The Right Blend

Rwandan coffee's success story, from crop to cup

Kigali, Rwanda     August 31st, 2011     Originally published:

Sorting

Twenty years ago Rwandan coffee was virtually an unknown commodity in the high-value international specialty coffee sector. Targeting the low-quality “C” trading market, hundreds of thousands of the country’s producers saw no incentive to improve the caliber of their product, ultimately leading to miniscule profits for both country and individual farmers.

“They used to sell coffee in a traditional way … processing the coffee at home without any quality control and selling at low prices,” says Jean Claude Kayisinga, director of the Sustaining Partnership to Enhance Rural Enterprises and Agribusiness Development (SPREAD), a USAID funded non-profit organization working to improve the livelihoods of Rwandan farmers across the country.

A coffee farmer inspects the trees on her property in rural Rwanda.

According to Jean Claude, a government monopoly on the industry stinted growth during this era, while each grower continued to use different techniques to process his or her raw coffee beans.

“Think about the different kinds of quality you’re going to get from that,” he says. “It’s terrible.”

Flash-forward to 2010, when, according to the World Bank, high-quality Rwandan coffee soared to a record price of US$3.07 per kilogram – a far cry from the US$0.33 seen in the 1990s. Specialty blends are sold to buyers world-wide, making their way into well-known stores like Starbucks and artisan coffee suppliers like Union Hand-Roasted Coffee.

From crop to cup, Rwanda’s coffee sector has undergone a staggering rebirth in the last decade. Impassioned NGOs and support from the government have helped to redefine the process of coffee production in Rwanda to a point where the commodity accounted for almost 30 per cent of all Rwandan exports in 2009, estimates the International Coffee Organization.

With liberalization of the coffee sector and a marketing push from the government, Rwanda began to gain international recognition for its specialty coffee in the early 2000s, says Jean Claude, and today farmers earn more than ten times than what they would have before this shift.

Reaching

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An idyllic balance of high altitudes, fertile volcanic soil, ideal rainfall and temperatures and a large pool of skilled laborers means that Rwanda has long been an excellent place to grow coffee. Several factors, from introducing farming best practices to development of local processing facilities, have helped capitalize on these natural assets.

According to the World Bank, a rapid increase in the number of coffee washing stations – from one in 2002 to 188 in 2010 – is largely accountable for the increase in quality and price of Rwandan coffee.

At one of these washing stations, tucked between rolling hills in the country’s northern province, the COCATU coffee cooperative has successfully maintained a high-quality product by integrated best practices. The cooperative is composed of local farmers who pool their harvests to be processed and sold on the international market, dramatically increasing the speed and scale of their coffee production. Assisted by TechnoServe, another non-profit working to assist local producers, COCATU’s beans are well cared for from the tree to their final sale.

Once coffee cherries ripen they are carried through rural farmland on foot or by bicycle to COCATU’s washing station. The bright red berries are fed into a wet mill – a generator operated machine that separates the coffee bean from its tough outer shell.

After the bright red coffee cherries ripen, the glossy berries are plucked from trees and quickly transported down steep hillsides to keep the fruit’s sugars from fermenting and affecting the quality of the beans hidden inside.

At the wet mill these beans are extracted and the leftover pulp re-used for future crops. The cooperative’s employees then carefully remove over-ripe, under-ripe and insect infested beans. Finally, beans are dried first under shade and then in direct sunlight in order to avoid cracking before being shipped to Kigali to await dry milling, storage and eventual export.

Another key factor that continues to buoy Rwanda’s coffee industry has been the introduction of quality control cupping labs. SPREAD holds many of these programs and according to Jean Claude, they allow producers to taste different varieties of coffee, learning how different conditions affect taste and quality. Before these labs many farmers had never even tasted the coffee that they grew. By allowing producers to get to know their own product, Jean Claude says their ability to negotiate fair prices improves.

“As long as they know the quality of the coffee they can have bargaining power,” he explains. “They have been missing that.”

Jean Claude says there is still work to be done to continue growing Rwanda’s coffee industry in a way that benefits rural farmers.

“Farmers can get a lot of money from coffee, but they don’t know how to spend that money.”

Helping producers with basics like buying health insurance, family planning, HIV prevention, enrolling their children in school and practicing proper nutrition means sustainable businesses that are more likely to expand in the future.

“Healthy people, healthy businesses,” says Jean Claude.

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Coffee production in Rwanda has changed dramatically since the early 1990s. NGOs and the government continue to work with the country’s farmers and processors to sustain and grow the quality of coffee exports, which have rapidly become an integral part of the Rwandan economy.

“Rwanda is a great place for Arabica coffee, it’s a really good place to produce it,” explains Jean Claude.

Today, thanks to these efforts, producers better understand the product that they sell. Wet mills pass along only the best beans, farmers know how to best care for their crops and their daughters know enough about the process to hold their own in business negotiations and meetings.

“She now can talk with the industry outside the country,” Jean Claude says. “They have the same language.”

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