Rwanda, or rather to be correct, the Republic of Rwanda, is a small country located in the Great Lakes region of east-central Africa. It’s a landlocked country and borders Uganda, Burundi, D.R. Congo, and Tanzania – all great coffee producing countries. The majority of the population is engaged with subsistence agriculture which is an obvious choice for a country made up of fertile and hilly terrain. Its not called the ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’ for nothing.
Rwanda’s not so recent, but recent enough to remember, political landscape is one that attracted international concern and remains infamous. Of course, I am talking about the atrocious Rwandan genocide of 1994 and I couldn’t carry on with the writing of this piece without the mention of this. The Rwandan genocide took place during the Rwandan Civil War where during a period of 100 days, members of the Tutsi minority ethnic group, as well as some Hutu, were slaughtered by armed militias. The most widely accepted scholarly estimates on the deaths, are 500,000 to 600,000 Tutsi deaths.
RWANDA’S COFFEE – the past, Civil War, and genocide
Coffee in Rwanda has played a major role in its economy. The plant was introduced to the country by German missionaries in 1904. Coffee gradually spread around the country and although an increasingly important part of the economy, it didn’t really take off commercially until the 1930’s when the country was under Belgian rule.
During this time, the Belgian colonial government focused on commercialising coffee to a large scale. So, they required all farmers in the country – the majority of the population basically – to grow coffee trees. Their focus was on profits, so low quality and high levels of production was, unfortunately, the aim. This way of working, unfortunately also meant that most, if not all, of the profits were taken by the state and producers had therefore no incentive to improve the quality of the coffee.
Coffee production in Rwanda continued to happen in this manner into the beginning of the 1990’s and the low prices combined with the increases to the world coffee supply from Brazil and Vietnam meant that Rwandan coffee was stuck in a Catch-22 situation. This also gave Rwanda a reputation of being a producer of very low-quality coffee.
The 1990’s saw Rwanda enter a civil war and the political turmoil increased with the 1994 genocide. As I mentioned above, this was a very dark period in Rwanda’s history. The civil war and the genocide left the country in ruin and in terms of the coffee, the cherries were left to rot on the trees and coffee production was pretty much leveled.
Nearly a whole generation of men either lost their lives, fled the country, or were imprisoned after the war ended, leaving coffee farms completely deserted.
Post genocide and the women that re-built Rwandan coffee farms
It took over a decade for the country and the coffee industry to get back on its feet again. So, the early 2000’s was all about encouraging Rwandans to rebuild through programs initiated by the government. Coffee, particularly speciality coffee was the incentive and a means to recover the industry and create a new niche within Rwanda’s agricultural market.
As mentioned above, the genocide and civil war and the men’s lives that were lost, left a large number of women in the country without their husbands and most of the population were now women having to fend for their own families.
Where there is devastation and destruction though there are always opportunities to be had when rebuilding. And this is the case here too so Rwandan women took it upon themselves to learn everything about coffee production.
How Rwanda’s coffee production developed post genocide, is down to the sacrifice and resolve of the female population who planted the seeds on the very hills where many lost their lives. So, 20 years later Rwanda now has cooperatives made up of 100% women, producing speciality coffee, a true expression of the struggle and the raw female power.
As Kofi Annan said, here rings true:
“Study after study has confirmed that there is no development strategy more beneficial to society as a whole— women and men alike— than one which involves women as central players. No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, lower infant and maternal mortality or improve nutrition and promote health. When women are fully involved, the benefits can be seen immediately: families are healthier; they are better fed; their income, savings and reinvestment go up. And what is true of families is true of communities and, eventually, whole countries.” Kofi Annan
RWANDA’S COFFEE – today
So, Rwanda’s coffee production industry has come through the devastation with flying colours. Today there are nearly over half a million coffee smallholdings and coffee is now Rwanda’s 4th largest export.
Government investment in the all-important infrastructure, quality control and training as well as communal washing stations have helped Rwandan farmers focus on the now high quality of their crops. The year 2004 actually saw the first washing station erected with USAID support and Rwanda was the first to host the Cup of Excellence auction, thus putting Rwanda on the coffee map as a producer of exceptional quality coffee.
A National Coffee Strategy to further recover the industry is ongoing and this will help improve and expand it along with directly benefiting the producers as a result. The majority of the farmers are smallholders, as I mentioned above, with plot sizes 0.5 hectares (approx. 150-300 trees). The farmers are subsistence farmers which means that alongside the coffee, they also grow crops such as corn, beans, and bananas.
So, in complete contrast to the past, and the low-quality commercial coffee that made the country’s coffee infamous during the Belgian rule, Rwanda’s economic and coffee strategy is now equipped for producing high quality cherries and therefore high-quality, speciality beans.
THE KCRS WOMEN’S COOPERATIVE
The KCRS (Cooperative Coffee Rusiga Sector) Women’s cooperative is made up of 100% female run coffee farms in the Rulindo district of Northern Rwanda. This area is one of sloping mountains and a large lake – the prefect soil conditions for growing coffee! The women farmers of the cooperation use the Kinini Coffee Washing Station, an incredibly important element of the coffee production in this area of Rwanda. The washing station is used by many cooperatives in the area to sort, wash and grade their coffees.
The Kinini washing station was set by a charity called ‘A New Beginning’ back in 2008. It was set up by Malcom Clear and Jaqueline Turner initially as a charity to help and support the widows and orphans following the genocide that had re-settled in the area. It was in 2012 that the charity also started growing coffee. The charity set up a school and a health post and has fully trained the staff to be self-sufficient.
A whopping 85% of the 100% female growers that make up KCRS have their farms at 2000 masl or higher. As smallholder subsistence farmers, they also grow crops such as legumes, beans, and sweet potatoes in between the coffee trees. This is something that not only benefits the coffee crop but also allows income to be spread over the year as well as producing food for their own consumption. It’s typical to find that a small family plot includes around 6 other crops aside from the coffee trees.
As I said, these are women farmers and although there are some male members of the families. It is the women who have taken over ownership and charge of the land. The support that a small holder farmer often relies on has found to flourish under this structure and it is often now used as a methodology to help improve the coffee on a farm if an individual is struggling.
Rwanda’s washed process is slightly different to what is understood as washed elsewhere. A fully washed coffee is a process that involves pulping the coffee and a 24 hour dry fermentation period before going through another more traditional fermentation followed by a full 24 hour soak afterwards. This process is what you would expect in an origin such as Kenya and this process yields a syrupy bodied coffee that tends to hold up very well as it ages. It’s not uncommon for a Rwandan coffee to still be tasting great at 18 months or more as long as its stored correctly.
So, the details:
Process: Fully Washed
Altitude: 1800 – 2500 masl
Tasting Notes: Black tea, gooseberry, rosehip and milk chocolate