Over the last dozen years, the view from Gemima Mukashyaka’s small coffee garden in the lush emerald-green hills of southwestern Rwanda has changed.
In 1994, after the genocide that killed 800,000 people, it was a site of devastation, chaos and abandonment. Five years ago, when worldwide coffee prices spiraled downward, her neighbors in the densely populated region near Butare were uprooting their coffee trees and planting quick-growing food crops to survive.
But today, there is a clean coffee processing station nearby, and sprouted around it are two restaurants, a pharmacy, a bank, six hair salons, and just last week, the village’s first Internet cafe.
“My coffee gave me hope for a better future,” Mukashyaka, 29, said. At last harvest, her coffee, sold through a farmers’ cooperative to a roaster of premium coffee in the US, fetched three times the price it did five years ago.
Rwanda, a tiny East African country recently rent by a famously savage civil war, has found hope in that most colonial of crops: coffee. By riding booming demand in the developed world for specialty brews — and to a certain extent by turning its own challenges to its advantage — Rwanda has made premium-coffee growing a national priority. That has not only brought in a trickle of money to a country with little else to trade, but provided a stage on which one-time blood enemies can reconcile their terrible history.
“By improving the quality of their coffee, about 40,000 of Rwanda’s 500,000 coffee farmers have at least doubled their incomes,” said Kevin Mullally, who runs the office of the US Agency for International Development, or AID, in Kigali, the Rwandan capital. “Coffee has played a crucial role in the positive changes in Rwanda.”
Since 2001, AID has invested US$10 million in helping Rwandans improve the quality of their coffee, mainly by providing farmers’ cooperatives and small entrepreneurs with financing for washing stations and training in their use. The Rwanda government’s goal is to make all coffee produced in the country specialty coffee by next year.
At the washing stations, or wet mills, farmers clean, sort, pulp and dry coffee cherries — the bright red berrylike fruit produced by coffee trees. Then the beans, or seeds, that they contain can be sold to the lucrative specialty market, where demand and prices remain relatively high even when conventional coffee prices dip.
The big canned coffee companies currently pay about US$2.20 a kilogram for C-grade coffee beans, while the higher-grade specialty coffees preferred by Starbucks, Green Mountain and other chains generally fetch about $3.30 a kilogram or more. In Rwanda, premium roasters will pay as much as $7.70 a kilogram for the best beans.
When these prices are paid to cooperatives, instead of to private dealers, the profits go directly to farmers, 20 percent of whom are widows and orphans because of the genocide. In the US, specialty coffee has generally accounted for 15 percent of the market, but 40 percent of the revenue (currently US$11 billion, up from US$7.6 billion in 2000), so roasters are eager to develop relationships with cooperatives that can deliver consistently high-quality coffee.
Rwanda is still a desperately poor country, with a per-capita economic output of only US$1,500. Sixty percent of Rwandans live below the poverty line, and even though 90 percent are engaged in subsistence agriculture food production has not kept pace with the population growth. Rwanda is a landlocked country that is the most densely populated in Africa, 8.6 million people in an area slightly smaller than Maryland. The country has few natural resources.