Rwandan coffee beans have been noted as sweet, full-bodied, fruity, and acidic. But there’s so much more to the story of this country’s coffee industry than just its delicious flavors and aromas. This small East African country should not be overlooked by roasters and coffee lovers. Known as the Land of a Thousand Hills, its production of high-quality, high-altitude coffee goes side-by-side with its fight against poverty.
Rwanda is a small coffee producing country; in 2016, it harvested just 220,000 60-kilo bags, compared to 7.1 million in Ethiopia and 4.9 million in Uganda. However, Rwanda is positioning itself as a world-class specialty single-origin coffee and the delicious flavors of its coffee back this up.
HISTORY OF RWANDA COFFEE
Coffee isn’t native to Rwanda. It seems to have been brought to the country by German missionaries in the early 1900s. Beginning around 1930 coffee production in Rwanda increased though it was mostly low-grade, high volume green coffee beans as dictated by the government creating one of the country’s few significant cash crops. From then on, it grew to represent economic opportunities for many rural families.
Today Rwanda is Africa’s ninth largest Arabica coffee producer with about 450,000 small farms which average less than one hectare in size (about 165 coffee trees per coffee farmer) totaling about 28,000 hectares in coffee cultivation.
Coffee is more of a culture in African countries than we’re used to in the west, with rituals and socializing being a key component of any get together. The industry attaches values to its crops – Hope (“Ikizere”), Vision (“Ikerokoza”), Ishema (“Proud”) – that guide how people work together.
COFFEE: A CROP OF HOPE
Yet no account of Rwanda’s history can ignore the tragic Rwandan Genocide of 1994, when 800,000 people were murdered in just 100 days and as many as 250,000 women were raped. In the wake of the tragedy, organizations such as the Partnership for Enhancing Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages (PEARL) and Sustainable Partnerships to Enhance Rural Enterprises and Agricultural Development (SPREAD) were launched. PEARL, directed by Dr. Dan Clay, and SPREAD, directed by Dr. Timothy Schilling (now Founder and CEO of World Coffee Research), were both funded by USAID and aimed to support Rwanda by revitalizing its agriculture.
And coffee, as one of the country’s most valuable crops, was one of the primary focuses. Investment in infrastructure and training supported coffee producers, with the impact of these initiatives still felt today.
Rwanda’s National Agricultural Export Development Board (NAEB) states that its coffee strategy is “positioning Rwanda as a specialty coffee producer” to “best enable the sector to contribute to the growth and prosperity of the country.” It points to increasing prices as a sign of its success, and focuses its efforts on improving coffee production and coffee processing practices.
RWANDAN COFFEE PLANT VARIETALS
About 95% of Rwanda’s coffee plants are the high quality Arabica varietal Bourbon. Also cultivated are relatively small amounts of the Catuai and Caturra varietals. One of the varietals cultivated in Rwanda is Coffea arabica var. mayaguez, a cultivar of Bourbon (Coffea arabica var. bourbon).
Most of the green coffee is wet processed often at communal washing stations used by numerous coffee farmers.
Most of the coffee in Rwanda is grown at elevations ranging from 1,200 to 1,800 meters above sea level. The Rwanda coffee plants flower in September in October and the coffee cherry is harvested and green coffees processed from March to July.
FULLY WASHED PROCESSING FOR CLEAN COFFEES
In the past, Rwandan coffee would be inconsistently processed on individual farms and then blended with that of neighboring farms. However, after the Genocide, both the government and bodies like PEARL incentivized coffee producers to invest in fully washed processing methods. This was so successful that there are now 245 washing stations across the country (NAEB, 2015) compared to, according to Sweet Maria’s, just one before.
It’s also worth mentioning that fully washed coffees, also called double washed, are normally processed slightly differently to washed coffees. They are typically soaked twice, in a method common in Africa but not Latin America.
You will, of course, also find other processing methods here if you look hard enough. But the typical Rwandan coffee is a sweet, full-bodied, fully washed Bourbon grown at high altitudes.
Indulge yourself with a high-altitude, fully washed Bourbon and remember that the harvest represents opportunity for 400,000 smallholder farmers across this country.
Header Image Credit: Bryan Clifton