Home Special Reports Tracking the price farmers pay for Rwanda’s premium coffee

Tracking the price farmers pay for Rwanda’s premium coffee

by Jean de la Croix Tabaro
7:52 pm

You could be in London, New York, Sydney or Johannesburg, enjoying a cup of premium coffee; say an aromatic cappuccino or a espresso.

As you take a sip on the emotionally evoking crashed bean, think of Jonas Nsanzumuhire, a 28 year-old Rwandan coffee farmer from a remote village in Gakenke district of Northern Rwanda.

Nsanzumuhire has dedicated his life to coffee. He spends stressful and exorbitant amount of time working in his coffee plantation through the year. He is literally married to coffee, and very is loyal.

Before the early birds tweet or catch warms, he is on his way with farm tools up the hill to join his 40 workers in the plantation.

One group cuts grass for mulching while the other picks cherries, removes parasites and sprays pesticides on coffee trees.

Work there is intense. The teams works aggressively for long hours. They pack their lunch, which is always cold by lunch time. After the lunch break, they return to work, until sunset. No other breaks taken in between.

Everyone returns home too exhausted. It’s a routine. From Monday to Friday. For weeks and for months.

Mind-day, laborers carry coffee cherries on heads or bicycles to the nearby coffee washing station, when they are still fresh. Women largely do the carrying.

But Nsanzumuhire’s routine is more than that. He does something else out of the plantation. He moves around buying cherries from other farmers. Like, Nsanzumuhire, thousands of Rwandan coffee farmers are busy working in the plantations, especially during the harvest period, February to August.

Cleaver Nsanzumuhire

Nsanzumuhire is a clever farmer. Nsanzumuhire, a semi-illiterate, has a sharp business eye. Sometime mid August, Nsanzumuhire, made an aggressive run-around. After harvesting 8 tons of cherries from his plantation, he bought 70 tons of cherries from other farmers.

For every kilogram of fresh cherries he buys at $30 cents, he sells at $40 cents at the washing station. A $10 cent (25%) profit ($7,000 on 70 tones) is a good deal by all standards, but a better deal for a typical village folk, considering that an average Rwandan earns about $700 a year.

It was on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, and Nsanzumuhire was counting hundreds of Rwf500 notes after selling his coffee. “I cannot imagine life without coffee,” he said, with a wide bright smile on his sweaty face. From coffee, he has managed to build a $32,000 mansion, seated on one of the beautiful green rolling hills of southern Rwanda.

Just one tree

Contrary to big coffee growers, such as Brazil, where plantations belong to confederations or mega agro-investors, the specialty coffee from Rwanda is grown by more than 400,000 small scale farmers who in most cases grow it beside other crops. Some have two or five trees in the backyard.

It is estimated that the Arabica Burbon coffee is grown on roughly 42,000 hectares in total, producing between 16,000 to 21,000 metric tons per year.

Rwanda’s Arabica is renowned for a special quality, which increases with altitude, but to make it much more special, there is a hefty price these farmers are paying.

It’s a tightly controlled crop. There is a lot of detail throughout the coffee’s life until it finally is ready to go into the cup.

Selected seedlings are planted and farmers will dedicate their lives to this crop for painful and unbearable three years before the first harvest. There is continous weeding, mulching, grooming and sometimes irrigation.

Francois Kavaruganda, 75-years-old coffee farmer, has spent most of his life in the 3000-tree plantation since he was a teenager.

As a young wedded man, his prayers were to have a healthy and successful family. Having had no opportunity to go to university, his dream was to have his children attend one. From coffee proceeds, Kavaruganda, thought, he would manage take his three children to university. He did, and is happy, thanks to the coffee beans.

The tiresome process

To produce specialty and premium coffee is a painful undertaking. It’s an art too. A demanding one.

When the ripe cherries are delivered at the washing station, there is one choice to make out of two procedures.

In the first procedure, beans can simply be laid under the sun to dry up. This, coffee cuppers say, makes the coffee miserably lose it’s aromatic quality.

The second alternative is when the cherries are pealed before they are fermented for at least 72 hours to allow mucilage. In the process, the soft and sticky mucus substance is washed off.

The process requires clean and plenty of water. Once the beans are washed, they are dried under the sun for some days. Labourers, usually women, carefully sort the beans, picking out the bad from the good.

The tough cupping

Once the sorting is done, good beans are packed into sacks, carefully to avoid any contact or mix with a foreign substance, otherwise, says Emeritha Mukabavugirije, an international Rwandan cupper, “Everything strange, including dust or perfume can be felt in a cup of coffee.” “Heavy sunshine and humidity should also be avoided while drying, “ she says.

Once cuppers are done with the tasting, they give grades (percentage). Premium coffee such as that of Rwanda has to score above 85%. According to the 10-years experienced Mukabavugirije, “It should have balanced sweetness, acidity and flavor.”

Rwandan coffee on high demand

An estimate 90% of Rwanda’s premium coffee is exported to USA. Mercanta, a UK based firm, is one of the importers of the coffee, supplying to the Australian market for the last eight years.

The global coffee industry counts for over $100b per year, but 90% of it is produced by developing countries, such as Brazil, Vietnam and Columbia. Rwanda produces roughly 5%.

Rwashoscco, a Rwandan exporter, ships 30 containers of 18 tons each a year. Each tone fetches about $6500. Rwanda’s Agricultural Export Board says 20 metric tons were sold last year, fetching about $56m.

The government is supporting exporters to increase exports from 22 to 35 tons by 2017 to earn $157m. A coffee roasting factory is about to be completed for value addition before export.

Demand for Rwandan coffee has increased, and washing stations buying from farmers have increased to 240 this year from two in 2000.

But the gap between the price tag for final coffee and price given to farmers is astronomically huge. This year, fresh cherries increased slightly from $30 cents per kilo to $50 cents by end of August, but a cup of premium coffee in New York or London can go beyond $7.

But with Nsanzumuhire’s unwavering dedication to coffee, he is still thankful for every little cent added on a kilo of chrries.


By Jean de La Croix Tabaro.