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Rebuilding and Reconciliation

The future is looking brighter for Rwanda, and coffee is playing a major role. In 1994, after the genocide that killed 800,000 people, much of the country was devastated and in chaos. Five years ago, when worldwide coffee prices spiraled downward, many coffee growers uprooted their trees and planted quick growing food crops to survive. But today, as the country focuses on improving the quality of its coffee, there is hope for a better future.

By improving the quality of their coffee, many of Rwanda’s 500,000 coffee farmers have more than doubled their income. Coffee cooperatives are the keystone of improving quality. And by bringing villagers together to work toward a common economic goal the cooperatives have helped Rwandans with the monumental task of reconciliation, since genocide widows work side by side with women whose husbands are in jail for participating in the killing.

Before the co-ops, the social fabric of the coffee-growing areas was destroyed. Now the tidy washing stations, planted with flowers like community gardens, serve as a place for people to come together and work, sorting coffee, talking about their common project. “What’s reconciliation if it’s not people who have conflict getting together and talking?” a government official said.

The words of one of the coffee farmers are even more encouraging. “I think the Rwandan future will be bright,” he said. “Coffee is our new source of life.”

Rwandan Coffee

Rwanda is blessed with particularly good coffee-growing conditions: high altitude, volcanic soil and plenty of sun and equatorial mist. “The coffees are wonderfully sweet, either bright with clear citric characteristics, or plush and full of berry and chocolate like flavors,” a major coffee roaster said. By riding booming demand in the developed world for specialty brews Rwanda has made premium coffee-growing a national priority and is achieving international recognition as a producer of some of the world’s best coffee. But it hasn’t always been this way.

It is believed that coffee was introduced in Rwanda in 1904 by German missionaries. Around 1930, a considerable interest in coffee developed as it was the sole revenues generating commodity for rural families. Until five years ago, all Rwandan coffee sold at the C-grade, or lowest-quality, price. The big canned coffee companies currently pay about $1 a pound for C-grade coffee beans, and the price fluctuates widely. When worldwide coffee prices crashed five years ago many Rwanda farmers could not support their families and replaced their coffee trees with quick growing food crops.

The solution was to go upmarket and try to make Rwanda more famous for fabulous coffee than the 1994 genocide that killed 800,000. The Rwanda government and international aid agencies provided money for coffee washing stations country wide. Cooperatives formed so that more money would stay in the hands of the coffee farmers. Farmers were trained in better coffee growing and processing techniques.

Results have been dramatic. Partly because of abundant labor, which allows farmers to pick through and hand-sort cherries, the washed coffee that goes to market is exceptionally clean, or free of imperfect beans. Over 10 percent of the country’s crop is now fully washed and sells as gourmet coffee to the likes of Starbucks for as much as $3.50 per pound.

Last year’s crop of fully washed coffee completely sold out. . “The emergence of Rwandan specialty coffee on the global market is stunning,” said Michael D. Ferguson, a spokesman for the Specialty Coffee Association of America, a trade group in Long Beach, Calif. “Everyone inside the specialty coffee industry is excited about it.”

Not only does it taste great, but every pound of coffee sold directly helps Rwanda’s people. Rwanda’s ambassador to the United States, Zac Nsenga, said “The more you consume coffee from Rwanda, the more you give Rwanda hope. It’s the quality and the story behind it that makes it special.”

Rwanda is working to bring its total crop to the fully washed level of quality by 2008. In 2005, total coffee production was 18,000 tons of which 1,100 tons was fully washed. In 2005 Rwanda had 46 washing stations. The plan is to increase this number to 240 washing stations in 2008 producing 35,000 tons of fully washed coffee.

Since fully washed coffee sells for at least twice what unwashed coffee does, 2008 is projected to produce about $100 million in revenue, the highest coffee receipts in the country’s history. But achieving this goal won’t be easy. In addition to the new washing stations the production volumes must be increased with a rapid transition towards specialty coffee beans. And Mother Nature needs to kind as well. The East African drought decreased Rwanda’s 2006 coffee production by about 10%.