The term ‘premium’ is applied only to the best-quality coffee and it also fetches higher prices in speciality outlets around the world. Rwanda has now joined the small, elite group of premium coffee producers. Jonathan Calan (Transterra Media) takes a journey deep into the heart of Rwanda to reach the source.
The road to ‘origin’ coffee – produced in a single verified location – is seldom easy, and Rwanda is no exception. Yet for a select few, the pilgrimage to this tiny, landlocked country of a thousand hills is becoming an essential journey, an annual right of passage.
It commences with a flight from Chicago, New York, Oslo or Amsterdam, with a handful of stopovers; Zurich, London, Dubai, Addis Ababa, Nairobi. Finally, Kigali, Rwanda.
After leaving the capital, Kigali, the path takes an onerous turn. Hours of twisting through forgotten roads where four-wheel drives – and the pit of your gut – are put to the ultimate test.
The path meanders through scattered villages perched atop sheer mountain ridges, to places where cows turn into fussy roadblocks and women shaded under colourful umbrellas, listlessly balance the fruits of a days labour on their heads as they gossip their way back home.
Along the drive, travellers easily slip into the rhythm of ‘origin’, bumping and swaying to the pulse of a potholed road, falling into the cadence of long delayed conversations and a simpler understanding of time, which follows the face of the sun, not a clock. Ascending deeper into the mountains, your ears play tricks, popping with each metered kilometre upwards.
When the vehicle finally grinds to a halt, a trail of dust, dancing behind the Land Cruiser like a golden brown shadow for kilometres, whips by. You’ve arrived at ‘origin’, as it’s dubbed in the coffee trade – a place where coffee is born.
Nestled deep in a hillside, Musasa Coffee Cooperative and Gatagara washing station is where hundreds of local coffee farmers come each day to drop off sacks of lush, red, hand-picked coffee cherries, ready for processing.
It’s also where dozens of coffee buyers from around the world come, hoping to source their next best brew.
Rwanda, aptly dubbed the “land of a thousand hills” for its endless rolling green landscapes, is an exceptional place to grow coffee.
Perfect conditions for coffee
It has ideal altitudes, perfect rainfall, rich volcanic soils, and an abundant labour force. Nearly three quarters of adults are engaged in subsistence or unpaid farming, and over 40% of the country is still living in poverty. Yet, while coffee has been a staple export for Rwanda since German missionaries introduced the bean a century ago, the country never produced ‘premium’ coffee – until recently.
Unlike regular coffee, premium beans must be fully washed, and score at least 80 points on a quality scale. Many factors influence the score, from climate and soil quality to the time between when the ripe coffee cherries are picked and dropped off for processing.
Before the 1994 genocide, coffee in Rwanda was a fledgling state-owned industry with little investment. Afterwards, there was little infrastructure or human knowledge capital to help revive it. Rwanda’s coffee wasn’t terrible. It was simply your average, unwashed, commodity-grade ‘Joe’.
Yet today, Rwanda’s coffee industry is booming. Premium-quality beans from this small nation are finding their way to the most respected roasters and coffeehouses around the world. Towns like Musasa are becoming internationally recognised, attracting coffee buyers from around the globe,
What suddenly made Rwanda’s coffee so attractive? The answer is as simple and complex as the brew itself – quality.
“Coffee is one of the most complex beverages out there,” says Sarah Kluth, a buyer from Chicago-based speciality roaster, Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, which was one of the first to begin purchasing premium coffee from Rwanda. “There are about 900 different compounds in a cup of coffee that affect how we perceive it.”
Like grapes and wine, coffee beans are extremely sensitive, and meticulous attention needs to be paid during the entire process, from cherry to roasting, in order to produce premium quality. Many people credit a project called PEARL – a collaboration among Texas A&M University, the US Agency for International Development and the Rwandan government – for kick-starting the premium coffee industry in Rwanda by introducing new methods to an age-old process.
From 2000, PEARL focused on rapidly improving quality, processing and management standards in Rwanda’s coffee industry. They trained young Rwandan students in agronomy (most people with expertise in this field either fled the country or were killed during the 1994 genocide), cupping (quality tasting) and quality control, paving the way for a fleet of young coffee experts to help farmers improve coffee-growing and processing techniques.
Most importantly, PEARL builds new washing stations and formed farmer-owned cooperatives, giving farmers more control of their product and a further economic stake in the quality of their coffee.
It worked. “What I earned before was only a fifth of what I have now,” says Ruzigama Christian, a 48-year-old coffee farmer from Maraba, one of Rwanda’s coffee ‘boom towns’.
Today, over 27% of the coffee exported from Rwanda is marked as premium – up from literally zero in 2000. Revenue from premium coffee in Rwanda has risen from $0 in 2001 to $27m in 2012, and the figures are still coming in for 2013.
Total earnings from the coffee industry have tripled from $20m to $75m, with over 30 European and American companies like Starbucks, Costco and Union Roasters buying over 5,000 tons annually, directly from the growers.
Rwanda was the first country in Africa to hold the prestigious “Cup of Excellence”, one of the world’s top international speciality coffee competition, which is now in its fourth year in Rwanda. In August, coffee-geek tasting gurus descended upon Maraba, one of the first places in the country where speciality coffee was produced, to sip, slurp, judge and source Rwanda’s next best brew.
Although Rwanda may be a new player in the speciality coffee arena compared to nearby places like Kenya and Ethiopia, Sherri Johnson, one of the judges for Rwanda’s Cup of Excellence, says this is an advantage.
“What Rwanda has is an open book as far as incorporating good qualities for production, processing and marketing, growth potential, and ability to incorporate new systems.” The country has come a long way in a short time, and the future looks even more promising.
Globally, the premium coffee industry still makes up less than 3% of the coffee trade, but its buyers and customers are demanding – and those demands comes at a price. Premium coffee commands an additional 15-20% premium on top of current market prices.
For Rwanda, and its 400,000 coffee farmers, these premiums have made a big difference. “Speciality coffee brings money,” says Uwimana Immaculée, a smallholder who switched from other crops to coffee in 2004. “I can plan to do something important at the end of the season.”
For most of those living in rural poverty, that planning makes a world of difference, and in Rwanda, it’s speciality coffee that’s making it possible.