Rwanda is alive and well.
The countryside is bubbling with cash crops ranging from potatoes to bananas to pilipili (hot peppers) to coffee. The organization of the farmland is world class, on the level of any other top agro-industry based country I have seen along the course of my travels. Yes, poverty is still visibly existent but the population appears strong, healthy and poised to continue it’s resurgence from the atrocities of the mid 90’s. This is especially evident in the coffee producing sector.
I arrived in Kigali this past Tuesday with plans to tour the entire country in search of what new found experiences lay ahead in coffee country and beyond. My first stop was to the Muyongwe Cooperative in the Gackenke district of the Northern Province, home to our 1st Prize Golden Cup lot. We were greeted by Antoine, the coop manager, and a host of Rwandan women who immediately burst into song and dance as we exited the car. It was beautiful albeit embarrassingly overwhelming. Thankfully we proceeded onto our meeting which included a presentation from Antoine about the coop and then one from me regarding the Stumptown and our purchasing practices. We’re tightening things up even greater this year and purchasing nothing short of 88+ cup quality. Muyongwe is capable of placing multiple lots with us. They are processing coffee in the Kenya style meaning they de-pulp, separate quality by weight, ferment for 12 hours, wash vigorously 4-5 times, ferment for another 12 hours+, wash, separate quality by density/weight in the washing channels and then soak for 24 hours. Very impressive! Global warming has dramatically affected the coffee production cycle in Rwanda which is why I am here earlier than expected in March. There isn’t much of a distinct difference in season at this point in the year meaning it takes longer to dry coffee. Most folks need upwards of 10 days to dry their coffee which is a topic I will touch on later in this report.
I spent the next 2 days touring the Western Province coffee zones along the shore of Lake Kivu. Lake Kivu is majestic. There is a regal gleam to the water’s surface that doesn’t shimmer, but glows, confined below the rolling hills on the Rwandan side and towering mountains on the Congolese side of the lake. Wooden fishing boats line shores with sparse housing in between the fishing camps. There is something definitely European mixed in with the tropical feeling of being on Lake Kivu. Hopefully my pictures do more justice than my words.
Among my many stops on the washing station tour was Kanzu in the Nyamasheke district of the Western Province. Kanzu won 4th prize at the Golden Cup competition and was not only my favorite during that week of cupping in Maraba, but quite possibly my favorite coffee of the year. It’s caramel, brown sugar, fresh butter and dark cherry flavors still haunt my dreams at night. As we pulled off the side of the road and embarked on our walk down to the washing station I felt a chill run down my spine. Yes, the area is pristine but I was cold! We were easily above 2000 masl which we know is giant altitude for coffee production. The washing station itself is at 1860 masl and perfectly situated in the cone between three mountain peaks. I spent the rest of the day with Alphonse, owner of the washing station, and his crew of knowledgeable coffee folks. His process seemed fairly standard – cherry flotation, density separation of wet parchment, 12+ hour ferment and 24 hour soaking – until we touched on their drying practices. Instead of the typical 4-5 hour pre-drying/defect sorting on raised beds under the full shade of a wooden roof, Alphonse is leaving the coffee under the roof for 2 full days before taking it out to raised beds in the sun. Even once out in the sun the coffee is covered every day between 12pm and 2pm to shield the fragile beans from the most intense sun of the day. The entire drying cycle can take up to 20 days! Hearing about this process made me instantly think of our friend Isaias Cantillo Osa at La Esperanza in Colombia. He uses an identical method of drying and his coffee won top prize at the 2007 Colombia Cup of Excellence! All of the research of I have done this past year leads me to believe that the longer it takes to dry coffee, the more mouth feel, or body, the coffee will demonstrate in the cup. You see, it’s a more gentle process that not only does less damage to the cell structure of the coffee but allows for more development of soluble solids as well. This equates to heavier tactile sensation. Kanzu has it, La Esperanza has it and we’re looking forward to special lots from both folks later this year.
We left Alphonse after a delicious meal of brochette (goat skewers), pilipili, pomme fritte and mutzig (local Rwandan beer). (Seriously Bosco, I may be hanging at your place more often getting my goat on.) Our next stop was Cyangugu at the southern end of the lake. We had successfully navigated the lake from its northern point of Gisenyi to the south. I can’t explain how beautiful the experience was and how honored I feel to have been able to go it myself. Cyangugu is a bustling border town just minutes from the Congo. It’s not pretty. It’s typical. I very much enjoy those towns where there is a seemingly endless amount of shady activity. To me, nothing is more real. I spent that evening reveling in Cyangugu’s spirit, drinking beer and taking it all in with my travel companion’s from SPREAD, Pascal and Casper. Nothing exceedingly exciting happened but nonetheless it was a night I will not soon forget.
We awoke early the next morning and headed East to Butare in the Southern Province. We stopped at a couple of nondescript washing stations along the way, avoided a simple assault from a crazy man outside of town, passed through Nyungwe National Park with an endless supply of white-faced monkeys on the side of the road and made it safely to Butare. I spent the afternoon with the Stumptown’s good friend Tim Schilling, Director of the USAID funded SPREAD project. Tim and SPREAD are responsible for regenerating life into the Rwandan coffee sector after the genocide. They are heroes. It’s a humbling feeling to be involved in a movement that is for the good of producers not only here but worldwide. These are the moments that put that thought at the forefront of everything.
Today’s destination was Karaba. Karaba is one of our longest standing relationships. The farmers are genocide survivors who have found coffee to be their salvation. SPREAD and the Stumptown have collaborated to bring economic change to their livelihoods and remain committed to them for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, the harvest has not yet begun in the Southern Province, but I was able to sit down and discuss strategy with Alexis, the washing station manager, for this coming harvest. As always, the coffee is good but could be better. More mature coffee cherry is the key ingredient to seeing that to fruition. Alexis understands.
Monday I meet with representatives from Rwashossco, the exporting group that works directly with the cooperatives. Our primary goal is to try and find a solution to the biggest woe the Rwandan coffee sector has faced over the past 5+ years: shipping. Our coffee needs to ship months sooner than it does for freshness reasons. If the current situation doesn’t improve a fatal blow could be struck to national coffee farmers. I am confident we will find a solution.
I am writing this report from an internet cafe in Butare. I have the weekend to further explore the ‘city’. There is one main strip in town, and this unique culture of survivors. The unexpected is expected.
Although alive and well poignant imagery of the genocide still remains particularly in the form of war criminals, both convicted and still awaiting trial after 10 years, occupying roadside work camps throughout the country. They are unmistakable with their brilliant pink garb and depressed demeanor. It has a subliminal affect on the Rwandan populous that is also unmistakable. The average Rwandan still has vivid memories of the devastation that took this country by force in 1994 and to me, still lives in fear of the Interahamwe, the Hutu led rebel group responsible for killing anywhere from 500,000 to 1,100,000 Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers.
The remaining Interahamwe fled Rwanda and have taken root in the eastern frontiers of the Congo. The Congolese government seems unable, or unwilling, to rid the zone of these brutally evil forces. The Rwandan population is still very much aware of their position and some individuals seem to continue living in fear of repeat violence. They keep pushing forward though, with strength that conjures images of Africa’s greatest tribal warriors.