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Rwandan Coffee Farmers Turn Premium Beans Into Harvest Gold

Filed by KOSU News in World News.
August 17, 2012

Yesterday on All Things Considered, Allison Aubrey explained how coffee is the new wine — or at least, how our morning brew is catching up with the evening Chardonnay in terms of our appreciation for its flavor and textures. And that’s piquing our interest in learning where our coffee comes from.

So we wondered, how does this new trend impact coffee farmers around the world? On Twitter, we stumbled upon Jonathan Kalan, a freelance photographer and journalist in Africa, who just happens to have returned from visiting coffee farms in Rwanda.

Coffee from Rwanda, you say? Believe it. About 10 years ago, Rwandan farmers started selling premium coffee instead of plain-old joe. Now its coffee fetches some of the world’s highest prices and is sought after by coffee giants and gurus around the world, including Starbucks. We caught up with Kalan, and asked him a few questions about his recent work, featured above.

Q: What’s it like on a coffee farm in Rwanda?

A: Aptly named the “Land of a Thousand Hills,” Rwanda has endless rolling green hills dotted with banana trees, tin-roofed houses, and small farms. In Western Rwanda, where it’s ideal for growing coffee, the altitude is around 5,600 feet, and steep hills plunge into the crystal blue banks of Lake Kivu.

There are about 400,000 families who farm coffee in Rwanda, and most of them live in small mud and brick houses, or a concrete house, when they are better off. The average family owns around 450 coffee trees, but they also harvest sorghum, beans, sweet potatoes, and vegetables.

Q: Why did Rwandan farmers switch from growing regular coffee to premium coffee?

A: Rwandan farmers didn’t switch beans to start producing specialty coffee, they simply switched their methods. Unlike regular coffee, premium beans must be fully washed, and they must score at least 80 points on a quality scale. Many factors influence the score, from climate and soil quality to the time between when the ripe coffee cherries are picked and dropped off for processing.

Coffee has been a major source of revenue for Rwanda since it was introduced by German missionaries a century ago. For most of this time, the state controlled nearly all stages of production. Beans were exported as regular, unwashed coffee, and farmers were given a set price by the government. Farmers clearly had little incentive to produce specialty coffee, or invest in better production, harvesting, and washing methods.

But then after the genocide, the coffee industry was privatized. This opened up new markets and avenues for selling coffee.

Q: How did the farmers learn to grow and produce top grade coffees?

A: Many people credit a project called PEARL for kickstarting the specialty coffee industry in Rwanda. PEARL is a collaboration among Texas A&M, the U.S. Agency for International Development and Rwanda’s Ministry of Education.

Since 2000, PEARL has trained young Rwandan students in agronomy (because most people with expertise in this field either fled the country or were killed during the 1994 genocide), cupping and quality-control management. They also built new washing stations and formed farmer cooperatives, which was key because cooperatives gives farmers more control of their product and a further economic stake in the quality of their coffee.

Q: Premium coffee beans can cost five times more than regular ones. Do the farmers actually reap the benefits of these high prices?

A: Definitely. In 2000, farmers from Rwanda’s first coffee cooperative earned around $0.20 for one kilogram of ordinary coffee. In 2011, these same farmers got roughly $3.50 per kilogram. That’s a pretty monumental difference.

Take the case of Uwimana Immaculee, a farmer in southern Rwanda. For years, her and her family had been struggling to produce beans, sorghum and other small crops, with little financial success. Seeing her neighbors benefit from specialty coffee, she decided to take a risk and invest her family savings in 100 coffee trees.

She has never looked back.

Uwimana’s farm has tripled in size now. This season she sold 700 kilograms of freshly picked coffee cherries to a local specialty coffee washing station, earning over $350, which is no small change in rural Rwanda.

The extra money from coffee has helped her put two children through school, build a new house, and even invest in new land to expand her plantation.

Q: What was your favorite memory of visiting a Rwanda coffee farm?

A: When I was touring the coffee washing stations with an eclectic group of international buyers, one of the U.S. buyers had tattoos of coffee cherries up his arm. When one of the local women in a tiny village saw it, the whole village erupted in laughter. Tattoos are quite taboo in Rwanda, but here is some self-proclaimed coffee geek who has cherries — the economic lifeblood of her and her family — inked on his arms.

As you can see from Kalan’s photographs above, Rwanda coffee grows in some beautiful places, but to get the full experience of Rwanda coffee production, check out his photoblog.

This chat was edited for length and clarity. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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