Rwanda "Land of A Thousand Hills"

June 21-July 4, 2004
Michael Lone

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I was told on Friday, June 18th that I was to prepare for a trip to the other side of the world on the following Monday. Kelly Peltier of Canopy Coffee, who has been working closely with the Coffee board of Rwanda, invited me to Rwanda to see just how serious this country is on entering the specialty coffee market. With USAID sponsored projects such as ADAR (Assistance a la Dynamisation de Agribusiness au Rwanda), and PEARL (Partnership for Enhancing Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages), Rwanda is developing a future in fully washed specialty coffee; something that would have been difficult to imagine only ten years ago during the notorious three months of violence in April-July'94.

Our Rwanda coffee education began on the first day in Kigali where we met with the Director of the Coffee board, Mr. Laurien Ngirabanzi. Mr. Ngirabanzi provided some background on the history of Rwandan coffee and the direction he sees the country taking now. In just 3 years Rwanda has managed to construct 15 washing stations where before there had only been two. He said that the plan is to have 100 washing stations situated throughout the country to allow farmers and communities better access and provide more quality control within the regions. These washing stations are the so-called "hubs" for coffee farmers. It is here where the coffee cherries are purchased from the farmers, sorted by color, pulped, sorted, fermented, soaked, sorted again, and dried. From here the dried coffee is taken to a dry mill where it is sorted once more and held in parchment until the coffee has been purchased for export. After our discussion with Mr. Ngirabanzi we actually visited the largest dry mill in Rwanda and witnessed 1,200 women sorting the final dry coffee for any defects prior to bagging it up for export.

By midday we had traveled from Kigali to the southern town of Butare. The two-hour car ride took us past many towns tucked away in the hills. Some were busy with their weekly markets, while others seemed calm.  Brick kilns on the side of the road jumped out at me as something completely new to my eyes. The people form bricks out of clay, build a small pyramid of these wet bricks and leave three window-like openings at the bottom. A fire is then lit at the base and the heat dries the bricks, which are then used for building. It was quite a sight to see these steaming pyramids line the road.

In Butare we met up with PEARL coordinator, Dr. Tim Shilling. Dr. Shilling has been responsible for organizing a number of communities to build and manage cooperative washing stations. At the time of our visit he was training cuppers from each of the washing stations in Rwanda with help from Coffee Corp volunteers, Bob Stephenson of Kavanaugh Coffee, and Willem Boot of Boot Consulting. The training is an intensive two-month course that teaches the representatives everything from picking cherry, running washing stations, cupping coffees and detecting defects, to maintaining equipment. The day that we arrived the instructors had asked the students to find out what I, as an importer, would like to find in a Rwandan coffee. My expectations were that the coffee should have some typical East African characteristics: good body and nice acidy. After cupping all six coffees from six separate washing stations I was surprised to find a couple of the coffees to be as good as or better than some Kenya AA I've had. I commented on this and soon afterwards was encouraged to commit to a few containers.

Throughout the rest of the trip we visited different washing stations in Rwanda, some are managed as cooperatives, and others are privately owned. While visiting the Maraba washing stations I was able to meet with some of the farmers that had walked to the station with the cherries they had picked for the day. The women had made the trek carrying the cherries on the tops of their heads. They then emptied the bags of cherry on a table. An inspector checked the quality of the cherries and then weighed the total amount. The weights are documented and payment is provided weekly. Overall I noticed that all of these washing stations were designed based on two things: to produce a high quality washed coffee and to develop a strong foundation for the community and farmers it supports. With this in mind, a bonus is dispersed at the end of the crop year to all of the participating farmers. The farmers use the money to invest in additional coffee trees, clothing, and education. Because of this investment the communities have become stronger, business has developed, and the farmers' lives have been improved.

 In between visits to the many washing stations, I had a chance to visit with the Gorillas in the Virunga National Park near Ruhengeri, a town just south of the Ugandan border. I joined six other tourists along with two armed military guards and two guides. We hiked 3 hours up the volcanic mountain in the misty forest to come across the 18-member "Susa" group, made famous by Dian Fossey. It was an amazing moment to stand 5 feet away from a 500lb Silverback and realize I was in the Gorillas natural environment and not in a zoo. I was so excited that I asked one of the other people in my group to take a picture of me. She shook her head and said no. Apparently she was freaked out by these gorillas or maybe I was just way to close to them.

Since I was in Africa I also had the opportunity to go an African Safari. We visited  Akagera National Park in the Eastern part of the country close to the Tanzania border. There I managed to wake up at 5:30am and see giraffes, water buffalo, hippopotamus, impalas, a variety of colorful birds, and many hyperactive baboons. The landscape was beautiful though there were some uncontrolled fires in the distance started by poachers. Apparently, the hunters/poachers will start fires at one end and wait for the animals on the other side. Unfortunately, this practice has damaged a large area of the park and one week after my visit it was reported that a third of the park has burned. This is a reminder that investing in coffee may be a better option.

As for food, I feasted on the traditional "meat on a stick." This was basically goat meat on skewers, seasoned with a hot spicy sauce and grilled on the barbeque. It was quite fresh and tasty. The item was served with plantains, and beer. A treat I did not go without for the entire 12 days.

Overall, this trip was an excellent way for me as an importer to see what steps a country must go through in order to develop and implement a large scale coffee program. The investment from the country has been remarkable and will be noticed in the cup of Rwandan coffee. We will have the opportunity to cup the coffees from all of the washing stations throughout Rwanda in the next couple weeks. A final judgment will be made on which coffees we will have interest in purchasing at that time.

I would like to thank the following people for their generosity with time and resources:

Maurice Wiener- ADAR Project
Tim Shilling - PEARL Project
Laurien Ngirabanzi- OCIR (Rwanda Coffee Board)
Kelly Peltier - Canopy Coffee
Atlas Coffee Importers, LLC

Murakoze (Thank you in Kinyrwandan)

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