Bigger Than Caffeine: Coffee & Rwanda

Posted by Christopher McClure on

Coffee may be your morning routine. It might be the fuel that gets you going, or it may be your culinary indulgence. But what does coffee mean for the people growing it?
 
The first thoughts that come to mind when someone mentions Rwanda aren’t pleasant. Being the home of one of the largest genocides of this generation, it’s hard to imagine thinking of much else. But this is changing, and it’s possible that in a few decades the first thing you will think of when you think Rwanda will be coffee. Damned good coffee at that.
 
Made by some pretty awesome people.
Coffee has been hanging around Rwanda for a long time: small farms were forced to grow it in the Belgian colonial era of the 1930s, planting the arabica species of the coffee plant (keep that in mind). In the early 90’s coffee was the majority of exports, but the chaos decimated the coffee infrastructure, and with significantly less people to work the farms and almost no way toprocess the beans, the coffee industry dwindled.
Looking at the country now, it’s hard to imagine Rwanda not having world-class coffee: coffee has been a major crop for decades, the country is still filled with the heirloom arabica trees when many other countries replaced theirs with the tough-as-nails-quantity-over-quality robusta trees and the climate is about as perfect as one could hope for growing coffee.
Pictured: Coffee heaven. If you look really hard and maybe cross your eyes you’ll see angelic coffee beans playing harps.
Photo by Amakuru is licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0
The transition from barely functioning, C-grade coffee production (read: Folger’s) to top class, “let’s sell this at $22 a pound at Starbucks and call it ‘black apron,’ whatever that means,” didn’t happen overnight. Or by accident.
“Oops, I accidentally made great coffee. It just kinda happened” -No One Ever
When President Paul Kagame stepped into office, he realized that coffee could revive the destitute economy and released control of the production back to the farmers. Then, working with US Agency for International Development, an organization named PEARL taught Rwandans better farming practices as well as how to cup coffee and control quality of their product, filling the gaps left from the genocide. 
After learning more about what they were producing, the Rwandan farmers were able to see what they were growing as a craft, not something they were forced to grow, and began to care about what they made. Stepping into the craft coffee industry also meant farmers were able to more than double their incomes. This has helped some famers immensely, but many are still trying to find ways of getting their coffee to processing stations and then to the market, meaning sometimes they have an amazing product, but no way to sell it.
 
The fireman carrying should be saved for firemen, and maybe adventurous honeymooners.
Photo by Hanoi Mark is licensed under CC-BY-NC 2.0
The question now is, have you tasted any of the delicious coffee from Rwanda? And if not, would you like to? You can find Rwandan coffee at many well-respected roasters across the country, but if you’re in Portland you can buy a pound of Rwandan at Arabica, with beans we source from the local Rwanda Bean Company. If you’re lucky you can stop by our Commercial St. location on July 15th for our Rwanda Benefit, you'll be able to try some of our Rwandan coffee and learn about the importance of coffee in Rwanda from the man who sources it for us.
Learn more about the event here, or see how you can help the farmers continue their crafthere. And the next time you see some Rwandan coffee in a shop somewhere, remember the words of Zac Nsenga, former Rwandan ambassador to the United States: “The more you consume coffee from Rwanda, the more you give Rwanda hope. It’s the quality and the story behind it that makes it special.”

(P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about Rwanda’s history and coffee’s place in that, please read this wonderful piece in the New York Times by Laura Fraser and this interview on NPR by Michaeleen Doucleff. This blog wouldn't be possible without either of these pieces.)

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