Foodways

Rwandan Coffee Farmers Turn Premium Beans Into Harvest Gold

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    Welcome to Rwanda's coffee land, where some of the world's best coffee is grown. Here, Minani Anastase, president of Musasa Coffee Cooperative in northern Rwanda, looks over the coffee drying tables.
    Courtesy of Jonathan Kalan
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    Rwanda has endless rolling hills, spotted with small family coffee farms. The altitude is about 5,600 feet near the shores of Lake Kivu in western Rwanda, making these cliffs an ideal place to grow premium coffee beans.
    Courtesy of Jonathan Kalan
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    After the genocide in 1994, Rwanda's coffee industry privatized, and the farmers learned to produce premium coffee. Now their beans are sought by coffee buyers and gurus around the world. Here, Sarah Kluth, a buyer from Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea in the U.S., visits a washing station in western Rwanda.
    Courtesy of Jonathan Kalan
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    The growing demand for premium coffee has had a positive impact on many small farmers. Uwera Gema, a 60-year-old farmer in southern Rwanda, used the extra income to send her six children to school. Her family owns 700 coffee trees and produced one ton of coffee cherries in 2011.
    Courtesy of Jonathan Kalan
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    Premium coffee differs from regular coffee in two ways: It must be washed thoroughly, and it must score at least 80 points on a quality scale. Here, freshly picked coffee cherries are washed and sorted by weight at the Nyarusiza Coffee Washing Station.
    Courtesy of Jonathan Kalan
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    Next the fresh cherries are depulped to separate the seeds from the soft flesh. For premium coffee, cherries must be depulped quickly after they are picked or they will become bitter.
    Courtesy of Jonathan Kalan
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    Sorting the beans for quality is mostly done by women, who earn about $1.25 per day.
    Courtesy of Jonathan Kalan
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    An international collaboration between the U.S. and Rwanda called PEARL trained young Rwandans not only how to make top coffee but also how to taste and judge the final product. Uzziel Habineza, a genocide survivor, worked his way up from managing a washing station to representing one of the world's largest coffee suppliers, Volcafe. Habineza is an expert cupper and coffee roaster.
    /Courtesy of Jonathan Kalan

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Yesterday on All Things Considered, Allison Aubrey explained how coffee is the new wine — or, at least, how our morning brew is catching up with the evening Chardonnay in terms of our appreciation for its flavor and textures. And that's piquing our interest in learning where our coffee comes from.

So, we wondered, how does this new trend impact coffee farmers around the world? On Twitter, we stumbled on Jonathan Kalan, a freelance photographer and journalist in Africa, who just happens to have returned from visiting coffee farms in Rwanda.

Coffee from Rwanda, you say? Believe it. About 10 years ago, Rwandan farmers started selling premium coffee instead of plain-old joe. Now its coffee fetches some of the world's highest prices and is sought after by coffee giants and gurus around the world, including Starbucks. We caught up with Kalan, and asked him a few questions about his recent work, featured above.

Q: What's it like on a coffee farm in Rwanda?

A: Aptly named the "Land of a Thousand Hills," Rwanda has endless rolling, green hills dotted with banana trees, tin-roofed houses and small farms. In Western Rwanda, where it's ideal for growing coffee, the altitude is around 5,600 feet, and steep hills plunge into the crystal blue banks of Lake Kivu.

There are about 400,000 families who farm coffee in Rwanda, and most of them live in small mud and brick houses, or a concrete house, when they are better off. The average family owns around 450 coffee trees, but they also harvest sorghum, beans, sweet potatoes and vegetables.

Q: Why did Rwandan farmers switch from growing regular coffee to growing premium coffee?

A: Rwandan farmers didn't switch beans to start producing specialty coffee; they simply switched their methods. Unlike regular coffee, premium beans must be fully washed, and they must score at least 80 points on a quality scale. Many factors influence the score, from climate and soil quality to the time between when the ripe coffee cherries are picked and dropped off for processing.

Coffee has been a major source of revenue for Rwanda since it was introduced by German missionaries a century ago. For most of this time, the state controlled nearly all stages of production. Beans were exported as regular, unwashed coffee, and farmers were given a set price by the government. Farmers clearly had little incentive to produce specialty coffee, or invest in better production, harvesting and washing methods.

But then, after the genocide, the coffee industry was privatized. This opened up new markets and avenues for selling coffee.

Q: How did the farmers learn to grow and produce top-grade coffees?

A: Many people credit a project called PEARL for kickstarting the specialty coffee industry in Rwanda. PEARL is a collaboration among Texas A&M, the U.S. Agency for International Development and Rwanda's Ministry of Education.

Since 2000, PEARL has trained young Rwandan students in agronomy (because most people with expertise in this field either fled the country or were killed during the 1994 genocide), cupping and quality-control management. They also built new washing stations and formed farmer cooperatives, which was key because cooperatives give farmers more control of their product and a further economic stake in the quality of their coffee.

Q: Premium coffee beans can cost five times more than regular ones. Do the farmers actually reap the benefits of these high prices?

A: Definitely. In 2000, farmers from Rwanda's first coffee cooperative earned around $0.20 for one kilogram of ordinary coffee. In 2011, these same farmers got roughly $3.50 per kilogram. That's a pretty monumental difference.

Take the case of Uwimana Immaculee, a farmer in southern Rwanda. For years, she and her family had been struggling to produce beans, sorghum and other small crops, with little financial success. Seeing her neighbors benefit from specialty coffee, she decided to take a risk and invest her family savings in 100 coffee trees.

She has never looked back.

Uwimana's farm has tripled in size now. This season she sold 700 kilograms of freshly picked coffee cherries to a local specialty coffee washing station, earning over $350, which is no small change in rural Rwanda.

The extra money from coffee has helped her put two children through school, build a new house and even invest in new land to expand her plantation.

Q: What was your favorite memory of visiting a Rwandan coffee farm?

A: When I was touring the coffee washing stations with an eclectic group of international buyers, one of the U.S. buyers had tattoos of coffee cherries up his arm. When one of the local women in a tiny village saw it, the whole village erupted in laughter. Tattoos are quite taboo in Rwanda, but here is some self-proclaimed coffee geek who has cherries — the economic lifeblood of her and her family — inked on his arms.

As you can see from Kalan's photographs above, Rwandan coffee grows in some beautiful places, but to get the full experience of Rwandan coffee production, check out his photoblog.

This chat was edited for length and clarity.

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