This August I had my first chance to take part in the Cup of Excellence programme, an opportunity that I have been very eager to experience. I arrived in Rwanda on the evening of 24th August very excited about getting to know more about this country and its coffees.
There is only an open expanse of tarmac when the aeroplane comes to a standstill, and no need to wait for available gates. There are three aeroplanes scattered across the tarmac and a trail of people from each leading across to arrivals. As I make my way to my hotel I watch a little bit of the city pass me by, there are people on every piece of pavement and the cars and motorbikes move with a chaotic sense of order.
The next morning the day is already hot by 7.30am, even with cloud covering the sky. Today the international jury who have congregated in Kigali from across the world will travel close to the border of Rwamagana and Kayonza, which are two of the seven districts of Rwanda’s Eastern Province. It is here where that we will stay and work during the following week. I am glad to be an observer this time round as the task ahead is quite daunting – I am so aware of the hard work so many people have put into these coffees, hard work that I come to understand far better by the end of my stay in Rwanda.
As we drive out of Kigali the buildings become more sparsely spread and the landscape starts to change. The Eastern Province is known for being Rwanda’s flatter region, and this quickly becomes evident. We arrive to a warm, welcoming ceremony with music and dance. The Governor of the Eastern Province, Odette Uwamariya, was there to meet us as well as the Director General of NAEB (National Agricultural Export Development Board), Alex Kanyankole.
We stayed in the small town of Rwamagana, a short drive from the cupping lab in the Kayonza district. Our first day in the lab was calibration – making sure that the jury was well calibrated and familiar with the scoring system. This was also our first introduction to the team of national cuppers who had done all the work in the weeks prior to our arrival. There were approximately 25 people in this team and they did an incredible job of cupping and scoring 169 coffees in pre-selection to produce 105 national lots. The national jury then narrowed these down to the 60 highest scoring coffees.
Monday 27th August was the first day of cupping and round one of the international jury. We were only able to cup two tables that day due to unforeseen power cuts that prevented the roasts for the remaining tables being completed. This lead to a challenging second day, nevertheless everyone came prepared for the five tables ahead of them and by the end of Tuesday we had narrowed 60 coffees down to a second round of 29. Out of these came the top ten, including one presidential award, scoring 90.19, and three coffees sadly cut from the auction due to low scores.
There is an award ceremony after every Cup of Excellence to acknowledge everyone involved and most importantly those who have achieved highly. This ceremony in Rwanda is an incredible celebration, full of exuberance and life, and was the perfect way to finish our week of cupping. There were approximately 3000 people that attended from cooperatives and washing stations all over Rwanda, as well as representatives from the government and the various organisations that help facilitate not only this event but the development of the Rwandan coffee industry.
After the Cup of Excellence had finished I was lucky to stay on in Rwanda for a few extra days to visit some of our producer partners. On Saturday 1st September we set off to visit Musasa, a cooperative we have been working with for many years now. We were very kindly driven by Zacharie, the general manager of the farmers’ association RWASHOSSCO, and hosted by Minani Anastase, the president of the cooperative, and Isaac, Musasa’s general manager.
Minani and Isaac showed us around Gatagara washing station and explained the way they process coffee there. The lots are grouped according to the date on which the red cherries are delivered by the farmers to the washing station; all the coffee delivered on a given day will be processed together and coded by date and month. For example coffee cherry delivered on 29th August will be coded 2908. In this way a lot can be followed throughout the different steps in its processing. Every farmer delivering cherry in a day is recorded along with the weight that they deliver, the agreed price per kg, what proportion of the agreed payment given immediately and what is still owed, and of course the name of the farmer. We were also shown a plot of coffee trees growing near the washing station that belongs to Musasa, where farmers in the surrounding area are encouraged to come to learn about good farming practices in order to increase the quality of their crop.
Our next visit was to Buf Cafe, which has two washing stations and is privately owned by Epiphanie Mukashyaka and managed by her son Sam. Buf Cafe had two lots achieve a position on the Cup of Excellence this year, placing 7th and 19th. We were greeted with an incredibly warm welcome and met some of the individuals working at Buf’s Remera washing station. This washing station is situated in Huye, one of the eight districts of Rwanda’s Southern Province. The landscape is one of rolling hills and is very green and lush; close to Remera washing station there is an expansive tea plantation which covers the hills in a vibrant green. Our drive back to Kigali was definitely the hairiest as the skies opened and it poured down as is only possible in the tropics – I have never seen such humongous rain drops! Thanks to Sam’s excellent driving skills we were safely delivered back to Kigali that evening.
Our last two days in Rwanda were spent with our friend and partner Gilbert Gatali. We drove west to Lake Kivu to visit Kinunu, a washing station which we started working with last season. The drive to Kinunu involved the worst of the roads we drove on during our trip – Gilbert told us that this was largely due to the amount of rain Rwanda has experienced recently. This road also has some of the most beautiful scenery, situated along Lake Kivu, with Kinunu nestled on the end of a piece of land jutting out into the lake. There is an incredible amount of produce growing around the guest house here, from pineapples to papaya. As Gilbert said, if you threw your car keys on the ground they might begin to sprout!
The next morning we made the long drive back to Kigali and the start of our return home. My experience in Rwanda has expanded my cupping abilities, the fruits of which I have seen daily since my return to our cupping lab. But beyond this it has given me a compelling insight into the complexities and challenges involved in growing and producing coffee in this beautiful country. A huge thank you to everyone who gave their time and knowledge to make this such an interesting and rewarding trip!