Quality and Hope in the Land of a Thousand Hills


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[W]omen in Rwanda break into song seemingly at a moment’s notice—at least the women farming coffee who I have worked with from the Nyampinga and Abakundakawa cooperatives. As soon as we arrive at their farms or cooperative offices, we are welcomed in song. As we depart, the women thank us for our visit with a song. The Relationship Coffee Institute, an initiative by my company Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers, hosted more than eighty female coffee farmers in February at Let’s Talk Coffee Rwanda. Between sessions, before meals, and during downtimes the women’s voices could be heard. These women sing to express joy and pride—two sentiments also felt by the broader Rwandan coffee sector. The country’s coffee industry continues to grow and innovate, and it has helped Rwanda become an important origin for specialty coffee.

Rwanda produces some amazing coffees that are as complex, distinct, and nuanced as anything in East Africa. Today in Rwanda there is a burgeoning culture of coffee professionals, and even a handful of high-quality cafés. Despite this progress, it is difficult to talk about modern Rwanda without acknowledging the genocide. This April 7–July 15 marks the twentieth anniversary of the 100 days in 1994 that saw the slaughter of approximately one million Rwandans—representing a huge percentage of the total population. After these losses, compounded by more than two million Rwandans displaced throughout neighboring countries as refugees, it was a major priority to put the country back on track both politically and economically. Rwandan president Paul Kagame has frequently spoken about the need for economic opportunity in Rwanda, not just aid. As a largely rural country with approximately 500,000 smallholder families engaged in coffee production, Rwanda saw coffee as a key component of its economic recovery.

I have a history of working as a social entrepreneur and in social enterprise, and Kagame’s philosophy resonates with my sensibilities. But prior to my first visit to Rwanda, I had some wary expectations of the country. Would it be dirty? What would transportation from Kigali, the capital, to the coffeelands be like? After the 1994 genocide, would the people be welcoming and friendly or emotionally scarred and unapproachable? Friends and family were concerned for my safety. I had heard about novel approaches by Rwanda’s government at improving and healing the country, ranging from small touches like banning plastic bags and thatch roofs to major restrictions of freedom of the press and free speech. Would the country be difficult to navigate? Would I have “minders” watching my every move?

(Photos: Clay Enos.)
(Photos: Clay Enos.)

On that first trip I arrived late in the evening, was greeted by the smell of wood smoke from cooking fires as I departed the plane, and took a shuttle into Kigali. I expected shanties, an idea reinforced by the smell of those cooking fires. On that ride from the airport to my hotel, I was taken by how off base my expectations had been. The road was wide, paved, and well lit. The traffic was more organized and polite than most cities in coffee country. While clearly a country with a developing economy, you don’t see shanties along the main roads. People strolled along the wide sidewalks to clean restaurants. Clearly something was working. As a country recovering from its recent genocide, things seemed on track.

[K]nown as the Land of a Thousand Hills, Rwanda is nearly perfect for producing Arabica coffees. Located just a few degrees south of the equator, Rwanda’s elevation keeps it temperate. Most of the country lies at altitudes ranging from 1,500 to 2,200 meters above sea level and coffee grows well in the fertile volcanic soil with Rwanda’s dependable rainy season. The country also has a well-defined harvest season, typically starting in late February near Lake Kivu and continuing through July at the higher elevations in the Northern Province. While several coffee varietals grow here, Bourbon is by far the most common, accounting for the majority of the coffee produced.

The government, through the NAEB, the National Agricultural Export Development Board, has made coffee a major component of its economic success. The NAEB is directly responsible for supporting smallholder farmers by providing seed stock and technical assistance, bolstering coffee and agronomic research and processing, overseeing export quality, subsidizing fertilizer, implementing best practices, and promoting and marketing Rwandan coffees.

According to recent Rwandan government statistics, the average farm contains 183 trees. Most farms have less than one hectare (2.5 acres) in coffee production and many farmers describe their farms in terms of number of trees rather than the amount of land they hold. I have spoken to farmers who own as few as ten coffee trees, while more successful farmers might own 500 or 600 coffee plants.

This diffuse production, by hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers across a rugged landscape, makes for challenging coffee production and logistics. Rwanda is a small country with some very good highways, and it’s easy to traverse the country in a few hours. Once you leave the primary roads and venture out into the villages, however, the hills and mountains make travel difficult. These two factors explain in part why Rwanda’s coffee is largely defined by the approximately 215 central washing stations throughout the country.

Throughout East Africa, farmers deliver cherries to either privately or cooperatively held washing stations. Prior to the genocide, most Rwandan coffee was processed locally at the farm or community level using a semi-dry process where the coffee is partially dried without fully removing the fruit through fermentation or milling. This low-grade coffee was typically selling for less than the prevailing New York C-market price, with all export handled by joint private-government ventures.


In 1995, in the immediate shadow of the genocide, the government opened up the coffee industry to competition, and private exporters started business. It still took a number of years before Rwanda’s modern system of production was underway. Starting in 2001, USAID funded projects to rebuild and improve Rwanda’s coffee infrastructure through initiatives like PEARL, which helped build central coffee washing stations.

Throughout the early 2000s, more and more washing stations developed and farmers organized cooperatively. When smallholder farmers have more immediate access to steps of the supply chain that add value to the international market, they stand to benefit through higher prices and quality incentives. Washing stations are one of these pieces. As washing stations became more common through the 2000s, a higher number of smallholder farmers attained fair market prices for their coffee cherries.

The cooperatives and private companies that own Rwanda’s washing stations also control dry milling and export operations. In order to ensure a level playing field, NAEB annually sets a minimum farm-gate price that washing stations pay farmers for cherries based on the current New York C-market conditions and the outlook for the coming harvest. For 2014 farmers will earn a minimum of 200 Rwandan francs (approximately $0.30) per kilogram for cherries delivered to the washing station. In some areas there are multiple washing stations that compete for cherries from the farmers, creating market pressure to pay as much as fifty percent more than the government-established minimum price. After harvest and export, coffee farmers can earn premiums if their coffees fetch high prices on the international market. With opportunities to earn premiums for high-quality coffees, most washing stations are now able to isolate and track specific lots.

In the early 1990s Rwandan coffee sold for ten to twenty cents less than the C-market. Now, some winning lots fetch in excess of $23 per pound.

In 2007, Rwanda held its first Golden Cup championship. The next year Cup of Excellence began holding competitions in the country. Traceability by washing station and close attention to producing exceptionally clean and distinct coffees have allowed Rwanda to showcase outstanding coffees on an international stage.

The exceptional prices being paid for Cup of Excellence-winning lots from Rwanda demonstrates how dramatically things have changed. In the 1980s none of the country’s coffee was classified as specialty; in the early 1990s its coffee sold for ten to twenty cents less than the C-market; and then the hellacious year of 1994, when many farmers were killed and coffee plants were being uprooted and burned. Now, some winning lots fetch in excess of $23 per pound.

Implementing washing stations was key to improving both the quality of coffee in Rwanda and the quality of life for those involved in its production. These washing stations also paved the way for individuals involved in coffee production to develop into coffee professionals, including Rwanda’s sixteen active Q Graders.

Laetitia Mukandahiro, one of Rwanda's top Q Graders, sample roasting.
Laetitia Mukandahiro, one of Rwanda’s top Q Graders, sample roasting.

Laetitia Mukandahiro is one of the top coffee cuppers in East Africa. She approaches her work with a calm, quiet, and serious dedication. When Laetitia cups, her professionalism is embodied in her careful attention to protocol and scoring. After cupping, her huge, warm smile exudes the pride for the amazing coffees she cups, including Cup of Excellence winners. Laetitia manages quality control for KZNoir, an owner of a number of washing stations and an exporter located in Kigali. The daughter of a coffee farmer, Laetitia started her career in coffee by sorting wet parchment at a washing station. In 2005 she was given the opportunity, as were her colleagues, to try cupping coffees. She finished at the top of her group and was soon hired by a Rwandan coffee lab. Nearly overnight, she saw her income more than triple. She continued developing her skills, earning her Q Grader certificate. Laetitia has received regular promotions, has been recognized as Rwanda’s top cupper in international competitions, and now earns more than thirty times what she made as a sorter at a washing station. Through her work in coffee, Laetitia has been able to put herself through school, earning her degree in economics in 2011. She is an inspiration to others working in coffee throughout Rwanda.

[T]here are still hurdles facing Rwanda’s coffee industry. Defects that commonly appear in East African coffees are a constant challenge. The most concerning defect cited by roasters I work with—and the one that receives the most attention from NAEB—is the potato defect, a distinct wet potato aroma and starchy flavor in the cup. Most of the current research indicates that a bacteria is the culprit. Because the bacteria seems most prevalent in coffee damaged by antesia bugs, they’ve been the focus of investigation.

Rwanda is also working to tackle the potato defect on the ground at the washing station level. As the parchment leaves the fermentation tanks and receives its final rinsing, it is placed on covered raised beds. The prevailing theory is that parchment that is overly opaque will be more likely to exhibit the defect, so while still wet, and before moving to the drying beds, the coffee is hand-sorted.

Laetitia, a Q Grader, earns more than thirty times what she made as a sorter at a washing station.

Then, at the dry mill, after hulling the parchment, the green beans are again hand sorted to further mitigate the defect. As someone who has cupped a lot of Rwandan coffee over the past decade, I can anecdotally report that is seems these efforts are working. There was a time when I frequently came across defective cups from Rwanda. Now, we still find a few every year in our lab but it’s much less common.

Rwanda has further opportunities to improve the quality of its coffee by improving the quality of life for coffee farmers. With such small land-holdings, it is challenging for many farmers to earn a living from coffee production. Among many innovative projects that roasters, importers, exporters, non-governmental organizations, and others are implementing in Rwanda is Relationship Coffee Institute’s undertaking to increase the earnings of over 3,500 women. One of the key components of this is to train isolated communities of women who grow coffee, helping them to increase their yields, gain better access to markets both internally and internationally, and to improve the quality of their coffee.

All of these projects are working to improve coffee quality and reliability, the income of producers, and create a new generation of coffee professionals in Rwanda. The fact that Rwanda is now seen as a specialty coffee producer first, and a country recovering from genocide second, is poignant evidence of these projects’ impact. It’s a heartening sign of how far Rwanda and its coffee growers have come.

—Marcus Young is relationship manager at Sustainable Harvest in Portland.

—Photos by Clay Enos.

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