Academic Program Gives Boost to Rwandan Coffee Sales

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28 October 2008

Last week, the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) hosted a Higher Education Summit in Rwanda intended to promote development through education by partnering American and African universities. For VOA, Thomas Rippe reports from Kigali that one such partnership has helped Rwandan coffee farmers triple their income in just five years.

This year, for the first time, Rwanda's coffee exports are expected to top $50 million. And it is the farmers who are benefiting the most.

Pascal Khalisa comes from a coffee farming family near the southern Rwandan city of Butare. He says Rwandan coffee used to sell on the "C" market, which is the lowest quality, and the lowest price. But in the past few years Rwanda has moved into the specialty market, where prices are much higher.

By processing the coffee at special washing stations, Rwanda has moved into the specialty market, where prices are much higher. "In 2001, before we started processing coffee in the washing station, the price of coffee was 120 Rwandan francs, a kilo of parchment. It is equal to around 30 cents a kilo. It is a very bad price. Now the price of parchment coffee, it is 800 Rwandan francs. It is $1, it is like $1.50. So you see there is a very, very good improvement of the price of coffee that means the life of farmers is good now than before," Khalisa said.

Khalisa learned how to increase his coffee profits from a program called Sustaining Partnerships to Enhance Rural Enterprise and Agribusiness Development, or SPREAD. Since then he has trained coffee farmers at about 100 washing stations around Rwanda and helped them increase their profits as well.

SPREAD is an innovative partnership between the National University of Rwanda and a couple of American universities. Program coordinator Tim Schilling of Texas A&M says the first thing they did was discuss the best way to improve the lives of the farmers. "What we did was, through partnerships with the National University of Rwanda, and then our own university, Texas A&M and Michigan State University, we set about first identifying coffee as a commodity that could raise the income of millions, literally millions of Rwandans," he said.

Most Rwandan farms are small. Families use their land mostly to feed themselves. There is little left to sell at the market. Coffee is one of the few cash crops. And at 30 cents a kilo it was not generating much cash. But, according to Schilling, cash is exactly what the farmers needed. "Farmers, what we found out, they need money. That is what they are lacking out there. Nobody has got more than like two bucks in their pocket, if you go out and walk around. And they need money to buy school supplies, health supplies, and to get more diversification in what they are eating, in their diet," he said.

The SPREAD team knew that coffee could make a difference in the farmers' lives. But to make that difference they needed some help. The got a lot of help from the Rwandan government and from the national coffee board. They also got help from the private sector, from non-profits and of course from the farmers themselves.

Sarah Moten, the chief of education for the AID Office of Sustainable Development in sub-Saharan Africa, says that kind of cooperation is vital. "Not one can do it, not just the U.S. government. And this is why we are talking about partnerships and partnership relationships and development. We are talking about U.S. government, we are talking about foundations, we are talking about the private sector. So all of that coming together so that each one empowers and feeds off the other."

One of the key partners is the National University. Rector Silas Lwakabamba says the program has built the capacity of the university. That capacity can now be applied to other agricultural products besides coffee. "The proposal was built in such a way to show what we have, the capacity we have and the gaps which we need. And that is where we need some sort of assistance and cooperation with some of the U.S. universities. Hopefully it will work because the way coffee has made a lot of difference, we hope some other sectors in agriculture, fruits, issues of the cow, and so on, will also make a difference for bigger numbers of the population."

It is not just the universities and farmers who benefit from the program, other jobs are created. One of the most important, and maybe the most fun, is the highly skilled job of cupping. The cuppers taste the coffee to determine the quality. They rank the coffee on aroma, taste and finish and give the coffee a score on a scale of 100 points. Coffee scoring over 80 can be sold on the specialty market for a much higher price.

"This coffee, it is from Myungwe. It is good coffee because I give it 88. It has good aroma. When I taste it, it has good acidity, and it is very sweet and clean. It has also a good finish," Lwakabamba said.

Cuppers like Rachel Dushimimana have to be consistent in their scoring or they risk bad relations with their buyers. That is a serious risk because a lot of the profit increase comes from selling directly to specialty coffee companies in the United States and Europe. Schilling says that relationship makes all the difference.

"Rwanda properly and correctly liberalized their coffee market, unlike Ethiopia and Kenya and some other African countries. Here it is free trade, it is all open. So never before had the farmer actually been able to sell directly to a U.S. buyer. Now he can. And that is why today, in Rwanda, there are over 400,000 small-holder farm families growing coffee that are making over three times, over three times what they made just five years ago in coffee."

People who attended the Higher Education Summit hope to duplicate the success of the SPREAD project, in Rwanda and around Africa. With strong partnerships between universities backed by good governance people like Pascal Khalisa and Rachel Dushimimana can look forward to a brighter future.