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Thursday, June 22, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Coffee rebound perking up Rwanda's economy

Chicago Tribune

MUSASA, Rwanda — In the aftermath of Rwanda's 1994 genocide, this tiny hill nation's coffee industry also lingered near death.

World prices for the country's unremarkable beans had bottomed out. Thousands of coffee farmers were dead. Across Rwanda's terraced green hills, century-old coffee plantations sat abandoned or were being leveled to replant bananas.

"When we got here, the price was so bad people were pulling coffee out of their fields," recalled Tim Schilling, a Texas A&M University agronomist.

Today, however, Rwanda's languishing coffee industry has reversed its tailspin so convincingly that its once pedestrian beans are now considered some of the tastiest in the world.

What's behind Rwanda's turnaround is a textbook tale of how good technical advice, good marketing and hard work can change lives, even in some of the unlikeliest corners of Africa.

"I've been able to buy more land for my children. I can dress well now. I've built a house for myself, and I'm now sleeping on a mattress," said Francis Butare, 60, a lanky farmer at the three-year-old Musasa coffee cooperative in northern Rwanda. "Now life is quite better."

Like good wine, good coffee needs exacting conditions, and Rwanda has some of the best in the world. In the country's mile-high coffee fields, rainfall is good and cool weather helps the beans ripen slowly, becoming more dense and flavorful.

But for most of its century of coffee producing, Rwanda hasn't made much of its advantages. Small-scale coffee producers, the norm in densely populated Rwanda, where farm plots average only an acre, have long chucked under-ripe and over-ripe beans into sacks along with the best ones, then let the mix ferment in the sun for hours before cranking it through a home washing machine. The result was bitter and poor-selling.

That began to change in 2001 when Dan Clay, an international agriculture specialist at Michigan State University, set out to try to resurrect Rwanda's collapsed coffee industry. With Schilling, a longtime African agronomy specialist, experts at the National University of Rwanda and funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, he persuaded farmers to try producing top-quality coffee for the emerging international specialty coffee market, which has seen sales leap from $100,000 in 2002 to $3.5 million last year.

Rwanda had the right coffee beans, from good-quality arabica trees planted by German priests a century ago. It had the right climate. Best of all, it had marketing appeal — mountain gorillas and genocide survivors trying to rebuild their lives.

"Customers like stories behind the coffee. It was a perfect match," said Schilling, a coffee fanatic who spent part of his Peace Corps years on a Brazilian coffee farm.

Today the initiative — the Partnership for Enhancing Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages, or PEARL — has built more than a dozen coffee washing and sorting stations and helped set up cooperatives around the country. Farmers have been trained to meticulously sort their fresh-picked coffee, tossing aside beans that might embitter a roast. The beans are washed and carefully hand-sorted again on long rows of drying tables. Finally, the green coffee is identified and bagged, tested and tasted by newly trained Rwandan "cuppers" to ensure quality.

How good is it? Top cooperatives like Musasa can't produce enough to meet demand, and have seen prices for their beans quadruple to more than 40 cents a pound.

Anastase Minani, 53, president of the cooperative, says that added income has translated into families owning more cows, which produce milk for children and fertilizer for the fields, and having money to pay school fees for their children.

Among the nearly 1,900 farmers and the dozens of cooperative employees hired to hand-sort beans are about 200 genocide orphans and widows like Astelie Kankundiye, 40, who lost her husband, parents and two siblings to the ethnic slaughter, which left about 800,000 Rwandans dead.

Kankundiye says the project has helped lift her from destitution and given her a chance to work through her feelings of loss and anger as she works side by side with perpetrators, as well as other victims, of the genocide.

Whether Rwanda can retain its newfound specialty markets and premium prices depends largely on whether the quality sorting process can be maintained, Schilling said. But prices for specialty coffee are far more consistent than for average coffee, he said, and the country's $1 million in specialty coffee sales last year is expected to rise to $2 million this year.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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