Market Reports

Why Rwanda coffee is seeing a surge in quality

Government, development, and certification efforts for coffee in Rwanda is paying off. With an ideal growing environment for specialty coffee, the future looks bright.','none',' Rwanda coffee<span id= farmer” src=”/uploads/globalcoffeereview/art

icles/gcr-dec-region-rwanda3-p.gif” style=”width: 300px; height: 199px; ” />With good rainfall, fertile soil and high altitudes, Rwanda presents the ideal growing conditions for high-quality, specialty coffee. However, up until recent years, around 90 per cent of its coffee has fallen into “ordinary” low-grade qualities, with farmers selling for the basic commodity market rate.

Coffee is an important crop for this nation. A 2009 census conducted by the Rwanda Coffee Development Authority (OCIR Cafe) found that around 400,000 smallholder farmers are growing coffee in Rwanda, with most possessing less than one hectare. On average, coffee contributes to around 25 per cent of household income, but for many farmers it is their sole source of revenue.

In the 1990s, coffee made up over half the nation’s export income, but over the years, that percentage dropped to around 30 per cent. In 1991, Rwanda brought in US$58 million in income from coffee, producing upwards of 38,000 tonnes. In 2001, that production had dropped to 19,000 tonnes, worth a mere US$20 million.

As the numbers show, the drop in production was accompanied by an even steeper drop in income. A decade ago, with only three wet mills in the entire country, most farmers lacked the training and resources to sell anything but a low-grade product. 

In the last few years, however the situation has started to change dramatically. In 2010 production was still at just over 19,000 tonnes, but coffee brought in US$56 million in income. At the centre of the story are around 200 wet mills now operating, helping to bring the share of specialty coffee up from 10 per cent, to 20 – 25 per cent. This impressive achievement is the result of ongoing efforts by government, not-for-profit and certification organisations working in synergy.

“Rwandan coffee farmers enjoy climatic and soil conditions that are ideal for them to join the specialty coffee industry,” explains Paul Stewart, who works with TechnoServe’s Coffee Initiative. “By improving coffee quality, this translates into better prices for the farmers,”

TechnoServe is an international development non-profit that helps entrepreneurial men and women in developing countries to build businesses. With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, they’ve worked with 145,000 farmers throughout East Africa, including 30,000 in Rwanda, to help improve their farming practices along with the introduction of wet mills.

Rwanda coffee farmersStewart says that in improving farming practices and using wet mills to process their coffee, farmers are earning 67 per cent higher prices than those lacking these resources. Farmers are then able to use that income to purchase fertiliser, pay for higher wages for labour costs, pay their debts, and importantly, send their children to school.

Jean Claude Kayisinga works with the Spread project which similarly promotes farmers’ participation in fully washed coffee (FWC). Kayisinga says that more than 16,000 households were able to climb out of poverty in upgrading the coffee they produce.

“Households of coffee farmers in the FWC value chain witness better conditions of living translated into access to education for children, better access and use of health services, improved housing  and production capital accumulation,” says Kayisinga. The project is the result of a cooperative agreement between the Norman Borlaug Institute and USAID, operating under the Ministry of Education through the National University of Rwanda-Faculty of Agriculture.

In addition to wet mills, helping to improve farming practices has been a key component to improving both quality and yield of Rwandan coffee. George Watene, of the 4C Association, says that inefficient farming practices and aging trees in Rwandan farms typically lead to three or four times less productivity than other coffee producing countries such as Colombia and Brazil.

While productivity dropped significantly following the 1994 Rwandan political turmoil, he says that episode in the country’s history shouldn’t be overly attributed for affecting production.

“When you look at comparative production levels, the political upheaval did not have such a huge impact,” Watene explains. “The prices of coffee are what really discouraged production and then there was no investment in farming.”

He notes that the 4C Association’s work, along with a few certification programs in the country, have provided a good basis to introduce strong agricultural practices. 

“Certification helps to address issues like productivity,” he says. “Certification acts as a guide to complement these issues. It helps with prioritising what farmers need to do.”

In 2009 to 2010 TechnoServe, in cooperation with OCIR Cafe, undertook a soil survey and mapping program. Watene says this has helped farmers significantly in providing a basis for certification guidelines to help improve their farm’s productivity in a sustainable time frame.

“These certifications ensure that farmers are not negatively affected in improving their farms,” Watene says. “They ensure that they are getting a fair wage and are more motivated to work thanks to the premium, and these programs help to ensure environmental sustainability.”

Alongside government and development efforts, Watene says that certification is still a challenge in that it requires farmers to invest more into their crop. Although premiums are designed to give farmers an incentive to make the investment, with coffee prices at record highs the premium is less apparently attractive than it used to be when prices bottomed out.

Rwanda coffee farm cooperativeAppearances, however, can be deceiving. Janine Dortmundt, is a consultant coffee advisor with SNV who partners with Fairtrade (FLO) at the global level. She recently completed a survey on certification systems in Rwanda, and found that premiums paid by FLO generated a total extra income of between US$11,000 and $20,000 in 2010. She says that Rwandese cooperatives are commonly using the premium to pay off washing station loans or invest in electricity, water and roads.

Certification in general, Dortmundt says, is relatively new to the country. The first Rwandan cooperative was FLO certified in 2002, and today only around 5 per cent of the coffee is Rwanda is sold to the Fairtrade market.

“FLO certification is most often seen as a tool, not only for better market access and improved finance but, eventually, also for increasing the quality of coffee,” she says. “Improved quality in turn leads to more market opportunities and higher income since specialty coffee markets are offering higher prices.”

In addition to Fairtrade, Dortmundt says other certification systems are becoming popular on the world coffee market, including UTZ Certified, 4C and Starbucks C.A.F.E. which are increasing their scope and potential.

“In Rwanda, these can bring opportunities complementary to FLO certification, because they target different more mainstream markets,” she says.

While these schemes show potential for improvement, challenges still remain. Dortmundt says that the most crucial aspect for tapping into and benefiting from specialty and certified markets is increased management capacity. She says that a lack of good management is the most important barrier to growth and increased income in the Rwandan coffee sector.

As this management is integral to the relatively complex supply chain in which coffee is traded, Marc Monsarrat from Rainforest Alliance notes that certification becomes increasingly complicated where management issues remain alongside limited resources. Rainforest Alliance, a certification program designed to improve sustainability and workplace practices, has certified several tea plantations in Rwanda, but has yet to start working in coffee in the country.

“It’s less clear that there’s an immediate demand for certified coffee compared to tea,” says Monsarrat. “Coffee supply chains are a little more complicated.” He says, however, that the need for sustainability work in Rwanda is certainly there. In their work with tea planters, they’ve certified three tea factories, and after three years of work, Monsarrat says the fruits of their labour are starting to come through, thanks to the support of major tea buyers including Lipton, Tata Tea, Twinings and Yorkshire Tea.

Thankfully for Rwandan coffee, major coffee companies are also starting to take notice of the quality of the coffee. TechnoServe’s Stewart says that Rogers Family Company (who sources coffee for Costco), Peet’s Coffee & Tea and Starbucks, have been buying up Rwandan coffee. Iconic American specialty coffee chains Intelligentsia and Stumptown Coffee Roasters, have also taken notice, opening the lines for more direct trade with the country.

The move into specialty coffee has had the double economic benefit of creating a demand for local exporting companies to sell directly overseas, Stewart explains, and has boosted the economy by generating local demand for credit and marketing services.

“These cooperative wet mill businesses need large amounts of working capital and it’s difficult for them to make contact with buyers,” says Stewart. “Local coffee exporting companies are now supporting cooperatives by providing professional marketing and credit services, creating a win-win for farmers, exporters and coffee consumers around the world.”  

Leave a Reply

Send this to a friend