Unlocking the Essence of
Specialty Coffee in Rwanda

Unlocking the Essence of <br>Specialty Coffee in Rwanda

In the heart of East Africa lies a country known not only for its stunning landscapes but also for its rapidly growing coffee industry. Rwanda, often dubbed the "Land of a Thousand Hills," has been steadily gaining recognition for its high-quality coffees. And despite its rocky beginnings, it is quickly becoming one of specialty coffee’s darlings. In this article, we take a deep-dive into coffee production in Rwanda and look specifically at the Kabyiniro Washing Station who we have sourced one of our most recent single origins from. 


The Birth of a Specialty Coffee Nation

The story of coffee in Rwanda is a story of unrest, resilience, and innovation. And like many other things in Africa, it is heavily linked to the nation’s colonial past. So, to understand the coffee industry in Rwanda today, we need to take a look back at the country’s history. 

Coffee, Colonisation, and Unrest

Coffee was first introduced to Rwanda in the early 20th century by German colonisers. They recognised that the country's climate and altitude was great for coffee cultivation. After the First World War, Belgian colonisers took over from the Germans and quickly saw the booming coffee trade. To capitalise on this, they forced Rwandans to convert their land to coffee farming. 

It was also during the colonial period that the divide between the Tutsis and the Hutus, which later led to the genocide in 1994, started to form. The Belgians put legislation into place in the 1930s that forced the Hutus to work plantations and create a better colonial infrastructure. In this period, education and high-paying jobs were reserved for the Tutsis. The colonial authorities also issued ethnic identity cards which defined what kind of social services a person was eligible for - and which gave the Hutus less benefits than the Tutsis. These restrictions made it easier for the colonisers to keep control over Rwanda and export cash crops, particularly coffee. 

Rwanda gained independence from Belgium in 1962. After independence, coffee production continued to be a significant part of the country's economy. By 1970, coffee had become the single largest export in Rwanda and accounted for 70% of total export revenue. Coffee was considered so valuable that, beginning in 1973, it was illegal to tear coffee trees out of the ground.

But post-independence Rwanda was marked by tensions, particularly between the Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority, which had a significant impact on coffee production. The Tutsis, who had held positions of power during colonial rule, now faced discrimination and marginalisation by the Hutu majority who had gained governmental power in the first elections. This led to social and political unrest, culminating in periodic outbreaks of violence.

The most devastating event in Rwanda's recent history was the 1994 genocide. Hutu extremists targeted Tutsis and moderate Hutus. In just 100 days they killed an estimated 800,000 people. The genocide had a catastrophic impact on all aspects of Rwandan society, including the economy and coffee production. 

Many coffee farmers and skilled workers were brutally murdered, displaced, or unable to take care of their crops, and coffee washing stations and infrastructure were damaged or destroyed. This loss of expertise and skills had long-term implications for the coffee quality and productivity. After the genocide, insecurity and the presence of armed groups continued to be a risk to coffee farmers, workers, and infrastructure, making it difficult to go back to normal farming activities. 

Not only was the genocide a tragic crime against humanity, it also had a devastating impact on Rwanda's economy, leading to widespread poverty, unemployment, and economic instability. Coffee production, as a key sector of the economy, was affected by fluctuating global coffee prices, limited access to credit and financing, and weak market connections. The country’s reputation as a reliable supplier of high-quality coffee was damaged in the aftermath of the genocide. Rebuilding trust among international buyers and restoring market access for Rwandan coffee required concerted efforts to improve quality, transparency, and compliance with international standards.


A Country in Growth

Today, coffee production in Rwanda continues to be an essential component of the country's economy and a source of livelihood for thousands of people. Most coffee is grown by 400,000+ smallholders, who own less than a quarter of a hectare. As such, central washing stations play an important role in getting their greens to market. Previously, the coffee farmers processed their cherries at home. They would roughly de-pulp the cherries, wash them, maybe ferment it and probably dry it on the floor. This created a very low-quality  commodity coffee called semi-washed. 

Recognising the potential for specialty coffee production, Rwanda shifted its focus towards producing high-quality Arabica beans with unique flavour profiles. Arabica grows particularly well here because of the high altitudes, volcanic soil, and ample rainfall. To improve the quality of coffee, the government incentivised the creation of new central washing stations in coffee-producing areas. The first central washing station was established in 2001 and today more than 300 washing stations operate across Rwanda. Initiatives such as the Cup of Excellence competition also help cement the quality of Rwandan coffee and have provided a platform to show Rwanda's specialty coffee to the international market. 

The Rwandan government has implemented various programs to support coffee farmers, including training in agricultural best practices, access to credit and financing, and the formation of cooperatives and farmer associations. These initiatives are aimed at improving yields, quality, and market access for smallholder farmers, and as such enhancing their livelihoods - and as a result the country has also seen more women go into coffee farming. 


Sustainability in Focus

Coffee producers have embraced practices aimed at protecting the environment, such as agroforestry, soil conservation, and water management. Planting shade trees, implementing terracing techniques, and adopting organic farming methods help to mitigate soil erosion, conserve water resources, and preserve biodiversity. 

But, sustainable coffee production goes beyond environmental considerations and includes social and economic aspects as well. Rwanda has invested in community development projects, such as education, healthcare, and infrastructure, to help improve the well-being and livelihoods of coffee-growing communities, fostering unity and resilience.

Rwanda has seen significant developments in gender equality and coffee has played a role here. While women previously lost the control over farming during colonial rule due to gender-assumptions made by European rulers, they are starting to regain some autonomy in coffee farming. New initiatives that cater to women and focus on helping them equip themselves with the tools and knowledge for farming have levelled up the game for Rwandan female coffee farmers.

Providing training and capacity-building opportunities to coffee farmers and cooperatives is crucial for promoting sustainable practices and improving productivity and quality. Training programmes cover topics such as agronomy, post-harvest processing, business management, and gender equality, empowering farmers to adopt sustainable farming methods and strengthen their resilience to economic and environmental shocks.


The Kabyiniro Washing Station

Nestled in the lush hills of Rwanda's Western Province, the Kabyiniro Washing Station stands as a proof of Rwanda's commitment to specialty coffee. Established in 2009, Kabyiniro quickly gained acclaim for its careful processing methods and dedication to quality.

Kabyiniro sits 1,600 – 1,950m above sea level. It is blessed with a tropical climate and an annual average temperature of 16°C – 21°C as well as regular seasonal rainfall which all helps enrich coffee with complex flavours. 

The coffee trees on farms in the Kabyiniro region are planted in rows leaving space in between to grow grasses for organic mulching. This also increases soil fertility and biodiversity, and minimises insects and fungi. These good agricultural practices result in a better quality of harvested coffee cherries. The farmers handpick their coffee with the help of temporary pickers during the peak harvesting season. This provides a local source of work and income.

In the past, farmers here mostly grew crops such as cassava, maize, bananas, beans, potatoes, and other fruits and vegetables to eat, and occasionally sell. Very few farmers were growing coffee. But, in 2003, a group of local farmers - six men and 22 women -  joined together to create a cooperative. They requested land from the district authorities to develop coffee farming. It was approved and they were given 30 hectares of land. Each farmer is now responsible for an individually allocated plot.

The farmers legally registered the Kopiguka Cooperative in 2004, with the aim of sharing the work and improving their farming systems, processing and marketing. But there was no washing station in the area where they could sell their harvested coffee cherries. So, they started to gather other coffee farmers to join the cooperative. Their number increased to 44 members and by 2020, their number of coffee trees had grown from 26,000 to 40,000.



The Kabyiniro Washing Station can process 395 tonnes of coffee cherries. At the heart of the Kabyiniro Washing Station is a meticulous process that begins with the careful selection of ripe coffee cherries. Producers and pickers handpick the cherries, ensuring only the ripest make their way to the washing station. When the cherries arrive, they go through thorough inspection and sorting to eliminate any defects, ensuring a consistent product.

The washing station uses what is called the floaters system which allows segregating coffee fruits by their density – the unripe and defected cherries are less dense than the good ones, therefore they would float at the top of the water tank. The good cherries are heavier and they sink. The floaters are removed and left to process separately and later sold as a secondary grade (lower quality) coffee. 

The quality coffee cherries are then de-pulped to remove the skin of the fruit. They then go through a fermentation which lasts between 12 and 18 hours and is usually done overnight. Once the fermentation is completed, the coffee is washed thoroughly using clean water to remove any remaining mucilage which, if left, may affect the flavour of the final brew negatively.

After it’s washed the coffee is spread evenly on the raised beds and left to dry slowly. This allows for the best air circulation which gives a uniform drying. During the drying, the quality control team regularly hand sorts the coffee beans if necessary. Once dried, the coffee beans undergo quality assessment again, including physical check and cupping sessions where trained tasters evaluate the aroma, acidity, body, and flavour profile of the coffee.


Building and Developing Communities through Coffee

The impact of the Kabyiniro Washing Station extends far beyond its borders, shaping the trajectory of Rwanda's coffee industry and elevating the country's reputation as a producer of specialty coffee. By building partnerships with farmers and prioritising quality and sustainability, Kabyiniro shows the potential for positive change within the coffee sector.

The team at the washing station get training in various parts of coffee processing, which can build their skills and employability both within the coffee industry and beyond. And by working directly with local coffee farmers, providing them with resources, technical assistance, and sometimes even financing, the washing station helps improve the quality and yield of the coffee crops which increases the farmers’ incomes. 

The focus on upskilling the community as well as the sustainable farming practices in the area means that Kabyiniro stands strong and develops as a highly-regarded coffee region. 

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