The swing through East Africa to visit Rwanda and Burundi in May was especially rewarding. My first visit to Rwanda was in 2005, to help cup the beginnings of what was then the PEARL Project, along with seven other buyers from around the United States. The year 2005 was a turning point for Specialty Coffee in Rwanda. Eventually, PEARL turned into SPREAD with new funding and Rwanda’s coffee quality grew by leaps and bounds. To be able to witness the progress that has been made in the last eight years is mind-boggling.Kigali Arrival Day 1: Sunday, May 19th
I arrived after 20+ hours of flight, passing through Houston, Amsterdam and Istanbul before I finally arrived in Kigali close to midnight. Matt Smith, Managing Director for Rwanda Trading Company, met me at baggage claim and we decided to head back to his place prior to the arrival of another group that would be filming our week at Huye. We squeezed in a single malt drink and a quick catch up on how the season was shaping up. We took a jaunt back to the airport a little later to pick up the film team and then got them into their hotel. We then headed back so I could get some much needed sleep and shake off the impending jet lag.Kigali to Huye Mountain Day 2: Monday, May 20th
Around 11am Matt and I headed back to the hotel to pick up Brandon, Dalia and David from Avocados and Coconuts, a Bay Area film group doing a documentary film on coffee (#afilmaboutcoffee). Brandon Loper, the Director of the film, is traveling with his team Dalia Burde, the Producer, and David Bourke, the lead grip and cameraman. Jean Bosco Safari (our man in Butare and former coffee roaster for Stumptown in Portland), David Rubanzangabo (owner of Huye Mountain Coffee washing station) and the rest of us caravanned on the 2.5 hour drive to Huye. The week would be filled with early wake up calls for proper light and long days that extend into the night watching coffee come into the washing station for processing. Coffee processing at the peak of harvest is a 24 hour operation. Being this close to the equator means exactly 12 hours of daylight, so you have to get the most out of the day.The road is a maze of rolling mountains coated an opaque green and filled with sorghum, corn, tea, pyrethrum, coffee and chili peppers which dot the lush hillsides. Small villages arise and disappear throughout the drive until we finally arrive on the outskirts of Butare to meet the Mayor of the town. We were a bit late, so we actually met with the Vice Mayor and proceeded to head to the station where there was to be a ribbon cutting ceremony for a water project funded by David, Rwanda Trading and Stumptown. On the way, David explained to the film crew why he chose to build this water station and how, essentially, it helped serve two distinct needs.Prior to the opening of the water station, individuals in the community had to walk almost 2 kilometers to get fresh drinking water; this new station would help make day-to-day life a lot easier. Also, David experienced difficulty in supplying enough water for his demucilaging machine, fermentation tanks and the rinsing required to achieve super clean parchment. Last year, it hampered his overall output for the season. By bringing the water down through an irrigation system he put in place, Huye now provides drinking water to hundreds of people in the nearby village. Stumptown is super proud to help fund this through our Direct Trade premium to Huye. The water station cost ten thousand dollars. Huye also installed a new generator to help keep the station going during the harvest since electricity in the area is unreliable and sporadic.
The Vice Mayor gave a speech to the community thanking Stumptown while Rwanda Trading Co. were honored for their commitment to Huye. Other projects David has supported in the past were also highlighted: goats and cows given as a premium for growers who deliver cherry to David’s station. This is an incredibly impactful way to support the community since coffee is the primary cash crop. It provides an increased degree of food security which is vital in a such rural location where most folks just consume what they farm.Huye, Gako Plantation and Nyirankoko Peak Day 3: Tuesday, May 21st
We devoted a full day to the technical details: mulching, pruning, fertilizing, spraying and harvesting. The Gako plantation, where David planted 7,000 Mbizi Bourbon (Jackson) trees, sits on the southern side of the valley from the washing station. His mulching program uses eucalyptus, corn, and rice stalks along with manure. He layers the mixture around each coffee plant which helps preserve moisture while also feeding each plant. Huye maintains an impressive pruning program where each section is rotated with selective pruning and stumping to ensure proper farm health.
After the technical presentations we began our climb to the top of Nyirankoko Peak, the alleged secret meeting place of King Nyanza during the 1820′s. It felt as though a lot of history went down on this craggy old rock way before then. We saw down to Burundi’s southern border, only an hour away by car. We also had a stunning view of Huye Mountain rising above David’s washing station at well over 2300 meters. The film crew interviewed David at the top for about an hour about his farm, the community, and his history with Stumptown. David began working in coffee in 1998 and had the opportunity to travel to Nicaragua to learn about farming and setting up cupping labs. While we meandered around the peak a group of young boys followed our every move and we briefly spoke in broken French. I took endless photos of them so they could look in my viewfinder and see themselves.After a quick lunch of goat brochettes, it was time to return to the action at the station and all the drying beds. We put together a cupping session with Huye’s head cupper/quality control, Rachel Rubanzangabo. Though still early in the year, the overall cup quality this year seems quite good. We feel as though this will be a year to remember as these coffees begin their journey from Africa near the end of the summer. Night fell quicker than usual and we found ourselves scurrying around with headlamps to see the pulper in action right after the pre-soaking of the cherry in a large tank at the top of the station. Yet another sign of quality processing.
Huye Mountain, Sovu subregion Day 4: Wednesday, May 22nd
After some initial meetings at the office beside the washing station, we drove a couple of miles into a rural village to meet Vestine Mukeshimana, the mother of four children and a coffee farmer who delivers her coffee cherry to Huye. Her parents gave her their land to farm and now Vestine is the leader of a women’s association of coffee farmers. Vestine explained that the women meet regularly to discuss ways to save their earnings so that they can afford to pay their children’s school fees, purchase health insurance for their whole family and have money in case of an emergency. The women also meet to exchange ideas on better farming of their beans, coffee and corn. She proudly showed me her four cows and informed us that since she has been delivering to David, she has been able to buy a new calf.
We drove another couple of miles to the base of Huye Mountain itself where we met with over 20 members. Formerly, these growers delivered to other stations in the area, but over the past two years they decided to deliver to Huye instead. Many factors contributed to this decision, but mainly members said that Huye gives them more mobility by training them on better farming practices and handing out new nursery stock. Huye also hired extension managers who help get cherry from harder to reach areas. Higher prices and closer technical assistance has been proven to pay off. In 2012, the majority of the best lots from Huye were received from this subregion. At the end of the meeting overlooking the mountain, Brandon’s team asked each farmer to be filmed up close and to state his or her name on camera. Showing up in a rural setting with a film crew can cause quite a stir and we ended our day around 4pm without a lunch to tie us over; a typical day here trying to get to as much as we can.
David and his wife hosted an evening program of Rwandan hospitality. The entire community showed up and was treated with local dancing and singing before a litany of toasts and good, cold Primus beer. The party was the perfect way to wrap up our visit with our friends in Huye. We look forward to a long and truly special future with one of our most enduring relationships in East Africa.