Coffee Arrives in Rwanda
Coffee in Rwanda, like most of the rest of the country, has a long and tumultuous history. Coffee was
brought to Rwanda in the early 1900s by the Germans. In the 1930s the Belgian colonial government
ramped up production. The Belgians forced native Rwandans to grow coffee in order to produce cheap, plentiful low-quality coffee for export.
Coffee production continued after the Belgian colonists left. By 1970, coffee had become the single
largest export in Rwanda and accounted for 70% of total export revenue. Coffee was considered so
valuable that, beginning in 1973, it was illegal to tear coffee trees out of the ground.
A Crisis in Coffee
Between 1989 and 1993, the breakdown of the International Coffee Agreement (ICA) caused the global price to plummet. Considering the massive role that coffee played in Rwanda’s income, the government and economy took a hard hit from low global coffee prices. The last decade of the twentieth century in Rwanda was marred by a horrific genocide that killed more than 800,000 people, mainly those from that Tutsi ethnic group, in fewer than 100 days between April and July 1994.
Genocide and its aftermath led to a complete collapse of coffee exports and vital USD revenue. But the
incredible resilience of the Rwandan people is evident is the way that the economy and stability have
recovered since then.
Recovery in Mind, Body and Coffee Production
Today, Rwanda is considered one of the most stable countries in the region. Since 2003, its economy has grown by 7-8% per year and coffee production has played a key role in this economic growth.
This incredible recovery is due in part to the strong government support for the coffee sector as well as trade rules helping exports and international investment into the coffee sector. About ten years after the end of the civil war, the government instituted the National Coffee Strategy that helped
improve and expand the coffee industry. The strategy encourages high-quality production and
specialty beans. Funding comes from the Rwandan government, other nations and private
investors. Economic outcomes for farmers are now much better than they once were.
Previously, Rwandan coffee farmers processed their cherry at home. They would roughly de-pulp the
cherry, wash it, maybe ferment it and probably dry it on the floor. This created a very low-quality
commodity coffee called semi-washed. To improve the quality of coffee, the government incentivised the creation of new Central Washing Stations (CWSs) in coffee-producing areas. You can learn more about the creation of CWSs and the continuing efforts to improve the livelihoods of Rwandan farmers in a blog post all about Rwanda.
Coffee Production in Rwanda Today
Today, smallholders propel the industry in Rwanda forward. The country doesn’t have any large
estates. Most coffee is grown by the 400,000+ smallholders. Most smallholders own less than a
quarter of a hectare. Most of Rwanda’s coffee production is Arabica with 95% of all plant grown
being of the Bourbon variety.
Rwanda has seen significant development in gender equity and coffee has played a role in
these advancements. While women previously lost their control over agriculture during
colonialist times due to gender-assumptions made by European rulers, they are starting to
regain some autonomy in agriculture. New initiatives that cater to women with the focus on
helping them equip themselves with the tools and knowledge for farming have been changing
the way women view themselves and interact with the world around them.
In Rwanda, we work with our sister company, Rwacof that operates 19 of Rwanda’s 300 coffee
washing stations. Our sustainability partner foundation, Kahawatu Foundation, trains Rwacof
and farmers on good agricultural practices and health and safety education.