Rwanda Coffee Overview
Hand sorting coffee at Bwishaza washing station
The story of Rwanda and coffee may be the most tragic in the coffee industry. Located almost in the centre of Africa, a country less than half the size of Scotland has become well known for growing high-quality speciality coffee. Coffee was first introduced to the country in 1904 by German colonists, but it wasn't until the Belgian government that Rwanda started growing coffee. Back then, the Belgian government decided to cover as much area under coffee as possible, but it was meant to be a high-volume low-quality production. Even though Rwanda produced a lot of coffee, it didn't have a good reputation, which caused a slow decline in their coffee industry. The breaking point was the Rwanda Genocide in 1994, when over 800 000 people were murdered in 100 days. This lead to the collapse of the economy and the coffee industry and coffee farms across the country were abandoned.
After the genocide, the country went through a lengthy and complex period of rebuilding. Technoserve, a non-profit organization that provides training and solutions to end poverty, was instrumental in helping to develop the speciality coffee industry. Coffee farmers were organized into local co-operatives all harvesting and supplying coffee cherry to a centralized mill or washing station. This community style of coffee production helped to unite coffee producers as they were able to focus on a common goal. Almost all the coffee produced in Rwanda comes from small-hold farmers with just a few hundred trees at most. Now many of the centralized washing stations are privately owned and the industry has developed and this means that producers can often earn double the fair trade price for the great quality coffee they produce.
Rwanda currently battles with a variety of challenges affecting their coffee industry. The potato defect can be a significant problem. This is caused by an insect and results in coffee that can taste and smell like raw potato. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to control and is found in coffee from Rwanda, Burundi, Congo and Uganda. Coffee producers work very hard to reduce the amount of potato defect and very good sorting and processing can help to keep it to a minimum.
The majority of the coffee grown is Arabica, usually Red Bourbon. Unlike others, Rwanda doesn't have large plantations since only around 400,000 farmers and their families grow coffee on farms less than a quarter hectare in size. Most farms are located at 1600masl rising up to over 2000m. Soil is volcanic and very rich in nutrients and coffee is often grown in shade amongst other crops on small hold farms.
Washed - There are many versions of this method used in Rwanda. We work closely with Bwishaza and Liza washing station and they will pulped the coffee, ferment in water, wash, soak a second time and then dry on raised tables. During drying the coffee is carefully hand sorted to remove defects. Many variations of this process are used including dry fermentation. Bwishaza washing station also uses grading channels as an added density sorting step.
Washed coffee drying on raised tables at Bwishaza co-operative
Natural - Both Bwishaza and Liza produce natural process coffees for us using different methods to affect fermentation. Coffee is carefully sorted and then dried. The depth of the bed of coffee is varied depending on how slowly they want the coffee to dry.
Natural process coffee drying at Liza washing station
The Red Bourbon varietal grown in Rwanda has a fairly typical flavour profile and often showcases notes of orange, brown sugar, caramel and chocolate. We also often find black tea notes and other citrus like fruits. Natural processed coffees often have berry notes like strawberry and raspberry.
We work directly with Liza and Bwishaza washing stations in Rwanda. Both are Rwandan owned operations and you can read a bit more about them in our transparency report. Our Rwanda coffee is also available to purchase.