Rwanda - the Land of a Thousand Hills

Posted by Fleur Studd on June 3, 2012
Filed under On The Road

I have just returned home from an incredible week in Rwanda selecting coffees. While travelling around this vibrant, beautiful, and welcoming place, I struggled to comprehend the scale of the violence and devastation that brutalised this tiny country in 1994. While the scars still run deep, Rwanda has regenerated in a remarkable way, and today it is considered one of the most stable and safe countries in the region. What constantly struck me throughout my stay was the warmth and openness of the people; everywhere we went we were met with a beautiful smile and a warm hug – often from complete strangers. The optimism, strength and forward-focus of the individuals we met was awe-inspiring, and the impact that specialty coffee has had in regenerating the economy and improving farmers' lives was encouraging to witness.

Known as the 'Land of One Thousand Hills,' Rwanda is filled with lush mountains that stretch as far as the eye can see. In fact, the entire country is at a high elevation (its lowest point is 950m above sea level). This topography, combined with the rich, fertile volcanic soil, high quality bourbon variety coffee trees, and a temperate climate with plenty of sun and equatorial mist, makes it the perfect place to grow high quality coffee.

Rwanda is small – only 26,338 square kilometres in size; less than half the size of Tasmania – and it also happens to be the most densely populated country in Africa. Most of the 11.7 million-strong population is rural, with 90% of the population involved in agriculture. The majority of these farmers lead subsistence lives, working just to feed themselves and their families. Nearly every patch of land is under cultivation (with the exception of protected national parks which make up one-seventh of the country), and even in the capital, Kigali, you will find fields of plantain, maize and cassava growing on any spare patch of green. In total, the agricultural sector contributes about 50% of Rwanda's GDP and, of that, coffee is by far the largest export, accounting for a whopping 75% of export income.

All of the coffee grown in Rwanda is Arabica, and 95% of it is one of several long-established Bourbon varieties. The vast majority of coffee is produced by 400,000 or so small-scale farmers who own, on average, less than a hectare of land, and around 175 trees, which are grown alongside other subsistence crops. Flowering takes place in September and October, harvest usually runs from April to July, with shipments running from early June to August.

In global coffee terms, Rwanda is a relatively small producer. In 2012 it is expected to produce a total of 400,000 bags, which is over three times more than Bolivia is expected to produce (140,000 bags), but only around half that of Kenya and Tanzania (750,000 bags respectively) and 11 times less than Ethiopia (4.7 million bags!) Despite its small size, Rwanda has the potential to produce exceptional specialty grade coffee. Up until recently, however, the quality was poor.

It is believed that coffee was first introduced to Rwanda by German missionaries at the turn of last century. In 1933, the Belgian Colonial Government mandated farmers to grow coffee on at least a quarter of their farms, resulting in coffee becoming the main source of revenue for rural families. As a cash crop, coffee received backing from the government, but the focus remained on high yield and low grade. From the 1960s, most coffee produced was sold to Rwandex, an exporting organization controlled by the government. Rwandex dictated the prices that farmers would get paid, so there was no incentive for farmers to improve the quality of cherries delivered.

The tragic events of the 1990s completely devastated Rwanda's coffee industry and its wider economy. In the early `90s, world coffee prices collapsed internationally due to increased global production and the consolidation of purchasing by multinational corporations. For a while the Rwandan government tried to maintain a higher price point for farmers, but this was unsustainable and, in 1992, they abandoned their price support. With the cost of production higher than the selling price, coffee production in Rwanda halved, as farmers pulled up coffee trees to plant other food crops. Two years later, Rwanda experienced the horrifying genocide, which claimed the lives of nearly a million Rwandans, destroyed the economy, and decimated the workforce. Many coffee plantations were deserted and, with them, much of the specialised knowledge needed to export coffee profitably.

From this unimaginable destruction Rwanda slowly stabilized, and then regenerated in an extraordinary way. With it, the coffee industry has been completely revolutionised, and become a key driver of economic growth (which has averaged 8.4% since 2000). It has transformed the lives of thousands of rural Rwandans, and helped create jobs, develop skills, and strengthen human and social capital.

Major reform to the coffee industry began in 2000, after Paul Kagame was sworn in as president. Kagame, with the support of the private sector and various donors, focussed on coffee as one of a handful of sectors that could revive the devastated economy. It soon became apparent that the best strategy would be to add value to Rwandan coffee through the production of higher quality coffee. Kagame and his team recognised that by focussing on specialty coffee production, the industry would reap greater economic returns and be less vulnerable to fluctuations in the commodity market. They were also aware that coffee was already grown throughout the country by small-scale farmers, along with their subsistence crops, so a higher financial yield on coffee would not lead to greater food vulnerability.

And so the work began, to develop and reshape the industry so it could support quality production. President Kagame liberalised coffee trade, sold the government's interest in Rwandex, and worked with donors to develop the infrastructure needed to produce and process specialty grade coffee.

The creation of cooperatives in Rwanda has allowed the country's small growers to combine their harvests into container-sized shipments, instead of tiny parcels produced by individual farms. This has given the farmers better access to market, enabling them to sell coffee directly to foreign markets instead of to domestic markets or via exporters. NGOs such as the USAID-funded PEARL and SPREAD have created and supported the development of these cooperatives, training their members in farming techniques, coffee processing, quality control, and marketing.

The huge leap in coffee quality can also be attributed to the establishment of washing stations in Rwanda. The very first private washing station was built in 2001, and 100 more have been established since. This has greatly improved the quality of coffee produced, allowing individuals, cooperatives, and local private buying groups to process their own coffee and sell it to international buyers for higher prices. The development of washing stations has also played an important role in job creation and skill development, with many employees learning valuable business skills in accounting, marketing, and management.

Shifting the focus of Rwandan's coffee sector from one of quantity to one of quality has produced a multitude of other benefits. Reform in the coffee sector is playing an important part in helping thousands of rural farmers increase their income, which benefits not only the individual, but also their families and communities, enabling them to spend more on education and medical expenses, and ensure better food security. The cooperatives and washing stations have also generated positive social benefits. Both have played an important role in bringing different groups together and, through repeated interactions, have significantly helped to reduce ethnic distance and alienation between members of Rwandan society.

Today, Rwanda produces some exceptional coffee. Travelling through various co operatives and farms, it was impressive to see the level of care that is been taken at every step of the way – from cherry selection through to the quality control measures implemented during the wet and dry processing of the coffee. It is a testament to hard work and focus of everyone involved in the chain – from the farmer through to the buyer, that Rwandan coffee is now recognized and celebrated for its high quality coffees. This has been further enhanced by the introduction of the Cup of Excellence Program, which was introduced in 2008 and has since introduced many more buyers to the exceptional coffees that this country produces.

We are very excited about this years harvest. The quality on the cupping tables was exceptional, with intense floral notes, popping acidity, and complex cup profiles already starting to reveal themselves. They have the characteristics that we know and love in Rwandan coffee. And we can't wait to share them with you.