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Rwanda: The Rising Star of East Africa

Posted by Jorge Cuevas on May 10, 2024 at 1:44 PM


Rwanda, also known as the Land of a Thousand Hills, is a place of powerful images. It is home to the endangered mountain gorilla and a country of abundant natural beauty. It is a land of tea, coffee, and intricately woven baskets. It has a nascent film industry promoted by the Rwanda Film Festival, also known as Hillywood, a world-renowned cycling team and is fast becoming a regional trade hub. The economy is firmly on the rise, and the capital, Kigali, blends modernity with a natural touch in a true “garden city.”

And yet, for all that is going Rwanda’s way, no other country in the region has had to overcome greater obstacles. The Genocide of 1994 decimated all social, political, and economic structures. In 30 years, Rwanda’s resurgence is nothing short of astounding. Today, Rwanda is acknowledged as one of the safest countries in the world, corruption has been firmly uprooted, and the streets are clean and orderly. As I travel across the country, it is not uncommon to see regular citizens sweeping the streets, tending to gardens, and conducting all sorts of public service.


As a coffee origin, Rwanda lives in a highly competitive neighborhood. Nearby, Kenya, with its classic sweet acidity and highly developed varietals; Uganda, with its dynamic offerings from Robusta to Arabica naturals to fully washed coffees; and Tanzania, with its majestic Kilimanjaro terroir. Crafting a reputation amongst these giants of East African coffee would take a lot of work, but overcoming adversity is what Rwanda is all about.

To understand Rwanda as an origin, you first must grasp its coffee production system. The lovely countryside is dotted with verdant yet minuscule plots where coffee is grown alongside other crops like bananas, soy, and beans. Boasting the highest population density in the entire continent, the average farm size by a grower is 0.20 hectares, barely enough to contain 350 coffee trees.  

Under these highly fragmented growing conditions, the economics of coffee will always be a challenge, with an average production of around 1.5 kg. Per tree, a farmer commonly produces 525 kg of cherry per year. Using the pricing references from the washing stations I visited, a conventional coffee farmer (certified coffees like ORG and FT can boost farmer income from coffee by 10%) receives 500RWF per kg, resulting in 262,500RWF per season. At the current exchange rate of 1,300RWF, it results in USD 202. It’s important to note that coffee represents around 30% of household income.


The economics of coffee are driven by two main variables: productivity and price. With an average coffee tree age of 35 years, Rwanda has one of the lowest productivity rates in the world at 1.5 kg of cherry per tree. It is broadly acknowledged that a productivity of 6 kg per tree is attainable under the right conditions, and stalwart growers can even reach 8 kg. The opportunity and solution seem obvious: renovate plantations with newer and more productive cultivars. And there are tangible efforts on this front across the country. But this leads to the next challenge, the average Rwandan farmer is 55. For modern growing techniques to take hold, a new generation of coffee growers must emerge.

The path for youth involvement in coffee production naturally runs through the family and primarily through women. Very few producing countries in the world are as synonymous with “Women Grown” coffee as Rwanda. It only takes a few days in the coffee-growing regions to recognize the power and transcendence of women in coffee. With clear community leadership, examples abound of their contributions, particularly on social causes. At one village near Muhanga, we were shown a new coffee plot acquired by a coffee cooperative to be tended to for the exclusive benefit of single mothers. At another washing station, a special plot had been set up for women with HIV to support them not only economically but socially as well.



With almost ideal growing conditions, Rwanda has also made tremendous progress in coffee quality. While 25 years ago, less than 20% of coffee was centrally processed, today, 90% of production is fully washed in central processing stations. This not only vastly improves quality and consistency, but it also reduces untreated wastewater discharge into streams and waterways. This makes investing in productivity Rwanda’s top priority, and the research center in Karenge is a true testament to these efforts. At this fascinating place, I witnessed advanced experimentation on organic fertilizer solutions, mulching techniques, optimization of shade trees, pruning methods, and diversified agroforestry, all designed to match the smallholder nature of the country’s production system.

At one coffee-tasting session during my trip, an experienced coffee buyer noted how Rwanda’s quality had markedly improved over the years. It reminded him of the great Kenya coffees of the 70s and 80s. At Rwanda’s current pace of improvement, it would not be surprising if, in a coffee tasting this decade, high praise would be given to a coffee, comparing it to the emerging Rwanda of the 21st century.



As I board the plane for the journey back home, I reflect on one of the most fascinating weeks of my coffee career. From above, the verdant hills follow the horizon without end, and I say goodbye to the Land of a Thousand Dreams.

If you want to explore some of our incredible Rwandan offerings or pre-book some beans from this country, contact your Relationship Coffee Manager!    

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Topics: Coffee, Coffee Farming, East Africa, Rwanda, Specialty Coffee, Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers, Origin Update