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Rwanda, the small country with a tumultuous history, is working to produce some truly unique coffee.

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.

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  • Place In World For Coffee Exporter
  • Sacks (60kg) exported annually
    Approx: 389,000
  • Percentage of world coffee market
    Less than 1%
  • Other major agricultural exports
    Tea, Milk, Barley Beer
  • Estimated number of families relying on coffee for livelihood?
  • Typical varieties produced
    Mostly Red Bourbon
  • Key coffee regions
    Kivi, Maraba, and others
  • Typical harvest times
    February - July
  • Typically available

Rise of Coffee

Coffee was introduced to the country by German colonists in 1904. However, commercial production only really ramped up in the 1930s, under Belgian rule. The Belgian Colonial government focused on covering as much area under coffee as possible, creating a ‘high production-low quality’ trap for many producers in the country at the time. The country, for many years, had a reputation as a producer of low-quality coffee, and during the 1980’s economic crisis and the subsequent political turmoil following the 1994 genocide, coffee production was almost entirely levelled.

While travelling around this vibrant, welcoming country it is almost impossible to believe the scale of the violence that erupted in 1994, when more than an eighth of the population (primarily minority Tutsi) 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 production, along with tea exports and tourism, has been a key driver of this economic growth and stability.

This near miracle has taken place due in part to strong governmental support for the coffee sector, trade rules that facilitate exporting, and international investment from NGOs and private companies. But above all, it is a testament to the resilience and commitment of the Rwandan people, whose work and belief in a better future have made Rwanda one of the ‘go to’ origins for specialty coffee today.

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Difficulties Growing Coffee

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 (total area under production hovers at 42,000 hectares). Almost all of Rwanda’s coffee is Arabica, and 95% is one of several long-established Bourbon varieties. This is closely guarded by the country’s government, which strongly guides variety introduction so as to protect the country’s market.

In global coffee terms, Rwanda is a small but by no means insignificant producer with some tremendous potential. This being said, despite strong governmental and international support, the country’s industry faces significant challenges, which impact on productivity. So far, the peak was the 2003/2004 harvest, during which nearly 450,000 bags were exported. As of 2019/2020, this number has dropped to 389,000. Certainly, coffee leaf rust and coffee berry disease have had an impact (the country’s focus on promoting cultivation of Red Bourbon for export renders it susceptible): some roasters and importers have perhaps been scared off by the appearance of the ‘potato’ defect that has plagued the region (the defect is also seen in Kenya and Tanzania, but for the past several years, Rwanda has been heavily affected). The industry is only now able to understand the causes of potato (thought to be fungal infection introduced by the antestia bug) and are taking measures to tackle it at its root; however, Rwandan producers and washing stations have met the need by heroically investing in processing – sorting, sorting, and sorting again – to insure any and every suspect bean is removed before the coffee reaches the dry mill.

Transport also presents one of the challenges of production for Rwanda. 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.

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Support for Coffee

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. Today, the country has over 220 washing stations. 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.