The transformational PEARL programme of which it was a part switched the focus in the Rwandan coffee sector from an historic emphasis on quantity to one of quality, thus opening Rwanda up to the much more highly valued specialty coffee market. The programme and its successor, SPREAD, have been invaluable in helping Rwanda’s small-scale coffee farmers to rebuild their production in the wake of the devastating 1994 genocide and the 1990s world coffee crash.
Most of the small-scale producers with whom Musasa Dukunde Kawa works own less than a quarter of a hectare of land, where they cultivate an average of only 250 – 300 coffee trees each as well as other subsistence food crops such as maize and beans. The cooperative gives these small farmers the chance to combine their harvests and process cherries centrally. Before the proliferation of washing stations such as Ruli, 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. This commodity-focused system – coupled with declining world prices in the 1990s – brought severe hardship to farmers, some of whom abandoned coffee entirely.
Lying almost in the centre of the Africa, 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, and its seemingly endless terraced hills are scattered with dwellings. The 11 million strong population is still largely rural, and around 90 percent of Rwandans are engaged in agriculture of some kind, though much of this is subsistence farming.