Coffee has become a powerful economic driver for Rwanda, but how have the country's farmers managed to transform their crop into a premium product that can command top prices? The answer lies in washing stations and bicycles.
Green Living Project presents "Coffee Awakens a National Economy" SPREAD
East Africa, Rwanda, Kigali, Butare
SPREAD National University of Rwanda
TIM SCHILLING [Executive Director, SPREAD]
I'm Tim Schilling, and I'm the director of the USAID SPREAD project. This is a project with the single objective of raising the incomes of rural Rwandans, and to do that, we have targeted the specialty coffee sector, because we know that, with 500,000 coffee farmers in Rwanda, and an average family size of seven, that anything that we could do to increase the price of coffee would actually affect the livelihoods of one half of the population of Rwanda.
Five hundred thousand farmers were processing coffee in 500,000 different ways. The common denominator there is always going to be poor quality. The challenge was, well, gee, with so many different farmers, how are we going to organize it to produce a quality product? So, the answer to that was the centralized coffee washing station. We are able to sort, select, and purchase only high-quality cherries. The downside of that is the fact that once you have just one center, that means all these farmers now have to travel in to that center with their cherries rather than just taking them home. Five to 12 kilometers with a 30-kilo load of coffee cherries on top of your head can take five, six, even up to eight hours to make it to the coffee washing station. During that time, the coffee in the cherry starts degrading, the quality degrades. There's a fermentation process that starts taking [place] inside the cherry imparting off flavors to the coffee bean that's inside, and that degrades the quality. Degrading the quality obvious degrades the price, so you lose value like that.
JOSH [Volunteer, University of California]
It all started when Tom Ritchey, one of the creators of the mountain bike, came here in 2006, I believe, and he saw these wooden bikes that a lot of people use to carry coffee here -- it's basically like a scooter -- and he saw that and thought, "Jeez, if they had a decent bike to carry this coffee, they could make a huge difference." So he went back to the States. He's been building bike frames for 30 years, and came up with this design, talked to Schwinn and Dahon, and got them to let us use both their factories in China.
But as the farmers pay for those bikes on a three-year microcredit loan, that money goes into another separate account, which is set up to buy more bikes, or things like maybe a school, or something like that, so it goes back to the cooperative.
MAN [Coffee farmer]
To bring the cherries to the washing station is very easy. You don't need to pay someone to help you to bring the cherries to the washing station. If there's no rain, you can take 100 kilograms without a problem.
Because here we are in the cupping lab, they roast the samples from the coffee washing station, and after roasting, they ground, because they want to test each load from the washing station and score it. You push it around the mouth, and you have to do it because if the coffee is around the mouth, you can feel the body and the chocolate around the tongue.
The coffee quality itself is just so high, it's so unique in its character, that it has become sought after. So as soon as we expose it or unveil the true quality of the coffee, the coffee industry, the specialty coffee industry picked it up immediately and started to source high-quality coffees out of Rwanda, and, of course, they're paying top dollar for it, and that top dollar makes it back to the farmer, which is what it's all about.