Historically, much of Rwanda’s coffee was exported to Belgium following the League of Nations Mandate after World War I which stripped Germany of its colonial rule of Rwanda and handed it to the Belgians. It wasn’t until 1917 that the country had enough coffee to export, but production increased due to the law put in place in the 1930s which made coffee a compulsory crop. By the 1990s, coffee was Rwanda’s most important export but just as it was establishing itself as a credible coffee producing country, disaster struck in the form of the genocide in 1994 which claimed 800,000 lives in 100 days. This understandably had a massive impact on the coffee industry displacing thousands of farmers as a result of the conflict. The only good thing to come from this horrendous tragedy was the fact that many of the country’s Bourbon coffee trees were left relatively untouched. Coffee was to become an opportunity as Rwanda tried to recover and much of the foreign aid and investment streaming into the country was put into establishing coffee infrastructure and promoting quality. Rwanda remains to be the only African country to have hosted a Cup of Excellence competition and has attracted specialty buyers from all over the world.
One challenge that is yet to be overcome is the existence of a very unique and strange defect in the country which can put some people off working with coffee from Rwanda. Coffee is an agricultural product and as such, is very easily defected through the interference of pests or problems during the wet/dry process. The ‘potato’ is one such defect which has such a dramatic effect on the taste and aroma of coffee that it has made quite a name for itself in the industry. Interestingly, this defect is isolated to Rwanda and Burundi due to a certain type of micro flora that exists here. This micro flora makes its way into a coffee cherry once it has been perforated by an insect known as the ‘antestia fly’ and manifests itself in the cup as a strong starchy smell of raw potato!
The issue with the potato defect is that it is completely random and cannot, be picked out or detected once it has been roasted. If you have purchased a speciality grade Rwandan coffee, it is most likely that the only point you will become aware of a potato cup is when you grind the coffee and the room is filled with the aroma of raw potato. There is currently strong investment into researching this issue to try and work out how to eradicate it. We strongly believe it should not put you off buying a Rwandan coffee as you truly would be missing out on so much all for the risk of having to re-grind one cup.
Potato defect aside, Rwanda is blessed with ideal coffee growing conditions that include high altitude, regular rainfall, volcanic soils with good organic structure and an abundance of Bourbon. The vast majority of Rwandan coffee is produced by smallholders of which there are thought to be around half a million with parcels of land often not much larger than just one hectare per family. Coffee is grown in most parts of the country, with particularly large concentrations along Lake Kivu and in the southern province. Rwandan smallholders organise themselves into cooperatives and share the services of centralised wet-mills –or washing stations as they are known locally.