Trip report - Rwanda, May 2011

I recently spent an unforgettable few days in Rwanda visiting Mercanta’s partners ahead of the new crop. This was my first visit to this tiny and very green Central African country - and I was encouraged to see how specialty coffee is helping to channel much-needed funds into its rural communities.

‘The land of a thousand hills’

Lying almost in the centre of the continent, Rwanda is a fertile, mountainous and compact nation - roughly half the size of Scotland and smaller than most US states. Officially Africa’s most densely populated country, it has been inhabited since the Iron Age (if not earlier) and its seemingly endless terraced hills are scattered with dwellings. The 11 million strong population is still largely rural - around 90% of Rwandans are engaged in agriculture of some kind, though much of this is subsistence farming.

While travelling around this vibrant, welcoming country it is almost impossible to believe the scale of the violence in 1994, when more than an eighth of the population was massacred in only 100 days. From this unimaginable destruction, Rwanda has regenerated in an extraordinary way. It is now considered one of the most stable countries in the region, and its economy has grown by an annual average of 7-8% since 2003. Coffee, along with tea exports and tourism, has been a key driver of this growth.

In global coffee terms, Rwanda is a small but by no means insignificant producer - with some tremendous potential. In 2010 it produced a total of 433,00 bags - to put that into perspective, that’s over three times more than Bolivia produced in the same year (140,000 bags), but only around half that of Kenya (850,000 bags) and some 17 times less than African coffee giant Ethiopia (7,450,000 bags!).

Unlike its East African neighbours, Rwanda has no large estates. The majority of its coffee is grown by some 400,000 small-scale farmers and their families, most of whom own less than one hectare of land each. All of Rwanda’s coffee is Arabica, and 95% is one of several long-established Bourbon varieties.

Despite Rwanda’s huge potential for quality production, its specialty coffee industry is still young. The first private washing station was built in 2001, with the help of USAID-financed projects, PEARL and ADAR. These transformational programmes were aimed at switching the focus in the Rwandan coffee sector from an historic emphasis on quantity to one of quality - and so opening up Rwanda to the far higher-earning specialty coffee market.

Many new washing stations have sprung up since 2001, allowing co-ops and local private buying groups to process cherries themselves - and therefore sell them on to international buyers for far higher prices. Before the proliferation of these washing stations, the norm in Rwanda was for small farmers to sell semi-processed cherries on to a middleman - and the market was dominated by a single exporter (whose monopoly status made for even less flexibility on price). This commodity-focused system - coupled with declining world prices in the 1990s - brought severe hardship to farmers, some of whom abandoned coffee entirely.

Today, it’s a different picture. Farmers who work with the washing stations have seen their income at least double. Soaring commodity prices this year have pushed local prices much higher still - in the words of my host Gilbert Gatali, formerly of the Rwandan farmers’ organization Rwashossco, “this is a great year for farmers in Rwanda”. The only worry is that, with prices sky high, we could see a drop in quality this crop as farmers are offered comparatively high prices for virtually any grade.

Four days in Rwanda

Rwanda is nicknamed ‘the land of 1000 hills’, and now I understand why. Steep, terraced hills and mountains stretch off in every direction - this means that the views are spectacular, and driving anywhere, especially off the few main tarmac roads, is something of a challenge! Needless to say, getting coffee out of washing stations on these unmade roads - which turn into mud-slides when it rains (ie. often!) - is far from easy. I now understand why delays often occur pre-shipment!

On my first full day in Rwanda I travelled up to the Dukundekawa Musasa Cooperative with Zacharie, Rwashoscco’s new manager. [Rwashoscco - The Rwandan Small Holder Specialty Coffee Company - is a farmer-owned marketing, exporting and roasting company, which brings together several cooperatives, including Musasa, with the aim of increasing quality and value in the Rwandan coffee sector.] Mercanta has been buying from Musasa for over five years now - and we hope this relationship will continue for years to come.

Musasa lies in the rugged north-west of the country, at around 1,800 metres at the top of a very steep hill - or ‘in the sky’ as Zac called it! It is one of the country’s bigger co-ops, with 1,815 members this year, and also processes cherries from a few thousand more farmers in the area who aren’t official co-op members.

I was shown round the main washing station by Musasa’s manager, Isaac, and the co-op’s current president, Anastase Minani (thanks to Zac for acting as translator!). Ripe cherries were already starting to come in - and I saw how each farmer’s lot for the day (usually much less than a bag) is weighed and carefully recorded. The farmer is paid immediately in cash for his or her cherries - then later any profits made from sales are shared among co-op members or reinvested.

With prices, even for cherry, as high as they are, this means that large amounts of cash change hands each day. Isaac explained that a major challenge for the washing stations - as, to some extent, for all businesses - is to find the up-front cash to finance their product. Credit lines, often from development banks or other social investment funds, are crucial. Meanwhile, even the basic task of getting the cash to the co-op is a logistical challenge in itself - there are few bank branches outside Kigali and of course no bank or cash machine on top of Musasa’s hill!

While touring the washing station, I was very impressed by the level of care that Musasa takes over the processing - the beans are sorted, sorted and sorted again to remove defects. Individual lots are also tracked through the pulping, sorting and drying process, meaning that Musasa can trace each lot back to the individual farmers that grow it. This is no mean feat given they are dealing with around 4,000 growers!

After a bumpy drive back to Kigali and a good night’s sleep, the following day I spent the morning at Rwashoscco’s lab cupping some early samples with Rwashoscco’s two skilled cuppers - Eugenie and Laetitia. Both have been Cup of Excellence jury members several times and cup using a COE score sheet and protocols - during peak season they score around 72 lots every day! If the early samples I cupped with them are anything to go by, we should be in for some great coffees this year..

Then, after a quick visit to our shipping line team in Kigali (we love you Dorothy!), I set off with Gilbert and Laetitia to visit Gilbert’s new project - managing several washing stations on the shores of Lake Kivu, a large ‘inland sea’ along Rwanda’s western border with the DRC. After a long and latterly very bumpy drive we arrived after dark - to stars, fireflies and a very busy wet mill. Most cherries are processed in the late afternoon to evening, after farmers have delivered their day’s quantity. The work during peak harvest is almost non-stop. Gilbert was awake til after 1am that night, and was out again before six the next morning.

Waking up next to Lake Kivu was a truly remarkable experience - it is a stunning place, with coffee trees growing down steep hills right to the shore of the lake (whose surface elevation is 1460m). I visited two washing stations that morning, the second of which is one of the oldest in the country. Both are right on the lake - and some of the coffee they receive is delivered by boat.

After a fantastic morning, we set off on the long drive from Lake Kivu to the far south to visit Buf Café, from whom we bought an excellent lot last year. Buf - named after the Bufundu region - is a privately owned company (ie. not a co-op) with two washing stations, serving around 7,000 farmers in total. Buf Café was founded in 2003 by Epiphanie Mukashyaka, a local businesswoman who was widowed during the 1994 genocide but chose not to leave her family’s small coffee farm. Instead she set about rebuilding and developing her business, founding Buf Café with a loan from the Rwandan Development Bank. The business has since done a massive amount to rebuild the surrounding community - helping to bring electricity to the local town and providing jobs, income and a central focus for thousands.

Unfortunately Epiphanie was ill the day I visited, but I was shown around by her son, Samuel, who has taken over the day-to-day management of the business. At 30, Sam is a great, lively influence - one of several dynamic new generation coffee entrepreneurs I met in Rwanda (Gilbert and Zac are also only in their thirties).

After this, it was another long drive back to Kigali for a very sound sleep and then my flight back to London the next day. I was sorry to leave this fascinating country so soon - but am thrilled (and very lucky) to be heading back to Rwanda in August for the Cup of Excellence. Needless to say, the country is still facing some immense challenges - over 60% of the population lives in poverty, life expectancy is just 46 years and the country’s human rights record is mixed. Yet, the people I met in Rwanda showed a real sense of optimism about its future - a future in which specialty coffee will doubtless play an important role.

A huge thank you to Gilbert, Zacharie, Sam, Laetitia, Eugenie and all at Musasa for your amazing hospitality! We can’t wait for the next crop to arrive…

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