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

The East African - - BUSI­NESS -


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.

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