At the end of May I was back in Rwanda to visit our suppliers and do some cupping ahead of this year’s crop. As ever I was blown away by the hospitality of my hosts and the beauty of this fantastically green country.
The washing stations that we work with are based in the north, west and south of the country – so that meant a lot of hours driving in return for seeing a great deal of the country in a short space of time. Definitely worth the bumpy truck rides!
First up was Musasa – a cooperative based in the north-west of Rwanda that we have been working with for several years now. I visited Musasa this time last year – in May 2011 – so it was great to be welcomed back by Isaac, the manager, and Anastase, the cooperative’s president. (You can read my trip report from last yearhere .)
Musasa’s peak harvest runs from May to June, so they are in full swing at the moment. Cherries are delivered by local farmers to Musasa’s three washing stations daily, where they are sorted before being accepted to make sure that unripe cherries don’t get pulped. Musasa has 1,800 official members, but also buys cherry from around a further 6,200 farmers in the area – so the numbers (and paperwork) involved are staggering! The average farm size in the area is 250 – 300 trees so even small lots are usually made up of cherries from a few dozen different farmers.
The coffee that we buy from Musasa is produced by the Gatagara washing station, which lies at 1,800 metres on top of a high ridge with views across the steep green hills and valleys beyond and below. Around 175 people work at Gatagara during the harvest season, as well as 19 permanent workers year round. As at most washing stations in Rwanda, women do most of the hand sorting. This takes place in two stages – on the covered pre-drying tables and on the drying tables. The washed beans are moved from the wet fermentation tanks onto the pre-drying tables, where they are intensively sorted for around six hours. The idea is that greens (unripes) are still visible when the beans are damp, while the roofs over the tables protect the beans from the direct sunlight. Next, the beans are moved onto the drying tables for around 14 days (depending on the weather), where they are sorted again for defects, turned regularly and protected from rain and the midday sun by covers.
The next day we met our good friend and partner Gilbert Gatali and drove north-west from Kigali to Lake Kivu, a ridiculously beautiful expanse of water – so big it feels like you’re looking at the sea – that is bordered by Rwanda to the east and the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west. The Lake’s northern tip is overlooked by the Virungas chain of volcanoes, and the steep hills that run down to its shores are clearly very fertile indeed. Green things sprout everywhere, and coffee thrives.
At Kivu we visited three different washing stations, including the oldest washing station in the country (apparently dating from 1959 – making it a good forty-one years older than most of the country’s washing stations!). We stayed the night at Kinunu washing station, lying at 1500m just above the lake, from which we bought a small lot last season.
On the way to the station we stopped off to visit a farm that delivers cherries to Kinunu. Here we met Valentine, a 25 year old woman who runs the farm with her older brother Philip, who is 32. Valentine and Philip’s family have farmed this same land – with 650 very healthy coffee trees – for several generations. Unfathomably, in1994, Valentine and Philip lost their six brothers and sisters, their mother and their father during the 100 days of killing that claimed the lives of at least 800,000 people. Valentine was 8 years old at the time, Philip was 14. It is impossible to comprehend how this could have happened, or how a family, community or indeed nation could keep going after such a thing – yet somehow they have done so. After the genocide, Valentine and Philip were taken in by older survivors in the local area – one of whom was Gervais, who now manages Kinunu washing station. Now they earn an independent living from their coffee farm, which produces a very healthy 3.5kg cherry average per tree and employs 5 to 7 pickers during the harvest. What is more, Valentine is getting married this June. We wish her the very best of luck!
Gilbert told us how survivors created a community in the aftermath of the genocide, supporting each other and bringing up orphaned children. Coffee has been very important to helping rural communities across the country (comprising about 90% of Rwanda’s population) move forward. The construction of washing stations has improved quality and therefore prices, and also brought jobs and infrastructure (water, roads, electricity) to the local area. One lifelong farmer that I spoke to said that being a coffee farmer today was better than ever in the past, because nowadays people care more about coffee – its quality and it potential. Also, crucially, washing stations have given local communities a central focus and even a means of reconciliation, as both genocide survivors and perpetrators may find themselves working along side each other for a common purpose.
After a long drive back from Lake Kivu, we spent a night in Kigali and then it was off to the south to visit Buf Café. Buf owns two washing stations in the Nyamagabe district – Nyarusiza, at 1756m, and Remera, at 1925m – that buy cherry from some 7000 farmers in the local area.
We arrived at Nyarusiza – the smaller of the two washing stations – in the late afternoon so we saw cherries being washed and processed. Before being pulped the cherries are deposited into flotation tanks, where we saw how a net is used to skim off the floaters. These can include, I was told, cherries that have been damaged by insects that cause the distinctive ‘potato’ defect that afflicts some Rwandan coffees. The cherries are then pulped – where they are sorted into three grades by weight, then dry fermented (left in tank with no added water) for 8 to 12 hours. Next, the wet parchment is sorted again using grading channels – water is sent through the channels and the lighter (ie. lower grade) beans are washed to the bottom, while the heavier cherries remain at the top of the channel. The wet parchment is then soaked in water for around 24 hours, before being moved to the pre-drying and then drying tables.
Buf 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. Epiphanie is still a very strong presence in the business, but is now working alongside her son Samuel (aged in his early 30s) who is helping manage Buf Café. They form a formidable team! Buf has very strong links with the local communities that supply it, providing jobs for 116 at Nyarusiza and 127 at Remera during peak harvest, and 19 permanent positions. At the end of each season Buf will share any surplus profits with both the cooperatives that it works with and its washing station managers.
I was sad to say goodbye to Epiphanie. She is an amazing woman and clearly brooks no nonsense whatsoever! When I asked her what she saw for the future of coffee in Rwanda, she said that the market price fluctuations were bad news. Lower prices will lead to lower quality coffee, and could even prompt farmers to start abandoning coffee – as happened when coffee prices crashed in the 1990s. Her message: maintain price, and you maintain quality.
After our Buf visit it was time to head back to Kigali – and a great cupping session. The coffees still tasted very fresh and young, but there were some lovely cups among them – complex, juicy, some floral and elegant, others bigger and jammier. I can’t wait for our new crop arrivals – which we hope to ship earlier still this year.
A big thank you to everybody who made my trip so great!