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Rwanda:
Establishing the Specialty Coffee Market

BY NEAL ROBINSON

This is an exciting time for the country of Rwanda, specifically the city of Butare. Before the New Year, a specialty coffee café, the first of its kind, will open its doors to the people of Rwanda. Neal Robinson of BUNN Corporation shares a client’s story.

“It’s hard to say now what the people will say once it’s open, but I imagine they are really going to like it,” said Dr. Tim Schilling, the facilitator for this venture. “It will be a cool hang-out for students in the day, a breakfast alternative in the morning and ‘new music’ experience in the evenings,” he continues.

Something that Schilling has been doing to get the café up and running is creating partnerships with coffee equipment manufacturers and roasters. Currently, he is working with Bunn Corporation, an American coffee equipment manufacturer and La Spagiale, an Italian espresso machine manufacturer for the necessary equipment to make the best beverages from the best beans in Rwanda. A local specialty coffee roaster will be placing a small roaster inside the café and Union Coffee Roasters of London is also assisting in equipment purchases and staff training.

What makes the café so important to this country is their recent history and economic status. Rwanda is a small landlocked country in Africa, heavily dependent upon coffee for export earnings. “In 1999, 32.7% of the country’s entire export earnings were derived from coffee,” according to Grant Rattray of Mercanta, The Coffee Hunters, a European specialty coffee importer. Over 90% of the 8.4 million people in Rwanda are involved in mainly subsistence agriculture, states the World Factbook.

Rwanda has seen its share of turmoil and destruction. The 1994 genocide nearly destroyed the already severely impoverished country. The survivors, mainly women and children who had fled to neighboring countries during this horrific time, returned to Rwanda facing devastation as they tried to survive.

Rebuilding the country and its agricultural landscape was the top priority. As farmers found their coffee plantations in disarray and global coffee prices at an all-time low, they were ready to pull their coffee plants and replace them with bananas or other food crops. That’s when assistance came to Rwanda.

PEARL Assistance
In 2001, the Partnership for Enhancing Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages (PEARL) was developed and implemented with assistance from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Schilling, an agronomist from Texas A&M University, and Dan Clay, director of the Institute of International Agriculture at Michigan State University, collaborated to begin the teaching process.

“PEARL spearheaded the establishment of central coffee washing stations (CWS) in Rwanda in 2002 through collaborative efforts with ACDI/VOCA in the Maraba District of Butare Province, the Ginkongoro Ville district and Karaba districts of Ginkongoro Province and in the Gashonga District of Syangugu Province,” said Schilling.

“We will continue to focus only on the production, processing and marketing of exceptional quality coffee. Our interventions are aimed at raising the quality of coffee through careful attention to detail in every step of the process from agronomic input selection, production, picking, sorting, processing and marketing,” he continues.

Coffee washing stations are extremely important in the specialty coffee program. After the coffee cherries are hand-sorted, they are placed in water channels. Defective cherries will float to the top and are removed to avoid contaminating the quality and flavor of the coffee. The cherries are allowed to dry and then are again hand-sorted. The outcome is a high-quality, clean coffee.

Coffee Cooperatives
The development of coffee cooperatives is another way that PEARL is helping Rwanda to become a specialty coffee producing country. Continual training of the cooperative managers on things, such as quality production and processing techniques, are making it possible for Rwandans to learn about how this relates to the price of their coffee.

Coffee farmers need to become certified members of the cooperative before their beans can be processed. The certification procedure is strict, ultimately creating uniformity in the various practices among coffee producers. They are required to have a minimum of 200 bourbon variety coffee trees, follow strict guidelines of proper tree maintenance (mulching and pruning) and fertilization (lime and manure) and they must also pay a small membership fee to the cooperative.

The current initiative for Schilling and his team is to assist the cooperatives in creating a federation. “This year is the first year that the 13 cooperatives that we work with have formed an umbrella organization known as RWASHOSCA or the Rwandan Small Holder Specialty Coffee Association,” said Schilling. Etienne Bihogo has been hired to do the work that Schilling has been doing in Rwanda for the past five years. Schilling speaks highly of Bihogo, who recently returned from Texas A&M University after completing the PEARL MS agribusiness degree program. Schilling expects that in two years, RWASHOSCA will be a “multi-million dollar small holder specialty coffee federation; autonomous, professional, innovative and constantly pushing the envelope of quality,” able to fulfill the needs of the coffee industry.

“PEARL’s continued and expanded support to the Rwandan quality-coffee sector is key to filling the top priority objective of USAID and the Government of Rwanda (GOR) - the reduction of poverty through increased rural incomes,” states Schilling. Currently in Rwanda, there are approximately 500,000 smallholder coffee farmers, with the average family size of six. This means that over three million Rwandan’s lives are directly affected by the positive economic interventions.

Success
One reason for Rwanda’s success is that they don’t have any preconceived notions on washed coffee and they’re driven by economic reasons, notes Schilling. They don’t have many options to choose from like other countries. Coffee has become their life. Rwanda’s accelerated progress toward specialty coffee production is credited by the near perfect growing conditions, the hard work of the people and their attention to detail and finally to the top government, including President Kagame.

Working with the local government, Schilling and his team anticipate that by 2006 there will be 32 CWS throughout Rwanda. They will be placed only in areas that have access to water springs or sources, something very important to the coffee growers. Hand picked, the coffee cherries are placed in baskets that are carried down the rough mountainous terrain. Each person walks several miles to the nearest CWS, where they will deliver the day’s crop. The anticipation is that by building additional CWS, coffee farmers will not have to travel as far, thus becoming more productive.

Interestingly, Rwandans do not drink coffee. “Even the coffee farmers, who have grown and cared for their coffee trees for nearly 100 years, do not roast and drink the beans they produce,” notes Schilling. “They have no idea, no vision, no conception of coffee flavor.” For these reasons, cupping is an integral component in the coffee quality improvement program.

“It is vital that the farmers and their families learn to taste (or ‘cup’) their coffees and enjoy them as a drink. This will enable growers to understand the requirements of the specialty coffee roasters who will ultimately be buying their crop and to share a common coffee ‘language’,” said Rattray.

The Future
By 2006, the development of eight cupping laboratories in PEARL/ACDI/VOCA supported coffee cooperatives should be complete. This establishment “will bring coffee tasting and evaluation tools into the coffee growing regions to help growers develop their craft, compete for honors, be rewarded for their attention to detail and to reap the immeasurable rewards derived from pride and workmanship,” Schilling states. They will also serve a vital role in marketing and promotion, since the cupping areas will also be used as reception areas for the international coffee buyers.

“There is little, if any, demand in the internal market for these often exceptional coffees. In order to create a sustainable and successful coffee economy, coffee producing countries should place their best beans not only on the external market, but also promote these coffees internally to raise awareness and appreciation of this crop,” said Rattray. “Such an investment will enable growers to understand their product and develop a consumer market within their country, thereby protecting themselves from commodity price fluctuations on the international markets.”

One idea that the cooperative is entertaining will be to give away small cups of milked and sugared coffee to the poorer people as they go to market in the mornings. Because more people would taste coffee, this could in turn increase their desire to drink more.

Schilling hopes that the new café will boost education and offer greater awareness of Rwanda’s main export crop, therefore driving the internal demand. According to Rattray, developing an internal consumer market would also be beneficial to “protecting themselves from commodity price fluctuations on the international markets.”

PEARL has been instrumental in empowering the farmers of Rwanda, allowing them to take control over their own lives, something that is still new to them. Now, they are beginning to experience personal financial independence by avoiding the middlemen. They are making their own money, which allows them to send their children to school, changing their lives as well.

As the work PEARL has been doing winds down, Dr. Schilling has thoughts on the overall goal. “We don’t work as if we were not going to be leaving. We will be leaving. We make that a point. But when we leave, these cooperatives will be strong, they will have their ‘relationship’ partners in place, and we are completely confident that this will work. In fact, it already has.”

Neal Robinson is vice president, international sales at Bunn Corp.


Tea & Coffee - September/October, 2005
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