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 950 metres above sea level). This topography – along 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 people involved in agriculture. The majority of these farmers lead subsistence lives, working only 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. Of that, coffee is by far the largest export, accounting for a whopping 75% of export income.
All 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 coffee trees. These trees are grown alongside other subsistence crops, such as maize and beans. Flowering takes place in September and October and 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. Its annual coffee output is around half the size of that of Kenya or Tanzania, and 11 times smaller than Ethiopia. Despite its small size, however, Rwanda has the potential to produce exceptional specialty-grade coffee. It is only recently that this potential has been realised and recognised by specialty buyers across the globe.
History of Coffee in Rwanda
It’s believed that coffee was introduced to Rwanda by German missionaries at the end of the 19th century. In 1933, the colonial Belgian government mandated farmers to grow coffee on at least a quarter of their land. Coffee became the main source of revenue for rural families, but the focus was on high yield and low grade. From the 1960s, most coffee produced was sold to a government-controlled exporting organisation called Rwandex, which dictated the prices that farmers received. There was therefore no incentive for farmers to improve the quality of the cherries they delivered.
In the early 1990s, world coffee prices collapsed due to increased global production and the consolidation of purchasing by multinational corporations. With the cost of production higher than the selling price, coffee production in Rwanda halved, as farmers pulled up coffee trees to plant food crops. Two years later, the country experienced the devastating genocide, which claimed the lives of nearly a million people, destroyed the economy and decimated the workforce. Many coffee plantations were deserted and much of the specialised knowledge needed to grow coffee profitably was lost.
From this horrific destruction, Rwanda slowly stabilised and then regenerated in an extraordinary way. With it, the coffee industry has been completely revolutionised, and has become a key driver of economic growth (which has averaged 8.4% since 2000). Coffee has transformed the lives of thousands of rural Rwandans, and helped create jobs, develop skills and rebuild communities.
Major reform to the coffee industry began in 2000, when coffee was recognised as one of a handful of sectors that could revive the economy, and the industry began to receive the support of government, NGOs and the private sector. It soon became apparent that the most sustainable strategy would be to add value to Rwandan coffee through the production of higher quality coffee, as the industry would reap greater economic returns and be less vulnerable to fluctuations in the commodity market. Furthermore, 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 hard work began, to develop and reshape the industry to 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. This involved supporting and facilitating the formation of coffee cooperatives and establishing washing stations, as well as investing heavily in the education of the people who process coffee and, increasingly, the people who grow it.
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 these small producers better access to foreign markets, enabling them to sell coffee directly, rather than to the domestic market or overseas 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 establishment of washing stations has greatly improved the quality of coffee produced in Rwanda, as individuals, cooperatives and local buying groups now have control over every aspect of production.
The very first private washing station was built in 2001, and over 200 more have been established since. In addition to having a dramatic impact on the quality of coffee produced, washing stations have 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 benefits. Reform in the coffee sector has played an important part in helping thousands of rural farmers increase their income, which has benefited not only the individual, but also their families and communities, enabling them to spend more on education and medical expenses, and to 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 ongoing interactions, have significantly helped to reduce ethnic distance and alienation between members of Rwandan society.
Coffee in Rwanda today.
Today, after over two decades of investment, education and hard work, the Rwandan specialty coffee industry is now fully established and internationally recognised for its exceptional output.
We have been working with many of the same washing stations and cooperatives since we started buying coffee in Rwanda in 2008. These are relationships that we truly cherish and value. The relative young-ness of the specialty coffee industry in Rwanda means that the people we work with are enthusiastic, openminded and eager to learn as much as they can. They are continually experimenting, innovating and investing in infrastructure, training and new methods to improve their coffee.
More and more high quality coffees show up on the cupping table each time we visit, and we have watched the industry positively evolve and transform every year.
This is testament to the hard work and focus of everyone in the chain – from the coffee farmers and their families to the washing station managers and the women who carefully sort the parchment by hand, all of who work with incredible dedication towards the production of beautiful coffee, and the creation of a better future for their country.
We are inspired and energised every time we visit Rwanda and feel very lucky to represent and share the beautiful coffees, and incredible stories behind them with roasters and consumers in Australia.