(Image Credit: Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee)
Welcome back to another edition of Coffee Origins!
Today, we are moving house from South America to explore this country in Africa --- Rwanda, now one of the fastest developing coffee-producing countries in East Africa.
Featured on our site is Rwanda Wakanda A1, a fruity mix of plum and berries from Lake Kivu, one of Rwanda’s earliest regions to cultivate coffee.
In terms of global coffee production, Rwanda produces some of the most stunning fully washed Arabica varieties. But you likely wouldn’t have guessed that if you were there in the early days.
So how did Rwanda get to where it is today?
If you recall from this other blog post, coffee arrived in Brazil literally centuries ago, in 1727.
Compared to Brazil, the Rwandan coffee history is much more recent, as coffee didn’t arrive in Rwanda until the early 1900s. This was when Rwanda was still under German colonial rule. After a slow start with cultivation of the first coffee trees in Cyangugu province, Rwanda finally produced enough coffee to begin exports.
Even then, things weren’t all smooth sailing.
Now under Belgian rule, the government’s control over the coffee export was menacing and tight-gripped. Taxes on coffee growers were sky high, which resulted in a frazzled push towards producing high volumes of low quality coffee.
Think of it like your local NTUC supermarket, versus NTUC Finest. At this point in history, Rwanda was still very far from being the NTUC Finest of global coffee trade.
“Talent” alone can only bring you that far
Ah we arrive at the age old debate about Talent vs Skill. Let’s change it up a little, shall we?
Now Rwanda’s “talent” is its geographical location and meteorological conditions. Known as the “land of a thousand hills”, Rwanda inherently has the right altitudes and perfect weather for coffee cultivation.
But as we know, that alone is not enough.
Under Belgian rule, the quality of coffee produced was, well, lousy. And even though large amounts were produced and sold, this quality of coffee could only be sold at a very low price, as you would expect.
But still, coffee exported is still income for the country, right? No matter the quality. So, Rwanda’s coffee production trudged along and continued to grow over the 20th century. Coffee eventually became the priority export of Rwanda in the 1990s.
And then, this happened.
The Rwandan genocide occurred over a horrific three months in 1994, with lives tragically lost and generations of families decimated. Though we won’t cover this in detail in this post, this put Rwanda under the world’s microscope.
Coupled with the fall of global coffee prices, Rwanda’s entire livelihood was at stake.
You can imagine. For a country where the majority export was coffee, this whole situation was equivalent to a family breadwinner losing their “iron rice bowl”.
Positivity and Hope
Despite all the struggles faced as a nation, Rwanda remained to stay afloat as a major coffee producer.
Remember how Rwanda started out with low quality and low price coffee due to high tax and harsh export controls? This may have sounded like a completely negative thing, but as always, there’s always a sliver of hope.
Because coffee slowly but surely became a valuable export of Rwanda, this meant that growing coffee also became the livelihood of more and more Rwandans. This ultimately formed a strong sense of identity among the farmers.
This sense of importance probably only grew after 1962, when the colony gained independence from Belgium, separating from present day Burundi (still a neighbouring country to this day) and became Rwanda as we know today.
The impact of positivity and hope on Rwandan coffee farmers is apparent, with the quality of coffee getting better exponentially.
Over the years, proper infrastructure has been built and developed in Rwanda, all for the sole aim of producing better quality coffee. These advancements were made possible also with foreign aid and investment.
With external help pouring in and the Rwandan government’s support of the coffee trade, plantations were maintained, accessible transportation routes were built, washing stations were set up.
Truly a testament of globalisation.
Today, Rwanda produces some of the most excellent micro lots in the world.
Compared to Brazil’s nutty and chocolatey tasting notes, Rwanda coffees present a more floral and fruity flavour. It’s a delightful coffee which even produces a tea-like profile when brewed using filter methods.
Situated in Western Rwanda is Lake Kivu, one of Rwanda’s earliest region to cultivate coffee which remains a major coffee production site until today. It is the home of Generation’s Rwanda Wakanda A1 single origin, with a higher altitude compared to the rest of Rwanda.
There are other regions in Southern and Eastern Rwanda where coffee is grown. To be clear though, coffee is generally grown across the whole of Rwanda, due to the fertile soil and perfect “talent”s that Rwanda’s geography possesses.
If you like how the taste of Rwandan coffee sounds, you can check out Rwanda Wakanda A1 here.
To catch up on the Coffee Origin series, click here to read more on Brazil’s own coffee history.
Thanks again for reading!
Hoffmann, J., 2018. The World Atlas of Coffee: From Beans to Brewing - Coffees Explored, Explained and Enjoyed. Firefly Books, pp.198-203.