Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills, and this is reflected in the coffee. There are as many flavor profiles as there are growing regions. This beautiful origin conquered our hearts with its unique flavor profile. Rwandan coffees embody the best of Kenya and Ethiopia, with brightness and florals, and a fruit-focused heavy body reminiscent of coffees from Central America. They taste unlike anything else from East Africa.
THE VALUE CHAIN
When visiting farmers in Rwanda the most common one you’ll meet owns just one hectare of farmland. The farmers deliver cherry to medium-sized washing stations who process and dry the coffee. Washing stations deliver the parchment to exporters who cup and grade the coffee, dry mill and export the finished green coffee.
Rwanda is a tiny landlocked country with a very dense population. It’s very poor, but extremely well organised with minimal crime and corruption compared to many other countries in the region. This is of huge benefit for the coffee industry. There are about 500,000 smallholder coffee farmers, and on average they have about 170 coffee trees each. A tiny production!
Farmers usually cultivate other cash crops like corn and bananas. There are about 300 washing stations around the country that generally produce only fully washed coffees. Coffee not processed by a washing station is processed at home and sold as a lower quality coffee on the local market. The altitude ranges from 1200 – 2100 masl.
Coffee has been a pillar of the Rwandan economy since the 1930s, with the first seeds introduced by Belgian colonialists. However the coffee industry was severely threatened by the global coffee price drop in the 1990s, followed by the Rwandan genocide in 1994 which left the country broken and vital coffee infrastructure destroyed.
Fortunately a lot has changed in the last 15 years. Rwanda has pushed through government reforms that have made it easier to sell coffee. The country has made a remarkable comeback and is now known as a powerhouse of Africa. Projects run by NGOs like Technoserve have had a huge impact on the way producers manage traceability through the supply chain.
Coffees are a mix of cultivars from the Bourbon family, including some developed by the country’s coffee research institute, like BM 139. Other Bourbons include Pop330/21, Mibilizi and Jackson. More seldom is Catuai, Caturra140, and a Typica referred to as Harrare.
The producers rarely use chemical fertilisers due to their expense. Many farmers create their own organic compost and natural plant treatment products.
PLANTING AND PRODUCTION
The Rwanda season runs from March to August, but they usually make our selections from the May to July pickings. This can always shift a little depending on the region, weather and the altitude of the farm. Farms are generally very small family-owned operations, the family care for the plants and pick the cherries themselves. Usually they will also grow crops for their own consumption, and there are a few farmers with more land.
There are normally some hundred smallholder farmers in the local community delivering their cherry to our producers’ washing stations for processing. Their producers are strict on the quality of the cherries delivered by the farmers. If they are not well selected, they must hand sort out the lower quality cherries before the washing station will accept delivery. Competition for cherry can be pretty tough, farmers can deliver to whichever washing station they want, so it’s important that the washing stations maintain good relationships the farmers and offer competitive prices for higher qualities. The producers and their washing station managers often have roots and history with the local community which helps strengthen these relationships.
The staff at both Gitesi and Mahembe are very competent, and trained in managing the delivery of cherry from the farmers. They have very strict routines for cherry reception and sorting, cherry delivered by farmers must be sorted by the farmers themselves, if this is not done sufficiently there are staff who will do further sorting. The cherries are placed in a tank prior to pulping where floaters are removed and processed separately as lower grade coffee.
FERMENTATION, WASHING AND DRYING
The climate throughout most of the season in Rwanda is relatively cool, which assists in controlling the fermentation process. For the washed processed lots a Penagos 800 Eco Pulper removes the skin, and de-pulps 70% of the mucilage. The coffee is then dry fermented for 10-12 hours. After this the parchment is graded and washed in channels, it is separated into two grades based on density before being soaked under clean water in tanks for 16 hours.
The parchment is initially taken to pre-drying tables, which are under shade, and where, while the parchment is still wet, a lot of hand sorting is done as it is much easier to see defects at this point. The parchment is dried on African drying beds for up to 15 days, during which time the parchment is covered by shade net during the hottest hours of the day, at night, and anytime it rains.
For naturals it is vital to select only the ripe cherries that were picked that same day. For this reason farmers do many passes of their trees, picking only ripe cherries and making small daily deliveries. This is the way to earn the highest prices, rather than doing one pass and having to sell the unripe cherries at a lower price.
Once delivered the cherries are immediately sorted and floated, then laid out on the drying tables in a single layer, with no overlapping cherries, to ensure even air circulation.