Rwanda's Coffee Economy: 2012-2013

41 images Created 12 Aug 2012

The road to ‘Origin’ is seldom easy...

Yet for a select few, the pilgrimage to this tiny, landlocked country of a thousand hills is becoming an essential journey, an annual right of passage. It commences with a flight from Chicago, New York, Oslo or Amsterdam, with a handful of stopovers; Zurich, London, Dubai, Addis Ababa, Nairobi. Finally, Kigali, Rwanda.

Once on solid ground, the path takes a more onerous turn. Hours twisting through forgotten roads where four wheel drives -and the pit of guts- are put to the ultimate test. Through scattered villages perched atop sheer mountain ridges, past children scampering alongside vehicles, to places where cows become fussy roadblocks and women shaded under colorful umbrellas listlessly balance the fruits of a days labor on their heads as they gossip their way back home.

Along the drive, one easily slips into the rhythm of ‘Origin,' as the industry calls it, bumping and swaying to the pulse of a potholed road, falling into the cadence of long delayed conversations and a simpler understanding of time, which follows the face of the sun, not a clock. Ascending deeper into the mountains, ears begin to play tricks, popping with each metered kilometer upwards.

At last, the vehicle grinds to a halt. A trail of dust, dancing behind the Land Cruiser like a golden brown shadow for kilometers whips by. Doors open. Brown leather cowboy boots, Converse, Nikes, and flip-flops hit the soft earth. You’ve arrived at 'Origin'. Nestled deep in a hillside, Nyabumera Coffee Washing station is where a hundreds of coffee farmers come each day to drop off sacks of lush red hand-picked coffee cherries.

The hills of Western Rwanda, scenically lining the crystalline blue waters of Lake Kivu, are increasingly becoming known for their coffee, and Rwanda as an “Origin” destination for specialty coffee is booming.

Today, nearly 27% of Rwandan coffee exported is marked as specialty – up from zero in 2000. Foreign exchange earnings on specialty coffee in Rwanda have risen from $0 in 2001 to $27M in 2012. Total earnings from Rwanda’s coffee industry have tripled from $20Mto $75M in 10 years.

“Coffee is one of the most complex beverages out there”, Sarah Kluth, a buyer from US-based specialty roaster Intelligentsia once told me. “There are about 900 different compounds in a cup of coffee that affect how we perceive it.” Like grapes and wine, meticulous attention needs to be paid during the entire process – from cherry to roasting – to produce specialty quality.

Although specialty coffee makes up 3% of the global market, it commands an additional 15-25% premium on top of market prices.

For a tiny, landlocked and resource-poor country like Rwanda and its 400,000 coffee farmers, these premiums have made a big difference. Where Rwanda has been unable to produce quantity, it’s turned its focus towards quality, and a growth in coffee cooperatives is helping put money in the hands of farmers who need it.
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