Rwanda is undoubtedly renowned for its world-class coffee. But the production of the beans in this superb environment has not always been so simple. With destructive political upheaval and deadly widespread genocide, Rwanda has had to strive to become the coffee country it is today. The country is also subject to a unique and particularly unusual defect which can impact on the high-quality flavours derived from the landscape. Despite its struggles, Rwandan coffee is still simply a beautiful brew.
Coffee was first introduced to Rwanda in 1904 by German missionaries. Exportation from the country, however, did not begin until 1917 as this was when coffee production really took off. Historically, the majority of Rwanda’s coffee was exported to Belgium as a result of the First World War. The League of Nations Mandate took away Germany’s colonial rule over Rwanda and in turn, Belgium took over the rule.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that coffee became Rwanda’s most valuable exported good. 1994 saw Rwanda experience a widespread violent and destructive genocide which not only took one million lives, it also had a dramatic impact on the country’s coffee sector. Following the genocide though, foreign aid helped to rebuild Rwanda with a particularly strong focus on the coffee industry. It was evident that the country became determined to reinstate Rwanda’s position in the coffee industry and there was a widespread ideal to produce the highest quality coffee.
Rwanda is located in the most central part of Africa and with a population of 11 million, it is officially the most densely populated country in the continent. Roughly 90 percent of this extremely large population is engaged in some variation of agriculture. Most Rwandans live in predominantly rural areas and so subsistence farming is most common among the indigenous people.
Rwanda is also ideally situated on the ‘coffee belt’; a strip across the globe where all coffee plants are grown. This provides the country’s farmers with the ideal conditions to grow the perfect coffee bean as the beautiful country offers the perfect environment. Perhaps this is why Rwanda coffee tastes as perfect as it does; this outstanding country produces outstanding coffee.
Nearly all of the coffee beans that are grown in Rwanda are Arabica. Of this Arabica coffee, 95% of the beans are one of a number of Bourbon varieties and has been traditionally well-established across the country. This variety is under strong safeguarding by the Rwandan government with the aim of protecting the country’s coffee market. The country’s government strictly enforces guidance on the introduction of bean varieties into the coffee exportation marketplace.
Rwanda is unique in comparison to its East African surrounding countries. Unlike its neighbours' farms that are predominantly large estates, Rwanda’s coffee is grown mostly by small-scale farmers and are often farmed by their families. With roughly 400,000 farms across the country, the plantations are fairly small with most coffee farmers only owning less than a quarter of a hectare of land.
Small-scale coffee production is vital for speciality coffee production in Rwanda. Producing coffee in this way allows farming and production to work together to ensure that the method of processing is perfect for the specific and unique beans. The process normally considered best across Rwanda is the approach of fermenting and washing (Check out our post on the different processes coffee can go through). Washing takes place in wet mills which have only recently been established and made more of a popular method of consistent and clean processing. The first washing station was not built until 2004, assisted by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). However, the number of these stations has increased dramatically over the years with there now being roughly three hundred in operation across the country.
An issue that faces Rwandan coffee producers and exporters is the geography of the country; most of its regions are entirely landlocked. This can make it particularly difficult to transport the coffee whilst ensuring quality and guaranteeing that the flavours achieved in processing make their way safely to the cup. The beans must first be transported overland to Tanzania or Kenya which is up to 1,500 kilometres. Rwandan coffee can therefore occasionally be put at a higher price mark as transporting overland can cost more than transporting to the US or Europe.
The Southern and Western coffee growing regions of Rwanda are particularly stunning with plantations covering the vast mountainous terrain. Regions in this area include Huye, Nyamagabe, Nyamasheke, each boasting unique high altitude geography, as well as Lake Kivu, a rather distinct region. The altitudes of this region can vary from 5,600 feet to a staggering 7,200 feet, a factor which has an unsurprisingly significant impact on the beans which can make a Rwandan brew so perfect. The Eastern regions do not boast high altitudes but ideal coffee growing environments are found in Ngoma and Nyagatare located in the extreme Northeast of the country.
It is the lake regions of Rwanda that a perhaps the most famously known for the production of the country’s renowned traditional Bourbon variety of Arabica bean. Although not supplied with the extremely high altitudes of the mountainous growing regions of Rwanda, the lake regions are blessed with fascinating natural beauty. It is this naturally very water-rich landscape that really makes the Bourbon Arabica, famous for its complex and aromatic flavour. Vibrant acidic flavours in Rwandan coffee have been considered to be a result of the unique landscape, rich in distinct minerals.
The Potato Defect
The potato defect is a particularly unusual defect that is only found in coffees from Rwanda and Burundi. This defect is caused by bacteria that enter through the skin of the cherry and releases a toxin into the cherry’s flesh. Although it does not cause any harm to consumers health, the toxin is extremely detrimental to the quality of the coffee. It is when affected beans are roasted and ground that the effect of the toxin is evident: a particularly unpleasant and pungent aroma is released. This is aptly named the potato effect because of the strong smell which is distinctly similar to the smell of a raw potato which unsurprisingly can completely ruin the taste of the final brew.
Rwanda has experienced great hardship along its coffee journey to get to where it is today. Despite everything, the country is back on the map for perfect coffee. It is the only African country to have held a Cup of Excellence competition held in 2008. Since then, Rwandan coffee has hit its all-time high with farmers seeing their incomes at least double in the last few years. Coffee grown and produced in Rwanda is something to be looked upon in awe and enjoyed with the enrichment of its history.
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Written by Katie Humphrey