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Speciality coffee in Rwanda

Coffee producers in Rwanda are targeting high-value markets (SPREAD)
Coffee producers in Rwanda are targeting high-value markets

A revolution has been taking place in Rwanda's coffee sector. Until recently the country had a reputation for producing poor quality beans, often sold as 'fillers' to bulk-up mass market blends. But recent initiatives to raise coffee standards and target high-value markets have brought about a boom in coffee production and seen farmers' incomes increase sharply. The country's coffee export earnings rose from US$16 million in 2002 to US$54 million by 2006, and demand now exceeds production.

One project driving the turnaround in Rwandan coffee is SPREAD*, which has concentrated on improving quality at every stage of the coffee value chain. Backed by a government keen to improve the fortunes of the coffee sector, SPREAD has helped establish links with over 40 international buyers and roasters, and Rwanda's coffee is now increasingly regarded as a gourmet product.

Quality revolution

The introduction of 'cupping' - the art of evaluating the tastes of different coffees - has been one initiative essential to improving Rwanda's coffee, with 80 'cuppers' trained so far. Paul Songer, a cupping expert involved in the project, believes cupping "is one of the driving forces changing coffee from a commodity with a certain flavour, like sugar or flour, to a highly variable product with many flavours." Cupping "gives producers more control over their products," he continues, "and hopefully, results in higher prices". Recognising the qualities that make a coffee superior assists farmers to focus their efforts, enabling them to produce higher quality coffee.

A cupper checks for coffee quality (SPREAD)
A cupper checks for coffee quality

Reducing transport times of coffee cherries from the fields to the washing stations was another important way of improving quality. When transporting coffee on foot, it can take up to ten hours for growers to reach their nearest washing station, by which time some of the cherries have begun to ferment. Project Rwanda, an organisation that aims to use the bicycle as a means to boost Rwanda's economy, designed specially constructed 'coffee bikes'--adapted mountain bikes with carry crates. So far, 2,000 coffee bikes have been distributed in partnership with SPREAD through a micro-credit scheme, enabling farmers to earn up to 25 per cent more by delivering cherries within four hours of picking, ensuring they are in the best possible condition. Project Rwanda envisages that these bikes can now be manufactured locally to further reduce their cost.

Once at the washing stations, the quality control teams "wet process" the coffee cherries, removing the pulp before washing and grading the beans. The green beans are then sun-dried and hand-sorted. The construction of more washing stations has further reduced transport times: in 2003 there were just three washing stations operating in the country, now there are around 120.

The seal of approval

With higher quality beans, the coffee was ready to be sold to niche markets. SPREAD has helped the cooperatives establish their own export business, the Rwanda Smallholder Specialty Coffee Company, which directly links small producers to international buyers, cutting out the middle men.

One way of directly linking small producers with international buyers has been through coffee competitions. The Golden Cup competition held in 2007 - the country's first coffee contest - was held to showcase Rwanda's coffee to the international speciality market. One buyer, the London-based UNION-Hand Roasted, first sourced their Rwandan coffee following the Golden Cup, while the winning coffee was sold for an impressive US$25 per pound. Following on from these successes, Rwanda has recently hosted Africa's first Cup of Excellence, an international competition and auction of some of the best coffees in the world. According to SPREAD's Tim Schilling, "The Cup of Excellence is the Olympics of coffee, and Rwanda is ready to compete on the world stage". SPREAD is also keen to promote organic coffee, this being the fastest growing segment of the speciality coffee sector.

Coffee bikes have enabled producers to transport beans to washing stations while they are still fresh (SPREAD)
Coffee bikes have enabled producers to transport beans to washing stations while they are still fresh

Further improvements in coffee quality are expected to result from SPREAD's partnership with CGIS-NUR**, an organisation currently using Global Information Systems (GIS) technology to analyse the relationship between the different coffee tastes and geographical characteristics such as soil type and altitude. The aim is to precisely locate areas that produce the highest quality coffee or the most distinctive flavours, and develop coffee 'appellations', like those given to French wines. These gourmet coffees can then be sold to high value niche markets in developed countries.

Government support

Quality at all levels of the value chain, from production, processing, transport and marketing has enabled Rwanda's coffee sector to become internationally recognised for speciality coffee. Schilling, believes the project has ultimately succeeded due to "an unrelenting focus on quality - and some good luck". He also praises Rwandan president Paul Kagame, whose progressive policies towards agricultural development have had a positive impact: "He liberalised the coffee sector. He listened, understood and acted," Schilling recalls. The Rwandan government hopes to transform the country's entire coffee crop to speciality quality by 2013.

While the SPREAD project has been an undoubted success, Schilling cautions that theirs is not a guaranteed formula: "Some of the principles and overall approach might apply to other regions and other products, but each country will present its unique set of cultural, sociological, political and technical challenges". However, for Rwandan coffee the emphasis on quality has certainly provided resounding results.

*SPREAD (Sustaining Partnerships to Enhance Rural Enterprise and Agribusiness Development) is an alliance of U.S. and Rwandan universities, U.S. and European industries, Rwandan enterprises and institutions, and U.S. and Rwandan NGOs, funded by USAID
**The Geographic Information Systems and Remote Sensing Regional Outreach Center, is a research centre of the National University of Rwanda

Date published: September 2008


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