"Mutual Assistance"

By: Susan Heller Evenson

Abateraninkunga ba Sholi (“Sholi”) Cooperative, meaning “Mutual Assistance,” is located in Muhanga district, Southern Province, in the center of Rwanda, about halfway between Kigali and Lake Kivu. Established in 2008, Sholi has been producing coffee for nearly a decade, and the Cooperative’s name speaks to its members working together to improve both their coffee and the greater community.  Sholi was borne out of a women’s association called “Kundwa”, which means “love” in Kinyarwanda.

Today, over one third of Sholi’s members are women, including two of the five board members. In addition to coffee trees at the farm level (which average ~410 per female member), the women’s association has two communal plots for harvesting and producing coffee.

With the nearest larger health facility being over 18 km away on poor roads, the community near Sholi was in need of a health center. In 2016, Sholi responded to that need, and applied for a grant to build both a community center and a regional health center to serve members and residents. With funds from the grant, as well as members’ individual contributions, the health center was built, and today it includes a small pharmacy, room for basic first aid, a staffed nurse, family planning services, blood testing, and treatment for malaria, parasites, and respiratory infection.

Sholi also began, with grants from Café Feminino Foundation, a women and children’s nutrition program in the community, where kids ages 2 to 5 who are  identified as susceptible to malnutrition attend the program 4 days/week of 9 months and receive fortified porridge, learn simple counting and songs, and parents attend monthly educational meetings. A few years ago, Sholi also built a community hall that they not only use for cooperative meetings and general assemblies, but can rent out to the community for events.

Coffee processing at Sholi is similar to other coffee cooperatives in Rwanda, although each has its minor variations. After coffee cherries are delivered to the washing station, the coffee is pulped. The lower grades (A3 and A4) are dried and sold to the local market. The two higher grades (A1 and A2) are dry-fermented for 12-18 hours, depending on the climate, then soaked. After soaking the wet parchment is hand-picked on covered raised beds for 24 hours (“pre drying”) before being moved to the drying beds, where they dry over 21-25 days depending on the weather.

For natural process coffees, Sholi selects and identifies the highest-quality cherries that arrive at the central washing station. The cherries are sorted again, floated, and moved to the drying tables. After three or four days, they cover the dried cherries for 24-30 hours to develop the flavor. The cherries are monitored and continue to dry up to 30-35 days depending on the weather.

The Cooperative received its Fairtrade certification in 2015 and Rainforest Alliance certification in 2016, and Organic certification in 2020.  Using Fairtrade funds, members have started an apiary project as well as distributed cows to members. In 2017, Atlas imported Sholi’s inaugural shipment to the U.S.

2023 Visit Updates

During our June 2023 visit, we learned that Sholi has also started a community transformation program for 70 young single mothers aged from 18-25, teaching them how to save, starting small savings and credit groups, and gifting them a collective coffee field. Any of the cherries sold to the cooperative from that field go directly to the women.

They now have 3 solar dryers at their main washing station–the first was purchased with a grant, the second using Fairtrade funds, and the third with direct profits from the cooperative–to improve their drying quality.

Sholi has continued to invest in its long-term agriculture, and expanded from planting 18,000 trees in 2016 to 185,000 trees in 2022. The cooperative offers free Bourbon seedlings to members, and have a second, smaller washing station to accommodate members that live farther away from the main washing station. They have also identified several geographical areas at especially high elevation to offer as potential future microlots.

Shoil has also had significant climate-change challenges, from extreme flooding in February 2023, to hail near florwering to unseasonable drought.

Sholi began as a woman’s cooperative after the genocide in 1994, and it’s clear that they have strong history of women’s leadership. Chairwoman Marthe Mukakarangwa has been  a part of Sholi since its inception and shared with us during our 2023 visit that for the women-produced coffee premiums, the union gives 2/3 of the funds directly to the female members to use as they see fit, and 1/3 of the funds for a project, as decided by the women. This year they have decided to use the funds to both learn how to sew and create crafts, and provide materials to create and sell the crafts.

Sholi coffees have some of the deepest citrus acidity we’ve seen from the great lakes countries, shining with ruby red grapefruit and juicy blood orange.  Additional layers of mango, orange, and dark berry are balanced by honey and finish with lavender.

From our visits and from the cupping notes, it’s clear that Sholi members are meticulous about their coffee–from cherry selection to post-harvest processing to immaculate storage–and their consistently high-scoring lots are a result of consistently high efforts.


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