From the Road: Hello from Rwanda!
It's wonderful to be back in Rwanda, this country and its coffees have found a place in my heart. I always love coming here – it's a beautiful country and it's a privilege to be working with the farmers of Rwanda to continue the hard work of building a coffee industry based on quality, communication, and commitment.
It's a long trip from the States to Rwanda; you have to go through Europe and Nairobi to get here. I got straight to work once I got here, though, visiting the new offices of RWASHOSCCO, the cooperatively owned Rwandan coffee exporter. After a quick visit there, I hit the road for Butare in the southwest of the country, home of the SPREAD project, the coffee development project with which we have worked since 2004.
I went straight to the cupping lab. The harvest is getting underway here in Rwanda, and there is already early coffee from the new crop to taste. As you all know, this cupping lab is familiar territory for me – it's where we discovered all of the great coffees we buy, and it's where the talented Rwandan cupping team is based. It's been an honor to work with these women for all these years, and it is always a pleasure to cup coffees with them. The good news is that quality from the new crop, particularly from Nyakizu, is looking SPECTACULAR.
Immediately after cupping, I met with Tim Shilling, director of the SPREAD project, to visit the Sovu washing station. The Sovu station is the site of the innovative fermentation experiments we supported and participated in last year. This year, more experiments! Tim has installed 3 types of coffee washing machines at the station: the Colombian "Penagos" machine and the Brazilian "Pinhalense" machine, both of which require much less water than the traditional East African "Toto" machine. You might think it odd that we would pay so much attention to the machine whose job it is to take the fruit pulp off the coffee seed, but in fact it could make a potentially HUGE difference in the flavor of these coffees, and have a profound impact on Rwandan coffee quality. It's amazing – this kind of experimentation is actually done very infrequently in coffee. In fact, the Sovu station is the site of more and better research than I have seen anywhere in my travels. I am proud to continue to participate in these experiments.
The next day, I began the long process of visiting all of our partners here in Rwanda. We have direct relationships with 4 different cooperatives here in Rwanda: Karaba, Nyakizu, Rusenyi, and Humure. I paid a personal visit to each, meeting with the farmers, and accompanied each visit with a cupping of the early harvest of their coffee.
I started in Karaba. Coffee is just starting to come into the Karaba mill, and there wasn't much to taste yet. Karaba has a new president, and the co-op is still learning about how to manage their business. I met with a bunch of farmers and the leaders of Karaba underneath a tree by the washing station. Karaba bought a second washing station 2 years ago, and that growth has been more expensive than they planned, which means cash has been tight. They have elected a new president, Lewis Gakwaya, and he is much more engaged and active than previous presidents in my opinion. They have developed a plan to manage their finances, and they expect to produce 2 containers of coffee this year. The members of Karaba expressed their happiness with our relationship and the prices we have paid, and want to show their gratitude by producing better and better coffee every year!
Next, I headed to Nyakizu, which is located in the far south of Rwanda, right on the border with Burundi. Nyakizu has been a challenge; they have had similar financial management troubles as Karaba, and they have not done a great job managing their loans. (Pre-harvest loans are very important for a co-op: that's where they get the money to pay the farmers for the coffee, in anticipation of a good sale at the end of the year to us.) We have been really worried about Nyakizu. Ironically, this year they produced AWESOME coffee. I was worried that on this trip we might learn that the problems Nyakizu was facing were too big to overcome. I was tickled to be proven wrong. A local schoolteacher, Emmanuel Hibamukiza, has taken over leadership of the co-op, and is doing GREAT. Even though they had no loan to work with until Monday, he was able to convince farmers to bring coffee in to the washing station based only on his word. This has allowed Nyakizu to start this crop on the right foot – I tasted these coffees and they were FANTASTIC. Now that the loan is in place, they are on track to have a successful year. The washing station staff (mostly the women of the community) were totally fired up to have a great year this year, even if it means working all night during the harvest. They have this awesome team spirit – and they kept cheering and applauding during the meeting. They asked if we might help them get uniforms for everyone at the station to express their unity. At one point, I relayed a message from our Mary Schroeder thanking Nyakizu for its great coffee, and a boy from the village stood up and sent a message of friendship back to her.
It gave me chills and tears – I loved that meeting and I love the connection we can have in these communities, even when facing difficult situations. Our arrival in Rwanda helped the bank release the loan, along with our signed contracts for the coffee, and I believe Nyakizu will make it through their hard times.
Just before dark, we headed out on the long, long drive towards Rwanda's lake region, on the western border of the country. Lake Kivu is halfway in Rwanda and halfway in Congo, and its shores are lined with mountains where some of the best coffee in Rwanda grows. I love Lake Kivu – it is a volcanic lake (it is dangerous to swim in because of the volcanic gases that sometimes bubble up and suffocate swimmers), and it looks prehistoric – as if a brontosaurus might emerge from the depths at any moment. Our partner in this region, the Rusenyi co-op, has given us some wonderful coffees over the past 2 years, and this is the first time I have visited since 2005, when I came to the Nyabumera washing station when it was still under construction. Our initial letter of intent to buy coffee, before this co-op had produced a single bean, was enough to secure financing for this washing station. We have been solid partners since then.
We had a very good meeting, wherein the co-op expressed their gratitude for our relationship, and we did the same. Our premiums allowed this group to buy solar-powered flashlights, which have come in really handy in this place – far away from any electricity. We also got to spend some time getting to know the people here – I frightened a young kid whose mother told me he believes that white people eat children like him. It's always great to try to bridge the gigantic gap that exists between cultures – it's an amazing part of the coffee world and it is the most rewarding part of my job, bar none. I also got to mention at this meeting (and every other) that our customer Octane in Atlanta had dedicated an entire month to serving exclusively Rwandan coffee – even espresso – which was a huge thrill for everyone in Rwanda – farmer, miller, and project manager alike. Amashii!! (That means "hooray" in Kinyarwanda.)
We then got in the truck again, this time headed to the north of Rwanda, where the Humure co-op operates. This part of Rwanda is much different, a little drier – the coffees are milder and sweeter. Humure coffee did exceptional duty as a single-origin espresso this year. We had another meeting with the leadership and farmers, facing many of the same problems but still committed to our relationship and to coffee quality. It was a particular treat to visit Humure for me, since it was the first time I had visited since our gift of 40 cows to the community last year. I was able to visit one of the farmers who had received a cow and, exciting news, she has birthed a calf!!! I was told that several of the cows had given birth recently; so the cows we all donated together (this project was funded by Holiday Blend sales in 2006/2007) continues to pay dividends in the Humure community!! They refer to the cows locally as "fertilizer machines," which have the convenient added attraction of providing milk for the community. The co-op has also recently started a basket-making project, as a way to make money during the off-season. I was inspired by my visit to Humure, and thrilled to continue our work with them.
Before departing Rwanda, I spent another day in the cupping room, tasting the first few microlots from next year's crop. I am pleased to report that things are looking good for next year. Don't wait, though, the current-crop Rwandan coffee we are roasting right now is splendid, and I can't wait to drink some upon my return to the United States.
I miss you all, and can't wait to return. No rest for now, however, I will be spending the next few days in Kenya visiting our partners there.
See you soon,