During the early 1990′s, Rwanda exported approximately 45,000 tons of coffee per year, a substantial yield for a small landlocked country. Most coffee growing countries have their own harbors because almost all internationally traded coffee is transported by water in shipping containers. Coffee was, and still is, a very strong commodity contributing to Rwanda’s economy. The soil, tropical-climate, and elevation all factor in to make the Butare region in Rwanda ideal growing conditions for the Arabica species of coffee. The Arabica species of coffee is a very delicate plant that requires meticulous cultivation and processing methods to ensure the quality of the cherries translates all the way down the line to the cup quality.
In 1994, a civil conflict between two ethnic groups in Rwanda, the Hutus and Tutsis, resulted in the massacre and deaths of close to one million people between April and July (around 100 days). These horrendous acts, later called the Rwandan Genocide, had not only devastating effects on the men, women, and children of Rwanda; it left the already delicate economy, infrastructure, and agriculture in a dismal state. The coffee market in Rwanda was no exception. Not only were many of the farmers killed and their farms destroyed, the knowledge and tradition that would later be passed on to children growing up on the farms was also damaged. At the same time there was a severe drop in price of coffee due to a flooded international market.
In 2001, with the help of the U.S.AID and Texas A&M University, Timothy Schilling put together the PEARL project (Partnership for Enhancing Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages). The intention of the program is to help farmers recover their coffee industry, increase the efficientcy of production, and highlight some of the finest coffee in the world. At the time, farmers were unable to afford the processing of their own crop. They were outsourcing the washing, pulping and drying of the coffee and in the end the fermentation of the beans was taking away from the quality, directly reflected in the price per pound the farmers received.
Coffee Cooperatives in Rwanda
These cooperatives range in size from a few hundred different farms to a few thousand. By instilling a group owned central washing station the farmers have greater control of the quality of coffee coming out of their cooperative. The location of the washing station shortens the distance for the farmers to transport coffee cherries after picking, and the potential for fermentation is lessened. The PEARL project, now known as SPREAD (Sustaining Partnerships to enhance Rural Enterprise and Agribusiness Development), has helped approximately 15,000 Rwandan coffee farmers organize 11 different cooperatives. These farmers are now getting $1.60 per pound of coffee, a big jump from the mere $0.60 per pound they were getting just a few years ago. Rwandan coffee almost sold out entirely in the year 2005, and has since been regarded by several green coffee buyers and importers as some of the most fantastic coffee in Africa.
One of these cooperatives is Koakaka Koperative Ya Kawa Ya Karaba, or Karaba for short. It lies at an altitude of 1600-1900 meters (5000 – 6500 ft.) above sea level, and grows 100% bourbon-varietal coffee. The bourbon varietal is known to many green coffee buyers as a superior varietal, but a more delicate and difficult one to cultivate and process. The harvest season begins in April and ends in July, with the coffee being shipped to the rest of the world after milling, in November and December.