The flavor profile of a fine Rwandan coffee isn’t what most coffee aficionados might think of as African. It’s not particularly fruity or floral, it doesn’t have the phosphoric acidity or wine notes of Kenyan coffee, nor does it have the delicate tea-like quality of some Ethiopian coffees. So for those who haven’t yet experienced top quality Rwandan coffee, what can we compare it to?
We like the way Rwandan coffee was described by Washington, D.C. barista Stacey Manley a few years ago in a Washington Post interview: "It mixes a lot of regular characteristics that you usually only find in one area. Latin American coffees tend to be lighter-bodied and kind of nutty with cocoa. But you almost never find an earthy, really heavy-bodied Latin American coffee. Those are typically Indonesian characteristics. And in Indonesia, coffee is very rarely bright. So the weird thing about Rwandan coffee is it'll have all these different characteristics in one coffee."
We couldn’t have said it better.
But specialty coffee fans haven’t always spoken so enthusiastically about Rwandan coffee. In fact, until recent years they had little reason to speak of it at all. To appreciate why Rwanda’s coffee is getting more buzz today, you need to first know a little bit about the Rwandan coffee industry’s past.
Rwanda’s coffee history
German missionaries brought coffee to Rwanda in 1904, and by the 1930s coffee production was an important driver of Rwanda’s economy. The Belgian colonial government required Rwandan farmers to grow coffee in addition to their other crops, while controlling prices and imposing heavy taxes that kept the farmers from earning much for the coffee they were forced to grow. In fact, nearly every aspect of the coffee industry was tightly controlled under the government’s heavy-handed policies. As a result, Rwanda’s coffee production was characterized by high volume and poor quality, exporting a low-grade product primarily suitable only as “filler” for adding bulk to the slightly better quality beans used in commercial-grade coffee. Post-colonial administrations perpetuated this￼model, with few if any improvements to either the quality of the coffee or the lives of the farmers who grew it.
The global coffee crisis of the late 1980s hit Rwanda’s coffee industry hard, and the country’s devastating civil war finished it off in the decade that followed. By 2000, Rwanda had no coffee processing infrastructure left at all, so there was little point in growing coffee.
Since then, Rwanda has not only rebuilt its coffee industry, it has become Africa’s ninth largest producer of Arabica coffee and an emerging player in the international high-quality specialty coffee market. In fact, demand for Rwandan coffee already exceeds current production. Coffee now generates 75% of export revenue, and the nation plans to be producing specialty grade coffee exclusively by 2013.
How in the world did Rwanda’s coffee industry undergo such a dramatic rebirth in such a short time? That’s the really inspiring part of the story.
Rwanda’s coffee renaissance
Under the leadership of its current administration, Rwanda has liberalized its coffee industry and developed an aggressive National Coffee Strategy as a key component of reforms aimed at rebuilding the country’s economy and infrastructure. The new strategy focuses on the specialty coffee market rather than commercial coffee production. Not only does specialty coffee command higher prices on the export market, its prices tend to be more stable and less vulnerable to the kind of economic volatility that devastated Rwanda’s previous coffee industry in the 1980s. Today, assisted by partnerships with international organizations, 450,000 Rwandan coffee growing families are working hard to develop a new coffee industry that’s helping to reshape their country’s future.
The program credited with helping Rwanda start up a new specialty coffee industry was a collaboration between the country’s Ministry of Education and Texas A&M University, Michigan State University, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Called the Partnership for Enhancing Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages (PEARL), the program provided critical training, began rebuilding the washing stations needed for coffee processing, and helped small farmers form cooperatives. Following the success of PEARL, a new partnership called Sustaining Partnerships to Enhance Rural Enterprise and Agribusiness Development (SPREAD) continued with the next phase of development, implementing several innovative programs aimed at developing quality-focused infrastructure and processes for each link in the supply chain, from production to promotion. Here are just a few examples:
- Training expert coffee cuppers to help farmers evaluate and improve the quality of their product
- Continuing to build more washing stations to increase capacity and cut transportation and processing times
- Helping to facilitate direct access to new markets; for example, by assisting the newly formed cooperatives in starting up an export business of their own, the Rwanda Smallholder Specialty Coffee Company
- Helping Rwandan coffee producers get the attention of the international specialty market through national and international coffee competitions, along with other promotional efforts
In 2008 Rwanda became the first African country to enter the Cup of Excellence® competition, which is like the equivalent of the Olympics or Academy Awards for the specialty coffee industry. It’s the international award given by the Alliance for Coffee Excellence, Inc. (ACE). There’s no higher honor bestowed on a coffee or coffee farmer, and we are very proud to offer a spectacular Rwandan coffee that has been awarded this honor.