Investigative Article: Brewing a better future; the first cafe for Butare, Rwanda

Despite coffee beans being one of Rwanda’s largest exports, the Rwandese don’t drink coffee. A small café is trying to seed a coffee culture similar to that of Australia or Europe’s to unite locals and uplift farmers. Could the beverage become as influential in a community that is still marked by the feuds of the Rwandan Genocide?

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Eighteen years ago, the town of Butare in South Rwanda was a bloody battleground. Here, The Human Rights Watch reports that on 21 April 1994, 600 orphans were transferred by Interahamwe forces to the local school, separated by identity, and the Tutsis murdered with machetes and clubs. This was in addition to the violent attacks of rape, murder and torture on innocent civilians used by government-supported Hutu extremists to wipe out Tutsis. As the world stood back and watched, the catastrophic civil war that is the Rwandan Genocide unleashed with neighbours and family members turning against each other. One million people were reportedly murdered in 100 days.

The smell of death has since faded, and today, the main road that runs through the town is infused with a new scent. The distinct scent of espresso floats from a simple square concrete building. Painted up its centre column is a flourishing coffee tree with outstretched branches, while a calico sign displays “Espresso RW400” – 61 Australian cents for an espresso that, of the same beans, would cost $4 to $8 in Australia.

This is Cafe ConneXion. It’s the first coffee shop for Butare Town because, despite coffee beans accounting for more than a third of Rwanda’s exports, the Rwandese rarely consume coffee. Meanwhile in Australia, Rwanda’s specialty coffee comes over land and sea to end up in the cups of coffee connoisseurs. At popular Sydney café, Single Origin in Surry Hills, a 250-gram bag of beans from the Nyakizu region, just 20 minutes from Butare Town, cost $23.

Here, in Café ConneXion, with its green walls and blue floor, I speak with the co-owner Jean-Marie Irakabaho. We sit on simple couches arranged at the front, while a desk holding an espresso machine takes centre stage of the room. An imposing coffee roaster dominates the right side of the café, but the room feels somewhat bare.

The local coffee expert Jean-Marie and his Swiss business partner Luzius Wipf, a coffee roaster, recently established the café in the hope that it will create the connection between coffee farmer and drinker. Jean-Marie believes his country and people can move on from the genocide, and hopes that Café ConneXion will increase the domestic consumption of coffee, seeding a similar coffee culture to Australia and Europe. If its goals are realized, the coffees served here could contribute to post-genocide economic growth, and compensate the farmers with local sales when the volatile international market prices drop.

“Rwandans do not drink coffee,” he explains in his thick Afro-French accent.

“I guess less than three per cent [of the beans they produce]. But in Ethiopia they drink more than half.”

When you drive across the border from Uganda into Rwanda, ‘the land of a thousand hills’ is patterned by endless manicured rows of tea plants. This is Rwanda’s drink of choice. Spiced chai tea is drunk sweet and milky, and served with fried chapatti bread as a traditional breakfast. And while there is also an abundance of coffee trees, with some still remaining from post-WWI Belgian colonisation, the beverage has little cultural relevance.

“Coffee is not new in Rwanda. It’s been here for more than a hundred years. But it had been produced without teaching Rwandans how good it is, so they didn’t like to drink it. They thought coffee was for Rwandans that walked with the Europeans or American or Mazungu [white man] or terrorist.”

Luzius tells me over email that the Rwandese are often deterred from coffee, believing it is bad for respiratory and heart health, while some find the caffeine hit disconcerting.

On top of this, the knowledge, skills and tools to make espressos and cappuccinos are largely uncommon, keeping the beverage at luxury status. Rwanda’s connection to coffee remains purely a business relationship.

Despite the small café being the first for Butare Town, it is not the first café for Rwanda. Several

Bourbon Coffee cafés can be found in Kigali city shopping centres two hours away but they are mainly frequented by expats, aid workers and backpackers using the free wifi. Jean-Marie explains that while coffee is available at Bourbon Coffee and hotels, it is priced around RF1000 (AU$1.54), while cola or water is around RF300 (AU$0.46).

Around 90 per cent of Rwanda’s population is rural, and a majority of that figure is reliant on agriculture. It is the most densely populated country in Africa with 44.9 per cent of the near 11 million people living in poverty. This rural living combined with coffee’s luxury status only further deters locals. Yet in nearby Ethiopia, coffee ceremony is a tradition of hospitality, and its far more affordable price means it’s enjoyed by most of the population daily.

When international market prices decrease, or there is excess production, Ethiopia can somewhat rely on its domestic consumption, whereas Rwanda cannot.

“That is why our price of RW400 is crucial to the future success,” co-owner Luzius says.

“The aim is to increase the farm gate price and awareness of the coffee commodity, same as in Ethiopia where green [raw] coffee on the local market is more expensive than its export price.”

Luzius and Jean-Marie were strategic in their planning, even moving Luzius’ coffee roasting machine to Rwanda from Vietnam based on the belief in the project’s potential. In the hope that the students and culture creators of Rwanda’s future would embrace coffee, they established the café nearby the National University of Rwanda in Butare Town, with the region being known as the country’s knowledge centre.

“Young people need coffee to read more papers and prepare for exams,” Jean-Marie tells me. He hopes students will quickly adopt it, and that Café ConneXion will grow into a knowledge hub like the old coffeehouses of Europe where scholars and artists met to share lively political and cultural discussions. Café ConneXion is assisting students with their theses on the industry, and holds free coffee days encouraging them to develop a taste and understanding of the drink.

A university student called Zizi who mans the coffee machine makes me an espresso while we work

through the dramatic hand gestures required to communicate in broken French and English.

“Butare is a town of student. Many student will be interested in coffee when they study,” she explains.

“They like it. They come to learn more about coffee. They ask where the coffee comes from, which beans we will have next time. My friends come every day.”

Jean-Marie believes Café ConneXion is the small start to a hopefully big future.

“First of all is to get people to know coffee,” Jean-Marie says.

“Because if you know coffee then you can’t drink Nescafe. And if they can change the coffee they drink, we can increase the consumption quickly. And I do believe it will happen. But it is also important to have fair prices.”

With more than 500,000 coffee farmers in Rwanda, a local appreciation could contribute to increasing the farm gate value thus helping farmers increase profits and contribute to assisting with the community’s poverty. Despite Rwanda’s specialty coffee being sold at high-end prices by international buyers, Jean-Marie believes farmers have little awareness of this potential and limited access to coffee washing stations that give specialty coffee its status, instead producing regular beans. Regular beans get their grading when the juvenile beans known as cherries are de-pulped and dried at a home level instead of a washing station. They’re then combined with batches from other farmers and sold in bulk cheaply to middlemen.

A specialty grade is given when freshly picked cherries have been fully washed, are traceable to the exact origin, have no primary defects, and are graded above 85 per cent by cuppers for taste characteristics and qualities. The value of these beans is 15 to 25 per cent higher than regular coffee market prices.

Because of Rwanda’s high altitude, it is perfect for growing Arabica coffee trees which are harder to harvest and have full-bodied flavours that make for a specialty grading. This contributes to the sweet, fruity notes and chocolate characteristics the region’s specialty beans are known for.

The poor quality of Rwanda’s coffee crop stems from the 1930s when the Belgian government and

Hutu-led post-colonial regimes forced farmers to plant coffee trees. Price restrictions and high export taxes were established giving them no choice but to sell the beans for below-market prices, thus creating the trap of low quality and low profit. The country’s hilly geography was another barrier to the few washing stations, forcing farmers to hand-wash the cherries, creating inconsistencies between batches, and placing them in the regular grading.

For decades farmers continued the laborious process of hand washing cherries, and selling them for whatever they could get. Export and income taxes were collected by Tutsi chiefs from the mostly Hutu coffee farmers, which helped support the colonial government and contributed to the mounting tensions that led to the 1994 genocide.

Coffee prices on the world market collapsed in the late 1980s. Brazil and Vietnam flooded the market with cheap Robusta beans that grew easily in low altitudes, had more caffeine and less flavour. This saw the value of Rwanda’s coffee drop further. The devastation of the genocide halted the country’s already struggling coffee industry. Many farmers later neglected their coffee trees or uprooted them entirely to replace with other crops. In 2000, there was no infrastructure operating for the washing and separating of the beans, setting farm gate prices at 60 Rwandan francs per kilo.

However, with the loosening of trade restrictions by the government to encourage economic recovery, and initiatives such SPREAD (Sustaining Partnerships to Enhance Rural Enterprise & Agribusiness) funded by USAID, Rwanda was able to produce and export specialty coffee for the first time in 2002. By 2008, these specialty beans were being snapped up by international conglomerates such as Marks & Spencer and Starbucks.

Jean-Marie worked directly with SPREAD and tells me that before the cooperatives were formed,

farmers rarely worked together due to the tensions remaining from the genocide.

“Because of the background of genocide, [farmers refused to work together saying] ‘that one put my

husband in prison’, and, ‘they killed my family’. This did not make it easy. But at the end of the day they realised that everyone needed each other. No one can produce a container of 125 kilos of cherries by themselves. It’s incredible. By working together, it was a contribution in reconciliation. They realise they can do business together.”

Yet while specialty coffee is far more profitable for farmers, it still only accounts for 27 per cent of the country’s coffee exports.

Other projects are working for the same goal as Café ConneXion, with The National Agricultural Export Development Board (NAEB) conducting barista courses to spread the skills that will increase domestic consumption. NAEB also hosts the Rwanda Cup of Excellence to encourage product value and promote international awareness of the country’s specialty beans. Now in its fourth year, it is an internationally recognised accreditation.

Fleur Studd, owner of café Market Lane Coffee and coffee shop Melbourne Coffee Merchants, recently visited Rwanda and some farmers whose coffee was highly rated by Rwanda Cup of Excellence. She says the Cup of Excellence has been vital in connecting farmers to Australian buyers and fostering the appreciation for Rwandan beans in Australia.

Luzius hopes this appreciation for coffee will soon be shared by Rwandans. “By creating a coffee-tasting bar, people become curious to try it. And because others start drinking coffee, it becomes ok to enjoy it and feel a good kick.”

If the initiative were successful, the positive impacts of a coffee culture would be even more influential than that of Europe and Australia. While coffee to us is a caffeine hit, an excuse to catch up with friends, or a savoured delicacy, to Rwanda it could be the uplifting of impoverished farmers, the mending of relationships, and the healing of social and economic wounds.

“We called it Coffee ConneXion because it is where people can connect,” Jean-Marie says.

“In English you spell connect with ‘ct’ but in French it’s ‘x’ and we use French because it connects people. The ‘x’ is the link … We all have the same vision and we believe we are going to make things happen.”

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