A History of Rwandan Coffee

Posted by Thomas Minieri on

Today, it is not out of the ordinary to walk into a specialty coffee shop, such as Highfalutin Coffee, and see Rwandan coffee on the shelf. Considering its prevalence, you may be surprised to learn that the country has only become a major player in the global coffee industry in the past twenty years. Rwanda’s history is one of colonization, independence, and a push by local farmers to change the country’s coffee narrative.

Rwanda is a small, landlocked country located in central Africa. It’s one of the smallest countries on the continent: for reference, it is about the size of the state of Maryland. The country is full of volcanic peaks, fertile soil, and large lakes, forming the perfect geographical conditions to support the growth of coffee trees. As such, coffee and tea are its two biggest exports.

The first coffee plants were brought to Rwanda by German missionaries in the early 1900s, but the industry didn’t take off until the 1930s, after Belgium invaded the country during World War I. The leaders of Belgium recognized that Rwanda’s geography supported large-scale coffee growth, and they demanded that farmers in Rwanda plant a large number coffee trees. The Belgian government wanted to make money by having farmers produce as many coffee beans as possible, regardless of quality. Belgian officials instituted harsh demands in order to pump out high amounts of exported coffee, and as a result, the bean quality was very low.

Rwanda eventually gained independence from Belgium in 1962, but due to economic and political turmoil within Rwanda and throughout the world over the next 40 years, the country was never able to establish a solid footing in the worldwide coffee market. By the early 2000s, the country’s coffee industry was in shambles, and there was a good possibility that it would never recover. However, the Rwandan government and local farmers created a National Coffee Strategy, and, along with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), helped the country invest in infrastructure and training to support local farmers. The strategy focused on creating smaller quantities of high-quality, specialty coffee, rather than larger quantities of low-quality coffee. Now, in just two decades, Rwanda has become one of the top thirty coffee producing countries in the world.

The majority of Rwanda’s coffee comes from small farms rather than large coffee estates. Most of these farms are high above sea level: anywhere from 4,000 to 7,000 feet. These elevations are similar to the very tallest peaks of the Appalachian Mountains, and the high altitudes, steep slopes, and volcanic soils provide the perfect conditions for high-quality coffee to grow. Often, instead of having a large estate that focuses solely on growing coffee beans, Rwandan farmers will grow just a small plot of a few hundred coffee plants that they tend along with a wide variety of other crops.

Unfortunately, small farms initially faced a large problem when it came to exporting the coffee they harvested. Rwandan coffee is wet processed, which is what turns the harvested coffee fruit into coffee beans. This processing is done with washing stations, which remove the coffee bean from the skin and fruit and prepare it to be dried, hulled, and exported. Smaller farms could not afford to install their own individual washing stations like larger estates could, so the Rwandan government invested the resources to develop communal washing stations throughout the country. This way, small farmers can still grow coffee in a profitable way without having to personally invest in expensive equipment. Access to these washing stations has raised the quality of Rwandan coffee, as farmers from a wide variety of regions who grow specialty coffee are now able to compete against larger farmers in the industry. Now, nearly half a million Rwandans make a living from growing coffee.

One of these local farmers is Epiphanie Muhirwa. Epiphanie was widowed in Rwanda’s civil war in the 1990s, but she was determined to keep her family’s coffee farm running so she could make money to take care of her children. In the early 2000s, she opened a washing station called Buf Café with the aid of the Rwandan Development Bank and USAID. Epiphanie then went on to help other local coffee farmers grow higher quality coffee fruits to be processed at the washing station and thus turn a higher profit, and she has opened two additional washing stations in rural areas of Rwanda. Today, one of Epiphanie’s sons, Sam, handles daily operations at Buf Café, and the family continues to support themselves through the coffee industry.

Nearly 95% of Rwandan coffee is of the Bourbon variety, known for its sweet, bright notes. The country’s coffee is creamy, buttery, and high in acidity. It is set apart from other coffees of the world by its citrusy aroma with notes of orange and lemon; its fruity and floral taste; and its aftertastes that are reminiscent of caramel and white chocolate. The coffee varies slightly by region—some of the larger growing regions include:

Virguna: A volcanic mountain chain in northwest Rwanda. The Virunga region has the highest altitude farms. Gorillas live here.

Akagera: Located in eastern Rwanda, Akagera is at a lower elevation than other coffee-growing regions. It has low, rolling mountains and rich soil.

Kiyu: Volcanic slopes near Lake Kiyu provide fertile soil for growing coffee trees

Muhazi: The shallow lake in the Muhazi provides a water source for its plentiful coffee trees of the Bourbon variety.

Kizi Rift: Also located at higher elevations around 7,000 feet, the Kizi Rift has many Arabica trees, and much of the country’s lighter roast coffee comes from here.

Now, Rwanda exports tens of millions of pounds of coffee per year, most of it coming from the country’s small farms. Thanks to farmers changing the country’s coffee narrative by switching their focus to smaller quantities of high-quality beans rather than a large amount of cheaper beans Rwanda has made a name for itself in the modern coffee industry.

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