“Impact to the community is placed at the centre of everything to ensure long-term sustainability”
JJ, Rwanda is a beloved origin amongst our coffee community. RTC is one of our longest standing and closest sourcing partners and we share our story wherever possible. But for those who are less familiar with our relationship, can you give us a brief history of RTC from its beginnings up to present day?
RTC was founded in 2009 with the mission of improving economic freedom and financial security for Rwanda’s smallholder farming families. From the very beginning, we realised the needs of the sector, and decided it was important to be involved in the full supply chain. We identified many potential wet mills (washing stations) that had become neglected and fallen into disrepair, so we supported their owners into making their sites operational again. This meant initially providing three things.
Firstly, some prefinancing so they had the working capital to pay farmers on delivery of their cherries, but also the financial support to manage the other operating costs needed at their washing stations.
Second, we offered free management consultations to ensure site managers were equipped with the knowledge and skills to operate their mills in a way that would produce quality and therefore be profitable.
Lastly, we provided the access to market. We committed to buying 100% of the coffee the mills processed, assuming full responsibility of finding the suitable export market. We realised early on that many farmers did not have the technical know-how to properly maintain their own farms, and some were not happy with the low prices they were receiving. RTC was able to break the pre-existing oligopoly, allowing farmers to be paid enough, which mobilised the interests of farmers to invest in their farms again. This led to the introduction of our Agronomy Training Program in 2013, which has so far trained over 52,000 Rwandan coffee farmers on best agronomy training as well as basic financial literacy.
We’re getting excited about the fresh crop landing with us soon. Was last year’s harvest successful, and what are the activities at this time of year in terms of planning and preparation for 2024’s harvest?
The 2023 crop was very small, and that posed some challenges as many exporters struggled to secure enough volume. However, the small crop ensured everyone had the capacity to focus hard on quality and process the coffee very well. The result is that we’re experiencing outstanding quality across all our wet mills. We hope these will be perceived in your cups as the coffees reaches you.
As for now, we are already preparing for 2024 harvest, which is starting at the end of January, and some washing stations will start receiving cherries by the end of February. The crop is expected to pick up in volume significantly, and many wet mills are focused on maintenance work as well as drying beds expansion to allow for greater production volume.
How many washing stations contribute to RTC’s total supply chain?
Currently we are the second largest exporter in Rwanda, moving 20-30% of the country’s crop. We focus primarily on speciality grade coffee, and all our coffees are either fully washed or naturals.
Recently, we started trying some other special preps like honey and anaerobic but those are still limited in volume, and usually available on demand if requested at the beginning of the year. We own eighteen wet mills across the country, and collaborate with an additional twenty-four, providing us a total of forty-two wet mills in our supply chain.
We often talk about the amazing farmer training programme RTC has grown over the years. Tell us about its impact, how it began and its state in 2024?
The Agronomy Training Programme was first launched in 2013. We had recently acquired a washing station in eastern Rwanda and realised that the coffee delivered never cupped in the speciality range no matter how careful the processing. Additionally, the volumes harvested were very small and we wanted the farmers to improve both quality and yields from their trees. We started by registering farmers in entire regions, grouping them based on neighbouring farmer populations to form farmer groups.
We developed a curriculum for 2.5 years and hired an agronomist who would meet with each farmer group once a week to go through one aspect of agronomy training the first week and do practice in one of the farms the following. We were surprised to see that after the training, the stations quickly processed coffees that cupped 85 points and above, and some of the farmers who properly implemented what they had learned in the classroom were harvesting 3 times more than their pre training volumes. The trainings involved things like proper tree care, including stumping trees that had stopped being productive, as well as proper fertiliser applications. Lessons included mostly agronomy training, but we also incorporated aspects of basic financial literacy and living in hygienic conditions at their homes. This has now become a model among many exporters who are engaged in farmer training.
We decided to roll-out the program to other regions, and by 2024 have covered over 52,000 farmers, with at least 41,000 regularly providing coffee to our supply chain.
To continue having a large impact in our farming community, we have now embarked on a new journey to rejuvenate the supply chain by helping farmers access free young seedlings so that they can start replacing some of the old trees that are no longer as productive. Those who still have land can use these seedlings to expand their farm areas. This past Autumn, we distributed 1.6 million trees, and are planning to give out another 400K by the end of February. We are excited to see the direction this will give to the industry at large, and the potential for volume increase.
Where are most of RTC’S partner washing stations located? All over the country or just in specific provinces?
The washing stations are spread across the country, but the western province is our primary focus as the area has a comparatively greater volume of coffee plantations that other areas of the country.
Do farmers and producers ever get to taste their own coffee? How do you feedback to them things on quality?
Not commonly. Some farmers get to taste their coffee when we organise our farmer days. But on average, coffee farmers are not coffee drinkers, and their relations with coffee ends at the point of delivering cherries to the station. We want to continue to find ways to change this trend, at least to give coffee farmers greater insight into the quality of their own crops and how to extend their market access.
Sustainability is an extremely hot topic in the West, not least amongst conscientious coffee consumers. Is this creating additional stress and demands for you, both at the level of the export operation but also through to farm level, in terms of data collection, supply chain information etc?
Yes. Everyone wants data and traceability. It takes a lot of time to ensure that the data gathering from so many thousands of smallholder farmers is correct and accurate. In addition, you must then adapt to the various formats and platforms that clients use to share the information to their respective audiences. It’s a big challenge but we are equipped to respond to the growing demand and understand the importance of making these kinds of provisions to businesses and their customers.
The big one – are you concerned about the impact on the forthcoming EUDR regulations? Is the coffee community in Rwanda worried about it or prepared?
From our perspective, there is no great concern about Rwanda fulfilling EUDR compliancy. We are already making progress on gathering all the data and GPS coordinates. The government is also exploring ways to provide a national level compliancy scheme and take over the role of ensuring there is no deforestation so that every exporter will be compliant automatically.
Tell us about yourself, JJ? How did you become involved in coffee and with RTC?
I joined RTC as an operation manager nine years ago and stepped into the MD role in 2020. I had just returned from completing my bachelors in the US and was looking for a position that will give me a good business experience, when I learned about RTC and interviewed for the role. I have since grown with the business and have enjoyed operating a business where both profitability and impact to the community is placed at the centre of everything to ensure long term sustainability.
What does the year ahead look like for RTC?
As we begin the year, we feel very optimistic about the upcoming harvest. The crop is looking good in both volume and quality and the community is motivated. We are excited and hopeful for another great year.