A recent visit revealed the variety of different ways Rwandan coffee makes its way to our cupping table.
Back at the end of May, our lovely coffee huntress Jo, travelled to Rwanda with Melbourne Coffee Merchant’s equally delightful Fleur and Jenni to source wonderful coffees and strengthen the relationships we have built up there over the years. Not only did the trip allow them to spend time working closely with three different cupping labs, it also highlighted the various ways in which the Co-Ops and washing stations are owned and run.
First stop on the itinerary took the trio to one of Dukende Kawa’s Washing Stations. Dukende Kawa may not be a familiar name to everyone however the coffee that comes out of it is likely to be, as it is the official name of the Co-Operative whose coffee was formally known to the world as Musasa. Musasa is, in fact, simply the name of the area in which the Co-Ops three washing stations are situated.
Dukende Kawa, meaning ‘let’s love coffee’ in the native Kinyarwanda dialect, is one of six Co-Ops that make up RWASHOSCCO (Rwanda Small Holders Speciality Coffee Company). In turn, each of these Co-Ops is made up of small farmers, with an average of 175 trees, who deliver their harvested cherries to a central washing station for processing. The six Co-Ops, each with their own washing stations, individually elect a representative to sit on RWASHOSCCO’s board and speak on behalf of their fellow farmers. For the Co-Op to ensure their high standards are kept, farmers that deliver their produce to Dukende Kawa’s three washing stations, Nkara, Ruli and Mbilima, are required to have a minimum of 300 trees and pay 5000 Rwandan Francs (£5) for a share in the Co-Op.
In contrast to this set up, KZ Noir is a private equity export firm that buys distressed companies and works with them to establish good practices which turn these companies into profitable, growing enterprises. They have bought shares in three companies – SOCOR Ltd, Karengera Ltd and Caferwa – which own washing stations, although the original owners of these still own the majority share. In total KZ NOIR works with 8 washing stations through these companies, which are all in the West of Rwanda. 12,000 to 15,000 individual farmers deliver their cherries to the washing stations where they are processed and combined with others, eventually being sold under the name of the washing station.
Overlooking the serene Lake Kivu, Kinunu washing station, owned by SOCOR Ltd, occupies an enviably beautiful location. Our party were lucky enough to spend a night there getting the inside low down from their gracious host Gervais. One of the topics discussed was the need for greater agricultural skills amongst some of the farmers in the Co-Ops. This is something Gervais believes needs development, though KZ NOIR do work closely with their washing stations and managers like Gervais to enhance quality and knowledge within the surrounding farming communities.
Another different set up is seen when the party visited Epiphanie, who owns the third hosts for the trip, BUF. Having been the owner of a local store, she lost everything during the horrific genocide of 1994. In order to start to rebuild her life she first turned to brewing beer as well as buying and selling produce as a means of income before being approached to get involved in coffee. When the government decided to invest in coffee as a way to develop the economy, Epiphanie was approached to source coffee cherry, as she was entrenched in the local community. So what started as a means to rebuild her life through buying coffee, adding a margin and selling on to the government, slowly involved her more and more eventually allowing her to build her own washing station from the funds she earned. Remera was established in 2003 and was the first of BUF’s washing stations.
Today BUF have two washing stations, Remara as well as the newer Nyarusiza. Having started out with 400 people, BUF’s employee numbers have swelled to a massive 7650, all of whom are now managed by Epiphanie’s sons, Sam and Aloys. Not only is Ephiphanie an amazingly formidable businesswomen, she is also a wonderful cook who hosted Jo et al for lunch during their visit. A vast feast of Rwandan specialties was laid on and offered the opportunity to talk with Epiphanie as well as her 94-year-old mother!
But it wasn’t all play along the way. One of the tasks for the trip was to cup day lots from various washing stations in order to share our preferred profiles and differentiation of quality with the cuppers working with RWASHOSCCO, Buf and KZ NOIR, and to learn from their wealth of experience cupping these coffees. This means that in the future they know what kind of coffees we are looking for and in return, we understand our comparative scoring thereby making conversations on quality and profiles easier. In order to maintain and monitor quality, all three of the companies have cupping labs where each lot is cupped and scored. Cuppings were held at the RWASHOSCCO’s lab in Kigali, run by Eugenie and KZ Noir’s lab overseen by Laetitia while Uzile, who is an independent, freelance roaster, roasted the Buf coffee for us at the techno serve lab, which BUF used for cupping.
As well as cuppings, trips like these are essential to developing a deeper understanding of the context the people we work with operate in. Last year saw a very high quantity crop cycle in Rwanda, while this year has seen far reduced quantities. For example, last year Kinunu processed 10 containers worth of coffee where this year they will only produce 4; a downturn that is replicated nationally with a 30% drop in production. During this, Rwandan coffee has also been put in the spotlight with increased interest from buying markets, a fact which is evident in the acquisition of washing stations by two international buyers; Swiss based Sucafina and UK based Amajaro. These two companies have offered farmers increased prices for red cherry in order to win favour, which has in return increased competition for quality cherry and the price which other washing stations must pay. Both the drop in production and the increased price for cherry have a huge impact as they directly relate to how, although the market may be at an all time low, producers at origin are struggling with factors that drive their production costs up.
It was rewarding for us during the trip to discover that our visits to Kinunu have led not only to Gervais knowing us but also to the employees at the washing being familiar with Mercanta and how important our relationship with them is, as we take the time to visit, listen and learn year after year.