in China wound down, the “Coffee Olympics” was gearing up in Rwanda. By late August the small country was alive with anticipation for the start of a competition to identify and recognize those farmers deemed to be the standard-bearers of coffee quality in 2008. Heralded on billboards and buses, in newspapers and magazines and on television and radio, the Cup of Excellence commanded a captive audience. Twenty-two international jurors from the UK, Scandinavia, France, Taiwan, Guatemala, Japan and the U.S. were enthusiastically greeted as they arrived for a week of cupping to select and score Rwanda’s finest coffees. The games had begun.
Rwanda’s story is as unique as its coffees. Out of the ashes of its grim strife-ridden past, this war torn country startled the specialty coffee industry with a rapid ascent from the ordinary coffee production of 2000 to one of the most quality conscious in East Africa. Nothing attested to this more than the Rwanda Golden Cup competition, which in 2007 was followed by an auction commanding the highest price ever paid for an East African coffee. Coffee farmers throughout Rwanda had arduously labored to produce the kind of exemplary coffees that would meet the rigorous standards of a Cup of Excellence. They met the mark on all counts and in acknowledgment of this achievement, the Cup of Excellence confirmed Rwanda as the first country in Africa to conduct its distinguished competition and auction. When asked for the underlying reasons for their selection, Cup of Excellence executive director, Susie Spindler explained very simply: “The farmers produce really great coffee with diverse flavor profiles and the washing stations and cooperatives agreed to the necessary transparency to identify the farms that put coffee into the lot no matter how small they were. Rwanda also enjoys a coffee sector that has support from the highest level of government…a government that has opted to favor a quality premium model.” Like for all 41 Cup of Excellence competitions, since the first one in 1999, these reasons constituted the basic ingredients for success.
Eager for an introduction to Rwanda’s best coffees, a resounding number of Cup of Excellence members clamored for a place on the international jury. Filling faster than any jury before it, there was a waiting list of roasters and importers one year before the event began. Serving as head judge, Paul Songer shed some light on what distinguished the Rwanda Cup of Excellence from others over which he has presided. “In Rwanda, significant responsibility was placed on the centralized washing stations where coffee fruit is processed into exportable green beans.” They were tasked with “combining small contributions from farmers into lots of reasonably consistent coffee.” Songer commended the national jury for “making some great choices” and described the international jury as “one of the most astute that (he) could recall.” Taken together, the “young cuppers intent on learning, the washing station managers shifting from a production orientation to making distinctions between lots they received, and the buyers who want the best possible coffees while helping to build Rwanda’s nascent industry, there was a lot of hope and hard work all around.”
At the award ceremony to announce and recognize the 24 winning coffees Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame acknowledged that Cup of Excellence was a critical component in furthering development of the country’s specialty coffee sector. Kagame also offered his praise and encouragement for farmers to continue on this path.
Among the farmers who received honors were two of the first producers of specialty coffee in Rwanda. Each of their operations has created and sustained beneficial direct relationships with roasters and importers. Union Roasters, Jeremy Torz and Steven Macatonia were pioneers from the UK in 2002 when they purchased Rwanda’s first container of fully washed specialty coffee from the Abahuzamugambi Ba Kawa Cooperative. A member of the international jury, Torz celebrated with farmers from the cooperative when they accepted their Cup of Excellence award. Later he talked about farmers’ reaction to the award and the history of Union Roasters relationship with the cooperative, also known as Maraba. “The farmers have clear opinions on the benefits of the Cup of Excellence. The message from them is how Cup of Excellence is a powerful tool for all membership to show cohesion and unity.”
Helping to build their membership from 350 members in 2002 to 1,000 in 2008, Union Roasters has worked hand in hand with Maraba, meeting regularly with farmers and managers, undertaking needs assessments, providing forward financing for farmers and supporting a minimum purchasing commitment. Union Roasters has even sponsored a local youth soccer team. Much to the delight of the Cup of Excellence international jurors they were invited to watch the championship match for the “Union Coffee Cup” held in Butare, Rwanda.
Going even further, Torz stressed the impact of the Cup of Excellence award on building loyalty within a large number of people. “This is very important,” he said “because it protects them against the private washing stations that try to buy (coffee cherries) from their members. This can destabilize their cooperative. Programs like Cup of Excellence are important for strength…as well as building the confidence and pride of the cooperative.”
Another farmer who has become well known to quality roasters in the U.S. was Mukashyaka Epiphanie, who on behalf of her beloved Bucafe washing station, received four Cup of Excellence awards. The spirit of competition was evidenced in her gleeful response to congratulations she received following the ceremony. “Next year we will win the first prize!” This year that honor went to Bumera Mig Washing Station located in the same region as both Bufcafe and Abahuzamugambi Cooperative.
In observing that many of the winning farmers have already established direct relationships with international coffee buyers, Flori Marin, director of Mercanta Importers, points out that “Cup of Excellence demonstrates to all farmers the importance of good processing techniques for coffees, from the field to the dry mill, and how this extra effort can bring a reward." Looking to the future, she believes that “the first Cup of Excellence will help reinforce recognition of the East African regions as home to many fine coffees.”
Along with the first Cup of Excellence in Rwanda there was to be another first: the opportunity to separately market coffees attaining the highest national winner status through a silent auction at the conclusion of the competition.
The Alliance for Coffee Excellence (ACE), owner and manager of Cup of Excellence, has long studied mechanisms for rewarding a broader swath of farmers whose hard work led to their ability to produce a quality coffee at a national level. Traditionally, coffees that are eliminated during the process of evaluation by the international jury are blended away and the identification of producing farmers or regions lost in anonymity. This year, ACE decided to test the market for these coffees by way of a one-day silent auction following the Cup of Excellence award ceremony in Rwanda. Around 28 individual coffees, cupped and evaluated by all jurors, were available for their exclusive purchase. At the conclusion of the auction, coffees were blended by region and widely offered to interested buyers in the specialty coffee marketplace. From the perspective of Susie Spindler, this approach had always held promise - and she asserted that, “if the program actually worked the way it was tested, the benefits could be huge.” Susie went on to explain that, “these coffees are arguably better than the vast majority of even many specialty coffees and so larger roasters will benefit by gaining access to coffees of great quality at a volume and price that might fit more in-line with their marketing strategy. The farmers also win because they will be able to sell their coffees at a better price than if they did not submit their coffee to the competition process.” Her earnest hope is that “the biggest impact will be in the development, marketing and thus consumer awareness of regional flavor characteristics - thus leading to the creation and protection of geographic appellations for each country. This I believe can make a huge difference in the economic development of a coffee producing country as well as bring more excitement and curiosity to the marketplace.” Already the success of the Rwanda pilot has been impressive, as jurors enthusiastically purchased coffees through the silent auction, and specialty coffee buyers began eagerly sampling Rwanda’s regional appellations for purchase in the marketplace.
The international specialty coffee community was poised for the online Rwanda Cup of Excellence auction held on October 23rd. The prices offered for these award-winning coffees were impressive yielding an overall average of $7.98. According to Andrew Miller of Café Imports "auctions this year have been incredibly robust" signifying “a decided increased demand for quality.” However, he shares the views of fellow members of the ACE Board, asserting that “the challenge” goes further and “will be to continue to take the national winners to a broader audience or possibly even smaller roasters and retailers. It is essential to create a program for these coffees in order to support the farmers that put their efforts in to producing exceptional quality and showed up for the competition.”
For now, Rwanda is basking in the afterglow of its stunning success. Having blazed a trail to the quintessential arbiter of coffee quality, the Cup of Excellence, Rwanda has demonstrated its ability to understand and satisfy the most discerning tastes of the specialty coffee marketplace. For the thousands of coffee producers whose livelihoods are improved by this success, there is keen awareness of the teamwork, which made it possible. Hard working coffee farmers recognize the support offered by all levels of government, USAID (United States Agency for International Development), the Rwanda Coffee Board, and in the largest measure imaginable, a noble and generous community of specialty coffee importers and roasters. In this spotlight on the world stage of coffee all actors performed their roles faithfully so Rwanda could take its rightful place on the world stage of coffee. From those of us in the audience, can now take a bow. Amashyi!