The Land of a Thousand Hills
“Sitting high on the central spine of Africa, sandwiched between the jungles of the Congo to the west and the giant volcanoes, lakes and plains of Kenya and Tanzania to the east, Rwanda is a tiny green jewel in the heart of the continent. It is a country of rolling hills, volcanic soils, an average temperature of about 20 degrees and plenty of seasonal rain. It is, in other words, an ideal place to grow coffee.
Coffee has been grown in Rwanda for over a hundred years, and as in other parts of East Africa, it’s a relic of colonialism – it was initially introduced by European missionaries, but on a very local and small scale. Then in the 1930s the Belgian Imperial government, needing a way to monetise their colonial assets in central Africa, decreed that the local subsistence farmers should grow a cash crop that the government could export and tax, and that crop would be coffee. There was never any incentive to produce good coffee, just an export crop, and so Rwandan coffee was usually sundried or processed in a fairly rudimentary way. Another limitation was that Rwanda is a landlocked country and the coffee had to travel through Kenya or Tanzania to reach a port. This added the likelihood of spoilage by heat or moisture to the already poor quality. This situation continued through Rwandan independence in 1964, and by the late 20thcentury, the coffee infrastructure in Rwanda was badly degraded, exports were low and the quality of the coffee was universally pretty bad.
As colonial rule in East Africa ended, the political landscape gradually began again to be shaped by tribal affiliation, which observed very different borders to those left behind by the departing European powers. This led to decades of conflict and displacement, and in 1994 in the midst of the Rwandan Civil War, over the course of 3 months, violence exploded and over 800,000 people were killed, while the rest of the world looked on.
The war and the ensuing genocide destroyed much of the remaining coffee infrastructure and Rwandan coffee all but disappeared. But in the following years, as foreign aid poured in and a new government searched for ways to generate income for the ravaged country, coffee again came to the fore. In the early 2000s the National Agricultural Export Development Board was set up to oversee the improvement of coffee production and quality. In a country of very small farms, cooperatives were formed and communal washing stations built. Where almost all of the coffee used to be natural, by 2014, 42% of exports were washed, and that number is increasing rapidly. Coffee is now the leading export crop again, accounting for 24% of exports over the last decade and supporting over 400,000 farmers and their families.
Trade Aid has been looking at Rwanda as a coffee origin for quite some time. We first had samples in 2012, and the coffee that we tasted was fruity and sweet with a creamy body, it was good, interesting coffee, but at that stage none of it was organic. We were told that the cooperatives were working towards certification and we had some discussion as to whether we could make an exception to our usual practises and bring in uncertified coffee. We decided to wait. We had samples again in 2017, and the coffee was better, but the coops were still not certified – but close to it we were told. We waited again, and finally in 2018 two cooperatives gained organic certification. The samples we were sent were very good and we decided to let our roasting customers try it too.
The coffee stocks in Rwanda are still largely the old Bourbon variety that was introduced by the colonial government. Bourbon is a variety that does well on good soils at high altitude and produces small, dense, flavourful beans, but it also has comparatively low yields and less resistance to disease than more modern varieties. The coffee we are buying from Kopakama Cooperative comes from the west of the country, near Lake Kivu and the border with the Congo; it is grown at 1500 to 1800m.
The coffee is very sweet with fine, bright citric acidity and a silky, almost creamy body. The flavour is lingering, fruity and delicate with suggestions of raspberry and lime and a long sweet aftertaste.”