought cheese production to Congo. Initially, they only made their Gouda for themselves, because they were plagued by a yearning for European food. Local people have since come to appreciate Gouda cheese as well. "The population here loves cheese," says Moise Lokenzi, one of Mushaki's 2,000 residents. "Someone who likes cows must also like cheese. Someone who likes milk must also like cheese. That is the life we lead here. That is our culture."
Not everyone can afford this culture, however, at least not in the city. In nearby Goma, 1 kilo (2.2 pounds) of young Gouda costs the equivalent of 3 euros ($3.42). Two kilos of aged Gouda cost about three times as much. "Cheese is a luxury item reserved for certain people," Passy Mubalama, who lives in the city, says. "Gouda cheese enhances a breakfast, but poor people who even have to do without breakfast certainly can't afford to buy cheese."
But supermarkets and large restaurants in Goma and the distant capital, Kinshasa, regularly purchase Gouda from the Masisi mountains. Peter Brüderli is a cook at a luxury hotel in Goma. Because he comes from Switzerland, his expectations are different from those of local people. Brüderli thinks the Congolese cheese is "not bad" – it is simply a mild cheese. "For me, it's too bad there isn't a somewhat stronger tasting cheese," the cook says.
Camembert coming soon
Demand from the foreigners has inspired Kasole. He is busy working on a small hydroelectric installation on the river flowing through his pasture. Once he is finished, he will finally have electricity around the clock. Kasole wants to build a cold-storage room and expand production. In addition to the 1,500 Gouda wheels that he produces every month, he wants to offer other products. "I'm going to try to produce Camembert, and perhaps even butter. Especially for the foreigners in Goma. Let's see how that works out."
But what if war breaks out again? The idea does not unsettle him. Production would continue just like it did the last time. He even has a solution for transporting the cheese from the mountains to Goma. If there's war, motorcycle taxis will smuggle the cheese across the front.