BAHO COFFEE RWANDA
Semilla’s relationship with Baho Coffee operates slightly differently than others, largely due to differences inherent to coffee production in East Africa. For example, rather than working directly with a producer or producer group in a specific part of the country, the relationship is with Emmanuel Rusatira who owns and operates washing stations across Rwanda.
In a certain way, it must operate like this because growers in Rwanda produce such low volume annually, selling to washing stations makes more financial sense than building a costly wet and dry mill.
Emmanuel is unique in that he has years of experience, understands the specialty market, and is now running his own company that is fostering the growth of a future generation of Rwandese coffee professionals.
Working with Emmanuel is a pleasure and an honour, given his experience and his respected status within Rwanda. However, the choice to work with Rwanda coffee is especially important to Semilla due to the many challenges and complications the national coffee sector faces.
Rwanda Coffee in the 20th Century
Coffee was introduced to Rwanda in the early 20th century by German colonists, and the industry was then subsequently expanded greatly while the country was under Belgian rule. At this time, coffee was grown only with a focus on volume without any concern for quality — likely inspired by the efforts in the past century such as that of the Dutch in Indonesia.
After Rwanda gained its independence, the coffee industry persisted under the same model of low quality and high volume though now in the hands of a company called Rwandex that controlled the lion’s share of coffee production and export out of the country. However, a major economic crisis in the 1980s, consistent political turmoil, and the devastating genocide of 1994 left the coffee industry in shambles by the end of the 20th century.
As the country began to rebuild following the genocide, focus was placed on sectors that could generate revenue and employment. Coffee was one such sector, but there was much to do.
During the past era of coffee production, coffee was sold “semi-washed” or ordinaire in French. This was akin to what might is still often seen in Indonesia and in some parts of the Americas — coffee cherries were depulped manually or with small machines and the beans were then sold with the mucilage still remaining to middleman who would pay bottom barrel prices to producers. Their role was to dry these coffees and to pass them along, sometimes through an extensive line of intermediaries before large international buyers purchased the finished product for equally low prices.
Writing a New History
With their hopes set on revitalizing the coffee sector, the Rwandese government, with the support of international NGOs, looked to other coffee producing countries like Colombia for inspiration on how they might change the reputation of their coffee sector. They came away with two conclusions — washed coffee would lead to higher quality, and higher quality would make coffee a valuable commodity to the Rwanda economy.
As such, selling semi-washed was banned and efforts were put in place to construct and/or support the construction of washing stations. The effects have been staggering. Prior to the genocide, there were only two washing stations in the whole of Rwanda, today, there are 315!
In order to overcome the predatory buying practices that had prevailed during the former model, the National Agricultural Export Board (NAEB) set a national standard for price per kilo of cherry to be paid to farmers at washing stations.
Across the board, coffee quality was undoubtedly raised and producers began to make more money, however, troubling patterns continued to persist.
Old Patterns Repeated
In those days of colonial development of the coffee industry, Rwandese people made little off their labour and watched as the profits sailed away from their shores. Today, the increased quality has improved the reputation of Rwanda coffee and brought many international buyers, however 50 percent of Rwandese coffee production is still sold as commercial grade for low prices and 70 percent of all production is controlled by major multinationals.
Sadly then, even amongst specialty grade production, a large portion is managed by (typically) European companies meaning much of the profit for these coffees continues to leave the country.
Rwandese coffee production is very small, which means that it can be easier than in large producing countries for buyers to have serious impacts on the entire market. With an average total export of between 267,000 - 400,000 bags, Rwandese coffee is a drop in the bucket of world coffee production. For context, Costa Rica, considered the smallest producer in Central America, producers 1.6 million bags annually, while Colombia produces 15 - 18 million annually.
In fact, two major buyers currently have such control of the market. With a total purchasing power that claims almost 50 percent of all coffee produced annually, they are able to make serious demands and indeed they try.
In recent years, one of these buyers insisted that NAEB lower the national farmgate price. When NAEB resisted, these buyers closed their washing stations for the majority of the season only to reopen them at the end of the harvest and pay prices far above the national price.
This type of manipulation is exactly what NAEB has been trying to curb. The implementation of fixed farmgate price might seem strange to us in specialty who believe in the notion of premiums for quality, however, in a case where certain parties have such economic power, standardized prices serve to protect smallholders from exploitation and also are to halt the exploitation of Rwandese labour by foreign multinationals.
In many ways, these companies are undertaking a neo-colonial approach, replicating former patterns of power with their dollars, unable to do so politically.
The Power to Make Change
Coffee represents 25 precent of Rwanda’s total export economy, meaning that government’s efforts to make coffee a valuable sector for profit and employment generation has reaped benefits. The potential for impacting the overall economic well being of the country is possible via coffee, but it must be optimized for that purpose.
First and foremost, the profits must go to locals rather than major muilti-nationals and secondly, quality and prices must increase.
For its part, NAEB is attempting to incentivize and train more Rwandese people to enter into the coffee sector.
For this reason, it’s special to work with Baho Coffee. Emmanuel is one of only a small select group of Rwandese people who are exporting their own coffee, meaning that the profits remain in the country, and are reinvested back into people. His commitment to his employees and the farmers who he buys cherry from his deep, because unlike multinational companies, he is invested in the future of his own country. With an average age of under 20 years old, the future of Rwanda coffee is truly in the hands of youth. Support for them cannot be understated enough.
Working with and buying from Baho Coffee is meaningful to Semilla in many ways. Not only are these coffees rare and difficult to find, given the sheer lack of high quality coffee coming out of Rwanda, but also because of the impact supporting Rwandese coffee from Rwandese people has on the country as a whole.
For 2020, Semilla will be working on three initiatives
1. Post Harvest Premium Programs
In order to ensure producers are getting paid the maximum possible, without causing issues with NAEB, we will be working to implement a second payment direct to producers after harvest.
2. Youth Skill Building
Many of Emmanuel's staff are young people driven to work in coffee but without any resources to learn. We will be leading roasting and cupping classes during our trip there this year and will aim to continue to foster the pedagogical development of this young team.
2019 featured one lot that was traced back to a single hill in a specific washing station. We will be working to isolate lots from producers located in the Lake Kivu islands and also to compile lots from female producers in specific zones.