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Rwanda – new beginnings and old friends

This was our first trip to Rwanda for about 6 years, myself (Jamie) and Thierry headed off in late May to a rocky start – with the heavy thunderstorms of May causing issues with flights across Europe. But we managed to time our trip to perfection, the heavy rains which Rwanda had been experiencing for most of May finally ended just before we landed. The land of a thousand hills was at the greenest it gets, and the activity on the farms was vibrant as the crops were coming in.

It also meant that the problems they often face were evident too – landslides are an issue and compulsory mitigation policies are underway to try to stem this. Flooding occurred which has ruined  crops and infrastructure in the valleys’ eclectic farming diversity.

Kibuye, on the shores of Lake Kivu

Our first destination was Kibuye, on the shores of Lake Kivu. We dropped our bags off and headed out on a 45 minute boat ride across the lake to the Coocamu cooperative, who work closely with the Misozi group we are re-establishing relations with. Misozi itself is a cooperative owned company that supports nine cooperatives, headed up by the ever-friendly Jean de Dieu Nkuzimana.

Ms. Dusabe Maria Odette oversees the reception of cherries at Coocamu in her role as an accountant, she is very passionate about coffee. With 112,000 trees, they produce both natural and washed coffees and are Fairtrade certified – working towards organic certification. The ability to focus on the future has been helped with the creation of a secure warehouse to store the coffee. Before the coop existed, the farmers were subjected to theft and robbery of the coffees at their home, so the security this has brought is a big step forward in improving circumstances.

Kopakama, in the Rutsiro district

The second cooperative we visited are in the Rutsiro district, Kopakama and are part of Misozi. We looked at the water filtration system that is serving as a model for other co-ops. Cherry compost is available and encouraged for members to use there, and the new dry mill in operation was partly funded by Fairtrade premium.

The cooperative also run a demonstration farming lot, Ejo Esa, which is collectively run by women. This has enabled more women to be members of the cooperative and to directly benefit from coffee farming. They also participate in training, working in solidarity programmes such as credit & Microfinance schemes, and with the support of other women, sharing childcare and knowledge.

Kopakaki, Karongi District

Kopakaki, situated in the Karongi District have 990 producers with 400 of those being women. They are Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance certified and have achieved a lot in their first 10 years. They have invested heavily in the local community, and now all their members can afford to send their children to school. They have established a main women’s farming group, Agaseke Coffee, whose members are also learning to make baskets to earn an extra income. The recent rains here washed out the only bridge that connected them to the main road, as well as destroying a containers’ worth of coffee, so access is over a makeshift bridge made with a tree trunk. This means extra carrying of the coffee from the washing station before it can be loaded on to a lorry and taken to the dry mill, and is a considerable extra effort until the bridge can be repaired.

Rulindo district - Kinini Washing Station

From here we returned to Kigali, our base to travel to and from the hills of the Rulindo district and visit the farmers that produce the coffee for the Kinini washing station. Meeting with Malcolm and Jacquie at the hotel we clambered in to the 4×4’s and headed north, and it was not really until we reached there that the effort they put in really revealed itself –  the hills are like hands with outspread fingers reaching across the land, and what looks like a short journey on a map can lead to a drive up and down and around these fingers to get where you wish to go.  Looking out across the valley in front of us you could see flooding from the river that had ruined crops, and landslides down the steep slopes that the government now insists on being terraced to try to combat this.

The first plot we visited was a small walk from the main road, but past a few houses of the local landowners and their multiplicity of produce. Cassava, sorghum, maize, plantain, banana, potato, sweet potato, gourds, peas and lots of beans grow alongside and amongst the plants. This pretty much sums up the issues out there; historically the Rwandese have very much gone from crop to crop, and so intercropping here is more problematic due to the demand on soil nutrients rather than a beneficial second or third income to balance out cashflow throughout the year. Some of these sections are tiny – imagine a room in your house and you get the idea.

It is laudable that when the government suggested the option of clearing people off the land to grow coffee, Jacquie and Malcolm said no, as they wanted the farmers to have buy-in with what was happening and to help rather than be ousted. However, this has meant there is a disjunction in lots that creates a lot of work to ensure plant welfare and keep a sharp eye on the quality they demand.

One farm we visited had some great examples of what can go wrong, with leafrollers, miners, termites, and moths all having an impact. Some of the insecticides provided by coops are sold off for money, and sometimes the money and work is just not put in – this farm had dropped from 4kg last year to a potential 1kg per tree, and off less than brilliant quality. The inverse of this is the power of the coops, and particularly those with a strong female involvement.  Some of the healthiest plants we saw were from those that were part of a coop group, where the labour and skill set are broader and more able to dedicate their time in the most effective way, as well as ensuring reinvestment for the future of the farms.

Part of the issue has previously been down to ‘coyotes’, those who buy up all the coffee with the promise of premiums later that never return, and so trust in those looking to develop longer term solutions is low to non-existent. The act of bringing us to the farms (as well as following through on the paying of premiums) is helping to reinforce and grow that trust, and word is spreading in the area about the increase in yields, quality, and sustainability of growing coffee with Kinini. One farmer insisted we make an additional stop to see his progress and expansion following the success he garnered last year, and wanted his picture taken with us all so we would remember him.

After numerous trips up hills behind slow moving lorries nearly always with an attachment of cyclists at the back grabbing a free ride, through villages that serve as central collection points for the smallholder farmers to bring their cherries to for further transportation we headed to the washing station itself. Malcolms’ background with engineering became evident here with the set up being carefully thought through.

Kinini Washing Station

Water comes from a nearby stream and has storage tanks in a similar way to Kopakama. When the coffee is initially delivered there is a covered area for extra sorting, so the workers have somewhere shaded to hide from the heat. Transported to the pulping tanks, water pulls the coffee through the four disk pulper and carries it further to the washing tanks. Here it is washed and any additional floaters picked out, before the dirty water is drained and the coffee allowed to sit open to the air in the tank for 12-24 hours. It is then flushed through the grading channels to one of three fermentation tanks to further spend time before being transported via piping down the hill to the raised drying beds.

Having six tanks for pulped beans and three for fermentation means it is a simple task to manage multiple microlots, and each coffee was presented on the drying beds with its own blue marker to maintain the integrity. Once on the drying bed, workers perform another round of cleaning before folding fine netting over the beans to protect them from the harsh sun and ensure an even drying of the bean.  Yellow tarpaulins stood guard ready to be deployed in the case of further rains, further adding to the lush green of the countryside and vibrant clothing.

The water used in processing is also passed through a filtration system, to the extent that it can be used for drinking water on site, and is. This has become somewhat of a requirement now, and is a good example of the bigger environmental impact on the population that is protected in Rwanda. There is an area provided for washing clothes and housing for the permanent employees. With plans for an education centre and guest rooms for visitors, as well as more facilities to further enhance the quality on site.  We’re already looking forward to going back to try them out!