Here at John’s Coffee we want to understand where our coffee comes from. Using Rwandan coffee was a natural choice – John was born in Rwanda, and knows the environment, conditions and context of coffee farming in the country.
To appreciate the state of coffee production in modern Rwanda, we must acknowledge its links to the country’s turbulent past. Originally introduced into Rwanda in colonial times, coffee farming was forced upon the country, creating large quantities of low-quality product. Even after Rwanda gained its independence, coffee remained a staple crop, and in the early 70s, represented as much as 70% of the country’s export revenue. When coffee prices crashed at the start of the 90s, it had a serious effect on the Rwandan economy.
In the early 21st century, Rwanda’s government began the National Coffee Strategy, refocussing the industry towards much higher quality product with specialty beans. Today, coffee production specialises in Arabica beans with the vast majority being the Red Bourbon variety.
One thing that has not changed is Rwanda’s reliance on smallholder farms. There are no large estates in the country, instead there are more than 400,000 farms, many smaller than a quarter of a hectare in size.
While the farming of the coffee plants remains diverse, the processing of the crop has become more centralised. In the past, the coffee cherry crop would often be processed at home, de-pulping, washing and drying on the farmhouse floor. More recently, the government encouraged the creation of Central Washing Stations (CWS), where farms can bring their crop and prepare it efficiently in much improved conditions. As well as providing a central resource for processing, the CWSs act as centres for education, providing training on techniques for composing, harvesting and more. These innovations have significantly improved the overall quality of the coffee produced.
Coffee is a force for change in modern Rwanda. It still represents more than half of the country’s exports, so there is strong financial incentive for its continued success. This has reach far beyond even the Washing Stations improving the product. The industry is also a driving force for improving gender equality in Rwanda, with changing rules regarding women owning farms and new initiatives to help women in the farming industry.
John has seen the conditions under which farmers work and appreciates there is much more to do to ease the hardship involved. Encouraging more farming equipment and a re-emphasis on safety. Even something as fundamental as being able to afford the right gloves and boots would be a big help. It would make carrying the harvested beans from farms to washing stations easier and would motivate farmers to do more.
“There’s a cultural shift,” John says. “Not only in Rwanda but elsewhere. The younger generation is avoiding coffee farming. Young people are leaving rural areas, heading to the big cities in search for better life. This could have a serious impact on coffee farming – the older generation are too old and tired to continue unsupported. This is a threat that faces coffee farming in the near future.”
It is John’s belief that this challenge can be tackled by paying better prices to farmers for their hard work. With better prices the younger generation would be encouraged to stay on the farms, making sure the industry remains viable.