At the turn of the century, Rwanda was mad, bad and dangerous to travel to.

Today you will find Rwanda’s coffee in New York and every other coffee-crazy city around the world.

Coffee has been Rwanda’s partially donor-funded, development success story. And the tale is one that stretches across more than a century to the introduction of coffee by German missionaries in 1904.

Then came Belgium

After WWI Belgium accepted the League of Nations Mandate of 1916 to govern Rwanda. By 1930 the Belgian colonizers required Rwandan farmers to plant an abundance of coffee trees.

As if this wasn’t bad enough (now the farmers could not grow food for their families), they also enforced a “low-quality/low-price trap” by setting price restrictions, high export taxes and controlling which firms could purchase coffee.

Independent Control

After independence in 1962, the picture did not improve. With compulsory production, export taxes, key jobs going to relatives and supporters, controlling the official coffee price, restricting who could purchase coffee, prohibiting crop diversity and a monopsony export control agency, the oppressor might have changed but coffee funds remained a tool to maintain political power.

Price Plummeting and Ethnic Cleansing

More disaster was to come as global coffee prices plummeted by 1980 and the economic devastation that followed in the wake of the 1994 genocide left no functioning infrastructure. There was no way to wash or process coffee beans. The little that was produced was of poor quality and only used as a filler for commercial grade varieties.

To this day, the horrible history of coffee in Rwanda has left many Rwandans with a distaste for coffee and a preference for tea.

New Century, New Work

At the turn of the new century, there was much work to be done.

Realizing that high-quality coffee remains stable and recession-proof even when industrial-quality coffee prices fall, the Rwandan government began dismantling coffee farm regulations and ridding the country of the heavy-handed policies of both the Belgians and the Habyarimana government.

1. First, the government lowered trade barriers and lifted restrictions on coffee farmers and then they developed a strategy to target the production of high-quality coffee.

The real beauty of this strategy was the fact that the farmers did not have to switch the type of coffee beans they produced. Instead, they simply had to focus on how they grew their beans to improve quality.

2.  The government backed away from interference in coffee production, and farmers and entrepreneurs could now choose whether they grew coffee at all, by itself or mixed with other crops. They could also choose whom to sell their products to and there were incentives for growing higher quality coffee.

The coffee sector still faced problems and constraints such as high transport costs, poor management, and cooperative theft. As the cooperative received the coffee on credit from member farmers they could steal the incoming money from coffee exports. Or management stole the pre-financing, bought the coffee on credit from members and exported it to a different company for cash. In this scenario, the cooperative farmers did not get paid AND they would have to repay the debt to the pre-financiers.

International Assistance

International donors began to provide funding, technical assistance and training to overcome some of these challenges.

Programs such as PEARL I and II started improving economic development in 2001. As late as 2005 companies like Whole Foods would not send their fair trade verification teams into what they considered ‘killing fields’. But by the time USAID-funded Sustaining Partnerships to Enhance Rural Enterprise and Agribusiness Development (SPREAD) followed with a Population-Health-Environment (PHE) approach, lives and livelihoods were improved through incorporating health objectives into established economic development activities.

SPREAD continues to work to improve every link in newly-identified high-value coffee supply chains. It educates farmers, coordinates logistics and offers financial assistance.

Plan B

* Some good has come from the war in Rwanda as citizens returned to the country with international business experience gained during their exile.

* The government is also actively involved in promoting coffee to people in Rwanda (at present 99% of coffee is exported).

The Rwandan Coffee Process

Composed of different kinds of traditional bourbons it is farmed by thousands of small farmers on mountainside fincas (farms) at altitudes of between 5,250 to 6,562 ft (1,600 to 2,000 m) above sea level.

The high altitude adds complexity to the coffee’s flavor profiles. The coffee is quite delicate in taste, often benefiting from a medium-fine grind and suggestive of caramelized cane sugar, spice notes of clove cinnamon and allspice with rose floral notes and hints of citrus (lemon, orange). It will offer a silky creamy body that carries into the aftertaste.

The Rwanda coffee plants flower in September in October and the coffee cherries are harvested and green coffees processed from March to July.

1. Coffee cherries are hand-picked and sorted before being transported to washing stations such as Nyarusiza or Remera in the region of Ginkongoro in the South of Rwanda.

The Nyarusiza station is run by inspirational businesswoman Epiphanie Muhirwa ( a genocide widow) and her son Samuel.

A washing station like Nyarusiza processes beans from 1,000 farmers. Many only have around 300 coffee trees and use the rest of their land to grow the crops that feed their family. Coffee pays for their children’s education, medical expenses and to invest in livestock.

Nyarusiza provides over 100 well-paid jobs to local people during the peak of the harvest from May to June or July. There are also a handful of permanent positions.

2. Coffee cherries are de-pulped (separating the beans from the fruit’s flesh and skin) before being dry fermented in its own juice.

This accentuates the inherent sweetness of the coffee.

3. Now beans are graded in the washing channels into A, B, or C categories according to density and then soaked in clean water tanks for 12 hours.

4. Finally, the beans are shade-dried on African drying beds for 21 days.

Micro-roasters like Drop Coffee Roaster’s in Stockholm seek out higher priced beans to enforce sustainability and the highest quality and best taste.

Fully washed or double washed coffee is a method that is common in Africa and differentiates African coffee from Latin American coffee where the beans are only washed once.

Here’s looking at you, Future

The Rwandan coffee industry is now booming. It is responsible for creating jobs, boosting small farmer expenditure and consumption and improving relations between Hutus and Tutsis.

It is Africa’s ninth largest Arabica coffee producer. And number 28 worldwide. It produces 0.2% of the world’s coffee on around 450,000 farms, averaging less than one hectare in size, with around 165 coffee trees per farmer, totaling around 28,000 hectares in coffee cultivation.

Around 95% of Rwandan coffee plants are the high-quality Bourbon Arabica varietal. They also cultivate relatively small amounts of Catuai and Caturra varietals and Coffea arabica var. mayaguez.

High altitudes and nitrogen-rich volcanic soils create excellent conditions for high-quality bean production throughout the country.

Almost all the coffee is grown in the center of Rwanda near Kigali and in western Rwanda and by Lake Kivu. The five distinct producing areas are the volcanic region of Virunga in the north-west, the Kivu region in the west, the Kizi Rift region in the center, Akagera (relatively low-altitude) in the south, and the Muhazi region in the east.

Five-year strategic plan

Rwanda’s National Agricultural Export Development Board (NAEB) states that its coffee strategy is “positioning Rwanda as a specialty coffee producer” to “best enable the sector to contribute to the growth and prosperity of the country.” It points to an increase in prices as a sign of its success and focuses its efforts on improving production and processing practices

New Challenges

The biggest challenge that Rwandan coffee faces now is the potato defect caused by the Antestia bug that sucks nutrients out of the cherry through a difficult to detect, tiny puncture mark. This results in a raw potato aroma and taste (even from only one bean) that is immediately noticed in a brewed cup.

Producers can attempt to fight the pest with know-how and resources.

They also have the same challenges as those all around the world: a changing climate, a reduction in the amount of land suitable for farming, low prices…

Coffee Futures

While the price of coffee futures steadily rose over the last years, analysts expect the growth to be muted over the next two years due to a surplus in Brazil in 2018 and 2019.

Global demand continues to grow especially in North American markets and recent weather patterns may disrupt coffee harvests in South America – with a disruption ultimately lifting prices.

Top 3 Coffee Stocks to invest in via Investing Daily

1. Dunkin’ Brands Group: New stores and wider profit margins should boost earnings.

2. Keurig Dr. Pepper: New company is the seventh largest beverage distributor in the U.S.

3. Coffee Holding Company: Recent acquisition will improve profitability in 2019.

How to Roast Rwandan Coffee

Like other coffees, every Rwandan coffee will vary according to your cup profile, the beans, the precise origin, processing method etc.

On the whole, Rwandan coffees are very dense due to being born at high altitudes.

Applying relatively high heat throughout the brewing process is key (low temperatures will bake the hard beans.)

Slowing down the roast will pull more syrupy bodies and mouthfeel from the coffee.

Images via Nathan Dumlao, Brooke Lark, Myriams-Fotos