Lying almost in the centre of the continent, Rwanda is a fertile, mountainous and compact nation - roughly half the size of Scotland and smaller than most US states. Officially Africa’s most densely populated country, it has been inhabited since the Iron Age (if not earlier) and its seemingly endless terraced hills are scattered with dwellings. The 11 million strong population is still largely rural - around 90% of Rwandans are engaged in agriculture of some kind, though much of this is subsistence farming.
While travelling around this vibrant, welcoming country it is almost impossible to believe the scale of the violence in 1994, when more than an eighth of the population was massacred in only 100 days. From this unimaginable destruction, Rwanda has regenerated in an extraordinary way. It is now considered one of the most stable countries in the region, and its economy has grown by an annual average of 7-8% since 2003. Coffee, along with tea exports and tourism, has been a key driver of this growth.
In global coffee terms, Rwanda is a small but by no means insignificant producer - with some tremendous potential. In 2010 it produced a total of 433,00 bags - to put that into perspective, that’s over three times more than Bolivia produced in the same year (140,000 bags), but only around half that of Kenya (850,000 bags) and some 17 times less than African coffee giant Ethiopia (7,450,000 bags!).
With no coastline of its own, Rwanda’s coffees must first be sent 1,500km overland to Mombasa (Kenya) or Dar-es-Salam (Tanzania) - a process that usually costs more than shipping the container from Africa to Europe or the US!
Unlike its East African neighbours, Rwanda has no large estates. The majority of its coffee is grown by some 400,000 small-scale farmers and their families, most of whom own less than quarter a hectare of land each. All of Rwanda’s coffee is Arabica, and 95% is one of several long-established Bourbon varieties.
Despite Rwanda’s huge potential for quality production, its specialty coffee industry is still young. The first private washing station was built in 2001, with the help of USAID-financed projects, PEARL (now SPREAD) and ADAR. These transformational programmes were aimed at switching the focus in the Rwandan coffee sector from an historic emphasis on quantity to one of quality - and so opening up Rwanda to the far higher-earning specialty coffee market.
Many new washing stations have sprung up since 2001, allowing co-ops and local private buying groups to process cherries themselves - and therefore sell them on to international buyers for far higher prices. Before the proliferation of these washing stations, the norm in Rwanda was for small farmers to sell semi-processed cherries on to a middleman - and the market was dominated by a single exporter (whose monopoly status made for even less flexibility on price). This commodity-focused system - coupled with declining world prices in the 1990s - brought severe hardship to farmers, some of whom abandoned coffee entirely.
Today, it’s a different picture. Farmers who work with the washing stations have seen their income at least double. Meanwhile, following a dry run in 2007 with the ‘Crop of Gold’, Rwanda held its first Cup of Excellence competition in 2008 and since then has introduced many more buyers to the exceptional Bourbon coffees that this country produces.
Our new crop Rwanda coffees usually arrive between November and January.