Rwanda's reluctant love affair with its homegrown coffee
Despite its key role in the economy, coffee is not part of daily life for most Rwandans; now things are changing
By AZAD ESSA
Inside Abdul Sibomana's farm, on the outskirts of Nyanza town in southern Rwanda, dry coffee cherries hang from small stems.
The 30-year-old's farm sits between a line of small land holdings just off the main highway that snakes its way through sprawling hills dotted with coffee, banana and cassava plantations.
The coffee grown here is known for its vibrant acidic taste — a hint of sandalwood, peach and pecan. But Sibomana is unlikely to tell you that. Like most Rwandan farmers, he almost never drinks coffee. As for his produce? He has never tried it.
"I had a cup of coffee two weeks ago," he says, with a smile. "It was a Nescafe I got from a restaurant after my graduation."
Sibomana, who recently received his degree in civil engineering, grows coffee, cassava and potatoes on the small land holding he inherited from his parents who were killed during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. He is one of some 400,000 farmers across Rwanda earning a living by cultivating coffee. The crop, which last year brought in $58.5 million, is key to the country's economy.
Rwanda exports more than 80 per cent of its coffee, its second-largest export earner, with just 16 per cent of the homegrown crop being consumed domestically, according to Clare Akamanzi, executive director of Rwanda Development Board.
Rwandans, it turns out, would rather drink tea, soft drinks or a cold beer.
Teddy Kaberuka, an economic analyst based in Kigali, says that when coffee was initially introduced by German and Belgian colonialists at the beginning of the 20th century, producers would cultivate it and sell it for cash.
"The whole coffee value chain was built and regulated by the government. The crop was a source of revenue therefore, there was no effort to promote domestic consumption."
As a result, the country has long relied on the coffee cherries being washed and exported as green beans before being brought back as roasted coffee beans. In 2016, there were just 15 coffee roasting companies in the country. The first consignment of roasted coffee beans left Rwanda for the US in April 2018.
Another farmer from Nyanza, well into his 50s, grows coffee on a half hectare plot. He, too, has never had a cup of coffee.
"I wonder sometimes how my coffee goes to America and then comes back," he says, cynically.
In the lower level of the Nyarugenge market in central Kigali, Adnan Saligo runs a small home supply store. Inside, homegrown wheat flour, tea, cassava flour, coffee and toilet cleaners sit sideby-side with rice from Uganda and India, sunflower oil and Nutella from elsewhere.
The 43-year-old says that coffee is not a bestseller in his store. "Tea is seen as a utility, coffee is seen as a luxury," he says
The high cost of coffee is prohibitive for many in a country where 63 per cent of the 12 million population still earn less than $1.25 a day. At the House of Coffee in Nyarugenge, a cup starts at Rwf1,500 ($1.70). In the Magda cafe in Kacyiru, a more upmarket business area in Kigali, a cappuccino Rwanda has long relied on coffee cherries being washed and exported as green beans before being brought back as roasted coffee beans. This has not only lowered revenues since roasted beans are worth a lot more, but it has also stunted the growth of the domestic coffee culture. In 2016, there were just costs Rwf 1,800 ($2.00). Conversely, tea at a common stall can cost Rwf 100 ($0.10). During the coffee season, Sibomana, sells a kilo of green cherries for Rwf200250 ($0.20). In his village, a cup of Nescafe costs Rwf200.
That Rwanda produces quality coffee, mostly out of reach of the population, is not lost on the government. Over the past three years, it has partnered with NGOS and private companies to encourage Rwandans to consume, or at least taste coffee.
"People don't consider coffee as their choice, mainly because of the taste and the price," says Celestine 15 coffee roasting companies in the country. Rwandan coffee, in the bean form, is mostly exported to Switzerland, the US and Singapore, with primary African destinations being South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania. It was only in April 2018, that the first consignment of roasted coffee beans left Rwanda for the US. Gatarayiha, from National Agricultural Export Development Board. "But even small things like producing coffee in smaller [more affordable] packages, can strengthen the coffee culture in Rwanda."
For Kaberuka, the drive to get Rwandans to drink more coffee is an economic necessity that will help regulate the price and reduce the effect of fluctuations on the international market.
"For example, in 2012-13, coffee export revenues fell despite increased production on account of fluctuations in global coffee prices," he says. "Also, if farmers drink coffee, they will increase the quality as well and sell a better [product] at a higher price."
But Akamanzi says there is no need to underestimate the importance of the export market.
"We need both domestic and export consumption. Rwanda needs the foreign exchange that exporting coffee brings to the economy, so it's a good thing to export as well," she says.
She adds that the growing number of cafes around the capital is a testament to an increase
Restaurants and coffee shops in Kigali. Rwanda exports more than 80 per cent of its coffee.