Rwanda, the land of a thousand hills and incredible coffee. Yet not all is beautiful in this East African country. According to The World Bank, 49% of rural Rwandans live below the poverty line – a figure that increases to 76% among families whose main source of income is agriculture.
Yet despite the high level of poverty among farmers, the OEC states that coffee makes up 8% of the country’s exports. This means that exporters have the potential to have a strong impact on the lives of Rwandan producers and their families.
We spoke with Bradley Steenkamp of Horsham Coffee Roaster about the work that they do in Rwanda. We discussed the role of origin trips, the shape of the Rwandan coffee industry, and the work that organisations can do to empower Rwandan farming communities.
Sacks for green coffee from Rwanda.
The Path to Rwanda
Bradley told me that he became infatuated with Rwandan coffee a few years back, and so began purchasing it from UK Green Coffee Importers. Soon afterwards, he decided to branch out and so, with its beautiful flavour profiles, the coffee was a natural choice.
Since then, he’s travelled to the country twice – once in May of 2015, once this year. These trips gave him the opportunity to meet with producers, farmers, and tour washing stations. It’s exactly the kind of on-the-ground experience he was looking for.
And in fact, while it may have been the flavour profiles that first attracted Bradley to Rwanda, it was his experience at origin that made him stick with it. “While I can’t speak for everyone,” he said, “one thing that really appealed to me about going to Rwanda is that there are a lot of different styles of coffee operations.”
A rural scene in Rwanda.
Transparency: The Value of Visiting Rwanda
I asked Bradley what specifically led him to move away from the more traditional use of green coffee importers.
He thought for a moment, before responding: “Unfortunately, many green coffee importers don’t supply the depth of of information that we’re looking for. We wanted to see what would happen when we really knew what was going on from farm to cup.”
By going to Rwanda, Bradley was able to see a variety of operations and get a real feel for what’s happening in the country’s coffee scene. And there was one thing he was particularly curious about: “We were very keen to have a deeper understanding of price,” he said.
For him, it all comes down to traceability and transparency. “Understanding how much a farmer gets paid for a kilo of cherries is not something you tend to learn, or can easily obtain, from a green coffee importer. ‘How much does the importer pay to the operation in Rwanda? How much margin do they make on the coffee?’ These were all questions we wanted to know,” he said.
“And then you kind of get to the point where you begin to ask yourself: just what are they doing that justifies that margin? With no disrespect intended to green coffee importers – they do a lot of work, including quality control, moisture testing, assessment, insurance, and getting the coffee here – but the coffee’s traceability is so obscured.”
Of course, understanding the pricing wasn’t the only benefit that came with visiting Rwanda. “In addition to traceability and transparency, what I wanted was to go and select the coffee for myself, not have someone else do it for me. I wanted to find the operation that was, socially, doing the right thing and then see what could be done.”
“Would they be able to provide smaller lots of coffee? And who would be open fully to discussing pricing – how much it would cost us, how much money goes through each stage of the process? We wanted to ensure an equitable distribution of the profit all the way down the coffee chain.”
For Horsham Coffee Roaster, it’s important to know who benefits and by how much.
Local Ownership in The Rwandan Coffee Industry
In Rwanda, Bradley explained to me, quality coffee is often produced by smallholder farmers, who may only have a few hundred trees – and those won’t be exclusively coffee plants either! Mills, on the other hand, are either privately owned or owned by large corporations.
Bradley’s first trip, in 2015, was for the purpose of picking operations. “My personal preference is to support small local ownership,” he said. This meant that sourcing and purchasing coffee from an organisation that successfully runs a cooperative was very appealing.
Of course, my immediate question was why Bradley felt that way. He explained that it means that the farmers themselves own the operation and have a strong vested interest in it. All the hard work they do, from cultivation to harvesting and processing, can mean a good return for the co-operative – and for them. They share in the successes of the business, something which you typically don’t find with large corporate ownership.
As of such, Horsham Coffee Roaster now work with a couple of different cooperatives and privately owned operations. Bradley knows the prices they pay, the people they work with, and that they look after both the farmers and the coffee.
Giving Back: How to Make a Positive Difference
Yet Bradley doesn’t think that his responsibility ends there. For him, it’s not enough to make sure he’s only investing in partners that pay farmers well; he also has to proactively help that organisation to thrive.
To illustrate this, he pulled out some photos of Gishyita Wet Mill – one of the mills he’s been working with – that he took with a drone.
My first reaction was just to admire the beautiful picture. But then Bradley directed my attention to the bottom of the photograph.
“Do you see a dark green tank at the bottom of the picture? This is a new flotation tank, which allows the bad coffee cherries to float to the top, while the good sink to the bottom. Once the good cherries are collected and de-pulped, they’re then transferred to the three tanks that you see next to the metal roof. There they are allowed to ferment for 12 hours. After this, they are transferred to two grading channels before they are laid out to rest on drying beds. So you can see the immense amount of sorting and grading that is done even before the coffee hits the drying station.”
I asked him what it was like prior to having the tank. He explained that it was extremely labour-intensive work that involved using buckets in lieu of the different stations to do the processing.
“While the quality of the coffee was truly excellent, it was apparent that these new facilities were sorely needed and it gave us the opportunity to give back to the project,” he said. You see, at a cost of eight thousand US dollars, the upgrades to Gishyita Wet Mill seemed out of reach for the farming community. However, with a donation of a thousand dollars by Horsham Coffee Roaster and an extension on a bank loan, they were in business.
The flotation and fermentation tanks.
Fighting The Potato Taste Defect
The new facilities also help in the fight against one of Rwanda’s most troubling defects: the potato taste defect. It’s undetectable in the appearance or aroma of green beans but, once brewed, the defect has a highly noticeable effect – the coffee smells like freshly peeled potatoes. It’s one incredibly frustrating defect that robs producers of higher prices and roasters and baristas of valuable coffee.
There’s still debate as to the cause of the potato taste defect, which makes it even more difficult to fight against. However, Gishyita Water Mill are doing their best. They’ve added an additional step to the process, one that’s rather rare to see in Rwanda: they’ve started to hand-sort the cherries before they go into the flotation tanks.
It’s a labour of love, and it’s definitely worth it. It helps them to spot potential causes of the defect, such as the bore hole of a coffee seed insect, as well as any other defects.
The Financial Impact of The Water Mill Upgrades
The upgrades to the mill happened between the 2015 and 2016 growing seasons, so Bradley can’t comment on the impact they have had on the taste of the coffee. However, he explained that it will increase the output of specialty-level coffee, and so he hopes to see higher premiums overall. In turn, that will result in more profitability for the washing station – of which this particular co-op of 85 members has a vested interest.
Bradley went on to help me understand that just because you produce really good coffee, it doesn’t mean it will get purchased. Many work on a bonus program – if the coffee sells early, they get a bonus. However, if no importers or direct trade buyers purchase it, the coffee can sit in a warehouse for a few months, forcing a discount. The more it gets discounted, the less likely it is that a bonus will be available. This is nobody’s fault; it’s simply a matter of supply and demand. Horsham Coffee Roaster is ready to snatch up all of Gishyita Washing Station’s specialty-grade coffee, which is great for Rwandan coffee producers.
However, it’s not all about specialty – it can’t be. Like with any other producer, only a small percentage of the harvest is at that level. But nothing is wasted: even the low-grade coffee is split off and sold locally.
Cupping that precious Rwandan coffee.
Greater profits for producers at origin, higher amounts of specialty-grade Rwandan coffee, and hopefully a deepened understanding of the potato taste defect – this was all possible because of a visit to origin. “By visiting Rwanda in pursuit of traceability and transparency, we were able to assess the needs of the farm and help contribute towards its continued success,” Bradley said, beaming.
I told him his enthusiasm was infectious. He responded with: “It just makes it more fun when you get to help and do something like this.”
For Bradley, it’s the perfect situation. He gets to makes a positive impact, he gets to help farmers to grow, and he gets great coffee. He paints the most wonderful cup profile for me: “We purchase a red Bourbon varietal. It’s similar to Kenyan and Tanzanian coffees in that it has clean washed flavors. You may get some bright tangerine notes, caramel sweetness, stone fruit, prunes and raisins. It has a very good complexity without being too bright, a complaint some have about in Kenyan coffee.”
My mouth is watering. Is yours?
We have the ability to accomplish magical things. Specialty isn’t just about production – it’s about co-operation. Working together across the globe, from farm to cup, to make a transparent coffee industry results in the production of fabulous coffee from fabulous places, that’s brewed by fabulous people who support other fabulous people.
Special thanks to Bradley Steenkamp of Horsham Coffee Roaster.
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