Ikawa Pearls: An Inside Look at Rwandan Specialty Coffee

By Madelyn Kumar

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[dropcap]I [/dropcap]scanned the rolling hills unfolding before my eyes in an air-conditioned Rav4. We passed worn pastel homes with kids kicking around a can, raising rust-colored clouds of dirt. Farmers bent over sorghum fields set against a majestic backdrop of undulating emerald patches. As the driver carved around the mountains, I mentally rehearsed how I would greet Aloys, the Huye Mountain Coffee associate who would be my host of the coffee plantation. There was a sudden, precipitous drop between the dirt road and the Huye Coffee House that we sped past, only to backtrack when we realized the worn white banner marked the target location. I hesitantly approached the house—interrupting a meeting about soil-testing equipment—and a well-built man in his 30s rose from the couch. He introduced himself as Tuyisenge Aloys, also known as Mr. Coffee.  

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Huye Mountain Coffee building housing offices and the cupping station.

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After a brief introduction, Aloys and I took a jarring car ride down the uneven dirt path, and we gazed at neatly divided patches of coffee patches organized according to their variety and treatment. Rwanda proudly boasts steady arabica coffee production– the more esteemed brother of robusta– which fetches a higher price on the market and packs a sweeter, fruitier flavor. Rwanda’s cultivar, or cultivated variety, is Bourbon, which is known for its quirky flavor profile. In three words, Aloys described the taste as “chocolate, mango, pineapple.”  

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Collaboration with World Coffee Research to explore growth of six different varieties of coffee.

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These hipster-sounding coffee descriptions are a byproduct of the Partnership for Enhancing Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages (PEARL) program that launched right here in Huye in 2001. PEARL was the brainchild of Dr. Timothy Schilling from Texas A&M University, and was heavily funded by the United States Agency for International Development and supported by various Rwandan cooperatives. Its mission was to economically restore Rwanda after the 1994 genocide by creating a novel type of brew that would sell for a pretty premium: specialty coffee. PEARL’s secret weapon lies in the washing station, which, according to Huye Mountain Coffee founder David Rubanzangabo, is “machinery and techniques to make specialty coffee.” Currently, there are 360 coffee washing stations which cost $30,000-$100,000 USD per station. Although this sounds like an unfathomable amount of upfront investment when the GNI per capita is $780 USD, washing stations are worth their weight in, well, coffee pearls. Due to PEARL, coffee comprises roughly a quarter of Rwanda’s total exported goods (remarkable growth compared to 0% in 2000), totaling $68.7 million USD in 2018.  

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Coffee cherries. Dr. Gatarayiha showed me the bright, salmon-colored vests farmers wear to pick cherries, whose color is used as a visual indicator to evaluate if cherries are ready to be harvested. 

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We approached an enclave with coffee roasting materials displayed on the ground. Aloys threw pale coffee beans into a heavy clay pot engulfed by flames. After several minutes the beans started to crackle, almost sounding like microwaving popcorn. The skin of the beans darkened from light latte to a familiar deep, espresso hue. This do-it-yourself roast only took nine minutes (10 and a half minutes for a light roast to 12 for a dark roast), and it was so simple that even a suburbanite like me didn’t burn the beans. What I thought was a touristy gimmick of roasting green coffee over a roaring fire is being seriously considered as a method to incentivize locals to drink more coffee. 

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Aloys roasting coffee beans the traditional way (left). Aloys removing impurities on roasted beans (right).

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As we marched up the mountain, I slithered precariously across the glossy rocks, a heavy camera slung over one shoulder while frantically typing notes on my phone. The tour was turning into more of a hike, and a challenging one. As we ascended, I learned it takes three years for a coffee plant to grow, and after 10 years the plant has to be snipped in order for new stems to sprout. After four rounds of cutting, that plant is rendered obsolete at age 50. The slimy, emerald seed housed inside a coffee cherry is called “green coffee.” Every eight kilograms of coffee cherries harvested produce one kilogram of green coffee, which fetches about $5.50 per kilogram when sold. 

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Aloys holding a handful of green coffee ready for roasting.

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The sweeping panorama of the coffeelands was unbelievable, only slightly dampened by the fear of sliding right off the cliff and getting crushed like coffee grounds.

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Furthermore, Huye’s unique climate—altitude, humidity, temperature, and soil—creates the primordial soup perfect for Bourbon arabica coffee. The oxygen and carbon dioxide levels at 1500-2000 meters altitude make the coffee beans heavier, and heavier beans have the best quality. The loose, soft soil provides a comfortable home for the plant; the coffee root is not very strong. The finicky nature of Bourbon is also evident through its sensitivity to a host of enemies such as berry borer disease and antestia (they make the beans taste like potatoes).

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Bird’s eye view of the Huye region.

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There was a shift in energy when we descended from the hilly trek and entered the washing station. At the crest of the sloping fields of sorting tables sat a piece of red and yellow machinery with various openings and peculiar gears. This contraption removes the skin from the beans and deposits them into tanks where water is used to grate the beans to separate heavy, quality beans from undesirable floaters. Then, the beans slide into fermentation tanks, where they sit for 8-12 hours, to remove the honey lodged between cherry and bean.  

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Washing station machinery that jostles and separates beans. Looks like a reproduction of Dr. Seuss’s Sneetch Machine. 

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Next, I was led to the massive drying tables staggered down a grassy hill with women extending their arms in a windshield wiper motion, rustling and sorting the hot beans. Then, the beans are moved yet again to a warehouse for two months. Green coffee keeps for about a year, roasted for about six months.   

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Workers create a thin layer of beans to sun dry.

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For the final stop of the tour, Aloys led us right into the heart of the tasting kitchen. Cupping is a skilled process where certified coffee sommeliers whiff and sniff the beans to give each type a flavor profile. First, they gently lift a shot’s worth of coffee to their lips, swish to coax the coffee to develop its flavor profile, and carefully evaluate each variety according to the taste, aftertaste, balance, and defects. Then, to my surprise, they spit the coffee out into tall glass cups that I thought were more coffee samples. Founder David Rubanzangabo emphasized the importance of quality control by cuppers, since only “a score of 80% and above is specialty coffee.” During my tasting, even my unrefined palate clearly detected notes of chocolate. This wasn’t simply confirmation bias from stealing a glance at the cuppers’ coffee evaluation form, but was an idiosyncrasy of the Sovu region where I visited. Aloys drew an analogy between washing stations and a kitchen: “good ingredients, good meal.” 

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Cuppers study for at least six months and must pass an exam to become certified.

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As we reemerged into the sunlit fields, I was fortunate enough to meet the farmers, the backbone of the entire operation who produce 10-11 tons of coffee per year. Niyibizi Vianne, a well-weathered but sturdy gentleman of about 60, commented that the hardest part is marching, a process of covering the soil, fertilizing, weeding, and harvesting. From 7:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. they work in the plantation, beginning the harvest early to rush the beans to the factory for processing and beat the heat fatigue. When Aloys relayed my question about their personal coffee consumption, they chuckled. Niyibizi uttered, “too expensive!” 

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Farmers relaxing during their break. Niyibizi is third from left.

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I felt slightly conflicted with this coffee dichotomy: the very cultivators of coffee view this product as a treat for foreigners and the elite. Aloys also mentioned that some Rwandans believe the folklore that coffee causes restless sleep and heart attacks. Aloys, the self-proclaimed Mr. Coffee, is the outlier who joked, “no coffee, no life.” Promising data from the International Coffee Organization shows that the most dramatic growth of coffee consumption lies within emerging markets, such as Indonesia, Philippines, and China. This trend could predict Rwandan’s eventual acceptance of coffee, but it is also dependent upon disposable income and shedding negative superstitions. 

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Women remove defective green coffee beans.

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To learn about coffee from someone with private and public sector experience, the next day I met with David Rubanzangabo in the Radisson Blu lobby, which was buzzing with foreign diplomats in town for the Transform Africa Summit. Rubanzangabo explained that after the genocide, he applied to the coffee board and was rewarded the position in the Maraba (now Huye) Coffee Cooperative, the launch site of the PEARL program. His training as a technical agronomist and knowledge of potatoes allowed him to advise farmers on how to harvest and produce the coffee crop. 

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Davi Rubanzangabo, founder of Huye Mountain Coffee. Taken at the Radisson Blu in Kigali.

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In 2012, Rubanzangabo founded Huye Mountain Coffee, which he hoped would serve as a paradigm for coffee businesses in Rwanda. He partnered with farmers who weren’t part of the Maraba cooperative by paying them a competitive wage and trained them how to save money. He asserted that the symbiosis of happy farmers and happy buyers is crucial: money motivates farmers, high quality coffee pleases buyers, and happy buyers will spend more money for the product. Specialty coffee exports continually increase, but turning a profit is difficult due to the high variability price of coffee. According to speaker Mauricio Galindo at the Specialty Coffee Symposium in Sweden, estimates of coffee production are varied due to “conflicting methodologies” across countries which cause uncertainties in production volume and price volatility. Adaptation and creative marketing is essential to stay in the game, since Coffee C Futures, the global benchmark for arabica green coffee, has been decreasing. When I asked Rubanzangabo why, he just shook his head. This year, Huye Mountain Coffee is just breaking even.    

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Kevin Mbundu, CEO of Kivu Noir Coffee. Taken outside a coffee shop in Kigali Heights.

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In another interview with Kevin Mbundu, CEO of 20-year family business Kivu Noir Coffee, when asked how he would change the coffee industry, he said he’d like to bring more consumption to the local market, as coffee is “always made for someone else.”  Mbundu is an energetic source of knowledge about the shifting coffee industry, so it was fitting that our discussion about coffee modernization took place on the terrace of Kigali Heights, the swankiest part of town. Traditionally, Rwandans package green coffee, but Kivu Noir believes that exporting already-roasted coffee will earn higher prices from the consumers, who receive ready-made coffee in a neat, convenient package. Mbundu echoed the sentiment that happy farmers produce happy beans, referring to this phenomenon as the “cycle of sustainability of industry.” To foster this positive attitude, Kivu Noir also provides a nursery at its washing station, and free study space for kids with teachers who speak English and Kinyarwanda. A common theme of these coffee businesses emerges: by making a product for outsiders, this process weaves a tighter community of farmers and locals by raising standards of living and building connections between neighbors and farmers who have suffered through the Rwandan Genocide. 

After speaking to coffee business owners, I decided to interview someone on the economics side of the operation. Dr. Celestin Gatarayiha is head of the coffee division of the National Agriculture and Export Board (NAEB), which is responsible for providing the certificate of quality and origin for the beans. He is tasked with supporting the production to marketing of the “whole value chain.”  Like Rubanzangabo, he specialized in crop production—in his case, bananas—and switched to coffee production through the government. Securing an interview with Dr. Gatarayiha was no easy feat—I had to assure the NAEB multiple times that I was not a for-profit journalist. Dr. Gatarayiha skeptically peered at me through wire-rimmed glasses as I explained that I am a biology student who chooses to spend my free time writing about Rwanda’s shift to specialty coffee without a hidden agenda. 

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Dr. Celestin Gatarayiha, head of Coffee Production and Processing Division at the National Agricultural Export Board. Taken in his office at NAEB.

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In Dr. Gatarayiha’s office, we were surrounded by posters advertising the merits of the latest coffee bean variety, stacks of printed PowerPoint coffee statistics, and glossy corporate brochures with photos of smiling farmers. He meticulously explained best practices for coffee after much trial and error, such as intercropping (planting species that don’t compete with coffee plants), cover crops (short plants that fix nitrogen in the soil), and breeding (experimenting with new hybrids like RABC15 that produce higher yields and are pest-resistant). During a natural lull in the conversation, Dr. Gatarayiha pulled out a discolored plastic pitcher and offered me a cup of tea, his grin demonstrating that the irony of his drink choice was not lost on him. After all, he has been drinking tea his whole life.

The next part of our conversation felt lecture-style, and he even handed me printouts of statistics and slide decks he used when presenting to officials. Part of NAEB’s job is to give the following certifications: Fair Trade (price can’t go below $3.52 per kilogram no matter the market price), Organic ($0.30 premium per kilogram), and Specialty Coffee. The latter is sometimes branded as “Second Sunrise,” Rwanda’s national label which “identifies and reflects the coffee’s country of origin, people and culture.” It was clear that Dr. Gatarayiha possessed encyclopedic knowledge about his field, and loved to use big figures to back up his points (see Coffee Facts). In a moment of reflection about the industry, Dr. Gatarayiha stated, “Yet that coffee is not theirs . . . that’s where I think the problem is.” 

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Freshly-roasted coffee from traditional methods.

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My final visit was with Nkunzimana Kevin Jean de Diu, the Managing Director of Misozi Coffee.  Misozi is a conglomerate with five cooperatives, and each cooperative has its own brand. Misozi provides marketing expertise and export logistics. Unlike the other coffee authorities I’ve interviewed, Jean de Diu originally started in the coffee industry. He worked as a coffee agronomist—“I ended up loving the fields”—and as a cupper before switching to marketing. He credits PEARL for major improvements in jobs, coffee quality, and coffee prices double what they were previously. Jean de Diu proudly said, “no one knew about coffee before [PEARL].” He firmly believes the culture of coffee in Rwanda is “going up and up” due to more advertisements and an exponential increase of new coffee houses. However, Jean de Diu acknowledged that one of the major obstacles is the immense timeline for producing a cup of coffee—three years from seed to cherry picking, two to three weeks for drying, two months after drying before green coffee is ready to sell. 

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Nkunzimana Jean de Diu, Managing Director of Misozi. Taken at his office in NAEB.

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Jean de Diu handed me a rack card for Kopakaki, a co-op located in the Karongi district that is part of the Misozi conglomerate. The card displayed a candidly smiling woman named Angelique with the quote, “Now, all cooperative members can send their children to school.” The card advertises that thanks to the cooperative’s supporters, all its workers can send their children to school, afford healthcare, and gain access to electricity and water. 

My mind flashed back to the plantation in Huye where hundreds of women labored, swirling beans on drying beds under the searing sun or peeling off bean shells shielded by a wooden roof. After the Genocide, women were left to piece together their fragmented families and take control of their finances.  Besides the female empowerment aspect of Rwandan coffee farming, employing women is economically enticing since the NAEB sets women’s coffee at $1 more per kilogram.  

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Coffee cherries drying in the sun.

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Given Rwanda’s uniquely perfect climate, specialty coffee has emerged as its own life force. In the beginning, I was worried that the Western World was exploiting cheap labor from developing countries with ripe coffee-growing conditions, especially since locals could not savor these expensive beans. However, I now understand washing stations are not simply a place to sort and swirl beans, but a social infrastructure and educational hub for rural kids. Its production for outside consumption fuels the national economy and empowers farmers and their families, but there still exists a divide between coffee farmers and coffee drinkers. Looking forward, Rwanda is expanding its specialty coffee production with gusto by opening new washing stations and devising new marketing strategies (such as  Mbundu’s inspiration from a California brand which makes coffee portable in a tea bag parcel and Dr. Gatarayiha’s efforts to categorize flavor profiles to create different market segments). However, when I inquired about coffee’s falling prices on the market, these experts could not pinpoint its cause, but they agreed that expanding specialty coffee was better than doing nothing at all. They are clinging onto one universal doctrine: specialty coffee will be more expensive than regular coffee.

Teach a man to fish, he can eat for a year.  Implement coffee washing stations, Rwandans acquire a new skill that has steadily emerged as a lifeline after tragedy to rebuild their nation.

Coffee Facts!  Just some tidbits of coffee trivia filtered for your convenience:

  • Due to PEARL, the majority (64%) of national production of coffee is specialty coffee, and Rwanda is aiming for 80% by 2024. 
  • In 2018, 24,000 metric tons of green coffee were produced, or more than 10,000 fully-loaded semi trucks worth of beans.  
  • Ninety-seven percent of coffee is exported.  
  • Surprisingly, 40% of green coffee is exported to Switzerland, 25% to USA, and 8% to Singapore.  

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Madelyn Kumar is a junior in Silliman College. You can contact her at madelyn.kumar@yale.edu.