How Rwanda Revived Its Coffee Industry by Focusing on Quality over Quantity

July 31, 2020Tim Becker
rwanda, farmlands, coffee or die

Virunga volcano national park landscape with green farmland fields in the foreground, Rwanda

Hills as far as the eye can see, swooping valleys, vast savannas full of wildlife, and a resilient people characterize the nature of Rwanda. Known as the Country of a Thousand Hills, Rwanda is a landlocked East African country, nestled between the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Tanzania. In recent years, they have broken into the world’s coffee market with some of the most diverse and flavorful Arabica beans in the world, but there are many layers to Rwanda’s history.

In 1994, Rwanda experienced 100 days of slaughter, one of the most deadly genocides in the history of the world. In the years after the genocide, Rwanda was in a spiral. Its economy was in the ground, its government was incompetent, and its people were desperate. But then in 2003, President Paul Kagame took office, his election ending the Rwandan transitional government and ushering in growth for the Rwandan people.

coffee, rwanda, ecs, bourbon, arabica, kalashni-koala
Kalashni-Koala, the latest Exclusive Coffee Subscription roast from Black Rifle Coffee, is from Rwanda’s Nyamasheke district. Photo courtesy of Black Rifle Coffee Company.

Kagame has been a controversial president, but Rwanda has risen from the ashes of its past under his leadership. Rwanda is now one of the top 10 fastest-growing economies in the world, and its market investments have risen in the billions. That growth is also apparent in its coffee industry, where an improvement in coffee farming was a life or death opportunity for many families and offered pathways to opportunity. 

Coffee arrived in Rwanda in the 1930s when Belgium colonials forced farmers in Rwanda to plant abundances of coffee trees. But with poor infrastructure and a dearth of coffee knowledge, the product was often considered poor quality.  The poor quality resulted in bad or below-cost sales, which led to struggling farmers, and the cycle continued until the coffee price collapse in the 1980s leading into the 1994 massacre. Until the early 2000s, the country was stuck in a coffee price trap.

Following the crisis, farmers decided to try something new. Instead of focusing on the quantity of bean production, they wanted to put their efforts into producing the highest quality bean possible. This caused the resurgence of the Nkora washing station, the first and largest washing station in Rwanda. Community leaders saw the potential in coffee and began lowering trade barriers and encouraging better growing practices throughout the country. Instead of immediately lobbying for new, better beans, those leaders helped establish a better growing culture and improve the farming knowledge.

coffee, rwanda, ecs, bourbon, arabica, kalashni-koala
Kalashni-Koala is a naturally processed Arabica Bourbon varietal from Rwanda with a bright acidity, syrupy body, clove aroma, and tasting notes of berry, cinnamon, and maple syrup. Photo courtesy of Black Rifle Coffee Company.

Prior to this, Rwandan coffee was inconsistently washed, which led to varying degrees of quality. But now with 245 washing stations, Rwandan coffee is fully washed, also known as doubled washed. This process calls for soaking the beans twice in order to create immaculately clean beans. Much of the coffee coming from Rwanda is now touted as the freshest in the world.

The bean Rwanda is primarily known for is Arabica, which makes up 95% of its production. However, it’s not just any arabica — it’s the Bourbon varietal. This variety is known for its chocolatey aftertaste, with hints of fruity aromas and tastes, and an almost buttery texture and mouthfeel. The diverse flavor in the coffee comes from factors such as the altitude at which the coffee is grown, which is an average of 5,600 feet, as well as the nitrogen-rich soil in Rwanda that is bolstered by volcanic activity.

All of this is possible due to the evolution of Rwandan farming techniques. By shifting their focus from production quantity to production quality, Rwanda found a way to bolster the reputation of its coffee industry and still remain a top 30 coffee producing country in the world. This resurgence is synonymous with Rwanda as a whole — while there are still struggles and conflicts in the country, its people have learned how to move on, grow, and evolve. Today, Rwandan coffee is some of the best, most expensive, and most sought-after in the world.

Tim Becker
Tim Becker

Tim Becker is a freelance journalist and journalism student at Florida Atlantic University. Tim has a diverse set of interests including gaming, technology, philosophy, politics, mental health, and much more. If he can find an angle to write about something, he will. Aside from his interests journalism is his passion. He wants to change the world with his words and photography. Tim writes for a variety of publications including the GoRiverwalk Magazine, the FAU University Press, and his personal blog on Medium.

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