Nairobi — They may be from the smallest country in eastern Africa, but coffee farmers in Rwanda can still compete in the international market with giant coffee exporters like Colombia, Brazil and Mexico.
The way they ‘punch above their weight’ is to ensure that hey export high quality coffee, while remaining united through their cooperative movements, according to Angelique Karekezi, the managing director at the Rwanda Small Holder Specialty Coffee Company (RWASHOSCCO).
“Our farmers do not export much coffee produce, but the little that reaches the international market is of very high quality. This has enabled their products to remain competitive amid price fluctuations, which keep changing every second,” says Karekezi.
It is not price fluctuations alone that continue to frustrate coffee farmers in eastern Africa. Long value chains, exploitative intermediaries and limited access to lines of credit also stifle the growth of the coffee sector in the region, according to Samuel Kamau, the executive director at the African Coffee Association.
Climate change, too, affects coffee produce, due to erratic weather, where strong winds in countries like Rwanda have been known to destroy plantations.New pests and diseases also leave a destructive trail in their wake, says Karekezi.
But the worst of these challenges reared its head this year when Covid-19 sickened the world, shutting markets and businesses from access to financial institutions, she says, adding that harvest volumes were low, due to fewer farmers picking cherries during the lockdown.
“It took long for farmers to process produce for export due to the health protocols put in place by the government to curb the spread of the virus. The export markets, too, were affected, because there were fewer buyers due to the lockdown,” says Karekezi.
But farmers kept going, united by the cooperative movement which has strong historical roots in the country.
Rebecca Ruzibuka, the managing director at Africa Development Consultant Ltd (ADC) says communities are held together by the self-help principle, locally known as Muganda, which has also helped spur the growth of the cooperative movement in Rwanda.
According to Ruzibeka, more than four million farmers are engaged in the cooperative movement, where 45 percent of them are active in the agriculture and livestock sector. At RWASHOSCCO, which was founded in 2005, about 13,800 coffee farmers are active in the cooperative movement.
One reason cooperatives are attracting smallholder farmers in Rwanda is the need to access the international market and gain production and management skills. Another is the support they are getting from development partners like the United States Development Foundation (USADF), an independent U.S. government agency established by Congress to invest directly in African grassroots enterprises and social entrepreneurs.
By inviting local organizations like ADC to work with cooperatives, USADF has enabled farmers to gain value addition skills and insights on how they can expand the coffee sector to compete with bulk producers in eastern Africa and the rest of the world, says Ruzibuka.
“As the project developers, we identify the actual need of cooperatives and which needs require funding. This ensures the sustainable running of the project,” she says. ADC also trains cooperatives on project monitoring and evaluation.
By working with ADC, she says, Rwanda coffee cooperatives have been able to adopt the latest technology in coffee processing and develop skills in book keeping, as well as upgrade their record management.
Geoffrey Kayigi, the USADF country program coordinator in Rwanda for the last 10 years, identifies RWASHOSCCO as the most successful cooperative in the country, and for a good reason.
The cooperative has managed to make world-class coffee brands, including Café de Maraba, the first Rwandan specialty coffee, and Angelique’s Finest, a brand that stands out for its mix of sweetness laced with a touch of chocolate and citrus.
RWASHOSCCO has branches in five provinces which work through export and roasting departments, one of which is stationed in Hamburg, Germany. The cooperative also has coffee washing stations, warehouses and a coffee capping laboratory.
“The adoption of dry coffee processing by farmers in Rwanda has so far been very successful. Their brands have attracted new buyers and have continued to raise interest in the international market,” says Kayigi.
Karekezi, the RWASHOSCCO managing director, says 60 percent of international buyers the cooperative has been able to net have remained loyal to the Rwanda brands for over 15 years.
Achieving these milestones, however, has not been an easy feat. As an outfit that in its earlier days did not have well-developed management structures and value-addition facilities, RWASHOSCCO was struggling to remain afloat.
But internal reorganization and an enterprise expansion grant of US$ 392,000 that USADF gave to the cooperative in 2007 helped it transform into a world class coffee exporter, says Kayigi.
Apart from establishing coffee roasters, warehouses and renting premises, the grant has enabled the cooperative to put in place a system of traceability, as required by the international market, he says.
“Our focus is to work with grassroots communities organized through cooperatives bringing farmers with shared values together,” says Kayigi, adding that USADF also supports farmers growing maize, beans and rice.
The US development agency has also invested in solar off grid energy in the country, where it supports farmers to acquire home solar units. Here, women led groups are given the first priority, he says.
For groups to qualify for USADF support however, they must be legally registered with the government and must have operated in their area of specialization for more than three years. Financial reports and data records must also be in order.
USADF has some 22 active projects in Rwanda, where the agency is working to promote a new initiative, the Academy for Women Enterprenuers.
Kayigi says the greatest challenge USADF has faced while working with farmers is on skills development, because most of the farmers lack the necessary education. Although nearly 80 percent of Rwandans under 24 years of age have been educated by aggressive government initiatives, the literacy rate among people 65 and older remains below 60 percent.
Another challenge had been how to transport produce to the export market. Rwanda has struggled because of its geographic positioning. The country does not have direct access to sea ports, as do Kenya and Tanzania. Through partners like ADC, farmers have been able to gain production, processing and even infrastructure positioning.
With a renewable contract with USADF, Ruzibuka of ADC says her organization has helped coffee farmers in Rwanda adjust to the pressures of climate change. ADC trains farmers on how to adapt coffee trees that are less affected by erratic weather and new pests and diseases, in a particular region. ADC has trained farmers on water harvesting techniques, where the water collected is used to wash the coffee, instead of using water sources that must be purchased.
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“We have also helped farmers streamline their leadership structure within the cooperatives, so that they feel they own the process of generating their products from production to the end market,” says Ruzibuka. Farmers are now able to access health insurance, school fees and farm incentives like fertilizers.
Future prospects are keeping Karekezi’s eyes open at RWASHOSCCO. As the fourth – and the only female – managing director at the cooperative, she is keen on enabling women build brands from other products for the international market in the next five years.
Through the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA), she says, she is creating opportunities for RWASHOSCCO to source coffee from the other 22 chapters of the alliance in Africa.
Karekezi says RWASHOSCCO has acquired the certification needed for the international market like Fiartrade, Organic Coffee, UTZ and Rainforest Alliance. The cooperative is also working to acquire the Food Safety Management Systems certification.
For now, however, she would like Angelique’s Finest to flood local and international markets, while also protecting Rwanda coffee exports by registering them as international brands.
“We want to remove middlemen from the coffee value chain, because they have been fleecing farmers. This way farmers’ incomes will increase, because they are directly linked with their coffee consumers in Europe and other export destinations,” says Karekezi.