Self-sufficiency in a Cup: Rwanda's Coffee

Coffee plants growing in the shade near Lake Kivu. (Click to enlarge)

Rwanda is blessed with particularly good coffee-growing conditions: high altitude, volcanic soil and plenty of sun and equatorial mist. "The coffees are wonderfully sweet, either bright with clear citric characteristics, or plush and full of berry and chocolate like flavors," a major coffee roaster said. By riding booming demand in the developed world for specialty brews Rwanda has made premium coffee-growing a national priority and is achieving international recognition as a producer of some of the world's best coffee. But it hasn't always been this way.

It is believed that coffee was introduced in Rwanda in 1904 by German missionaries. Around 1930, a considerable interest in coffee developed as it was the sole revenues generating commodity for rural families. Until five years ago, all Rwandan coffee sold at the C-grade, or lowest-quality, price. The big canned coffee companies currently pay about $1 a pound for C-grade coffee beans, and the price fluctuates widely. When worldwide coffee prices crashed five years ago many Rwanda farmers could not support their families and replaced their coffee trees with quick growing food crops.

The solution was to go upmarket and try to make Rwanda more famous for fabulous coffee than the 1994 genocide that killed 800,000. The Rwanda government and international aid agencies provided money for coffee washing stations country wide. Cooperatives formed so that more money would stay in the hands of the coffee farmers. Farmers were trained in better coffee growing and processing techniques.

One of the Rwandan-owned plantations where we buy our beans.

Results have been dramatic. Partly because of abundant labor, which allows farmers to pick through and hand-sort cherries, the washed coffee that goes to market is exceptionally clean, or free of imperfect beans. Over 10 percent of the country's crop is now fully washed and sells as gourmet coffee to the likes of Starbucks for as much as $3.50 per pound.

Last year's crop of fully washed coffee completely sold out. . "The emergence of Rwandan specialty coffee on the global market is stunning," said Michael D. Ferguson, a spokesman for the Specialty Coffee Association of America, a trade group in Long Beach, Calif. "Everyone inside the specialty coffee industry is excited about it."

Freshly-picked coffee beans, before being peeled or roasted.

Not only does it taste great, but every pound of coffee sold directly helps Rwanda's people. Rwanda's ambassador to the United States, Zac Nsenga, said "The more you consume coffee from Rwanda, the more you give Rwanda hope. It's the quality and the story behind it that makes it special."

You can help make a difference.