In my former life as a roaster, and before that a barista, the lack of information about the coffee I worked with was an all-too-common but accepted frustration. Anything outside of a few pictures of a far-away land, a few sentences and a mostly meaningless figure about the altitude at which the coffee was grown, was rare. It seems like this is mostly still the case: great coffee, bad information, and I would guess that most baristas serving coffee right now know almost nothing about it beyond its origin and process. That’s ok; it’s not primarily a barista’s job to know this stuff, I know I usually didn’t. But when good information is available it creates an opportunity to provide something to customers that takes them beyond the cup.
Huge gulfs still exist between the people who grow coffee and the people who consume it daily.
Having access to good information is the first step to understanding them, and better understanding about the supply chains that attempt to bridge them, I think, enriches and encourages participation. Hopefully, better informed, increased participation in coffee supply chains, encourages their sustainability and whether we know it or not, participating in coffee, as consumers, baristas and roasters, strengthens collaboration within our coffee community.
Behind every coffee there is a human story. At Falcon we believe it is our duty to find it.
At the end of May 2022, while the harvest season moved into its final stage, we travelled into the southern and western provinces of Rwanda, accompanied by our friends and colleagues at RTC (Rwanda Trading Company), to visit and learn more about some of the microlot producing washing stations that have become household names amongst the European specialty community: Gitwe, Gitega, Horizon, to name a few. These already very popular coffees will be hitting our shores once more later this year. We are buying more volume this season, plus some experimental lots that the stations have produced for us for the first time.
Reliable and traceable information about lots produced by washing stations – and the farmers responsible for them – is notoriously difficult to obtain from the East African producing countries, especially down to farmer level. This is, in part, because often hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of smallholder farmers will contribute cherry to washing stations to process it for them. Individual farms are extremely remote, often inaccessible, many not even coffee farms per se where a farming family may have just 10 producing coffee trees on their land. And of course, there are non-physical factors that act as obstacles to us gaining information; obstacles whose methods of overcoming are much less obvious – social, political, linguistic and of course, establishing and earning trust.
Additionally on this trip, we sought to better understand the impact of RTC’s Agribusiness Training Program. This is one of our partner projects that seems to hold special resonance amongst our roasting community for the story it tells about its direct impact in the field through accessible, transparent and abundant detail. It is one of the most comprehensive training programs we have ever seen, the scale and impact of which is truly astonishing.
To date the program supports 52,000 smallholder farmers in Rwanda. That’s 52,000 families impacted by the purchase and sale of these coffees. 90% of all the farmers contributing cherry across the 10 locations we visited – Bwenda, Gitega Hills, Horizon, Kirambo, Karambi, Mutovu, Gatare, Gitega, Gitwe and Gishyita – were either graduates of, or current participants in RTC’s training program, which recruits farmers for an initial 2 year period. All of these stations are focussed on producing specialty coffee and all have seen increases in yield quality, and therefore increases in household income for their cohort of farmers. RTC estimates that 80% of first parchment produced by these stations cup above 84 points, with a growing amount going well above 86+.
This time around we have tried to ensure that the quality of the information and accompanying content for these coffees does their quality – and their producers – justice. We are moving beyond the idea of the ‘information sheet’ to something more meaningful, something that adds humanity to the coffees.
These are Falcon Specialty Lot Stories, for Rwanda 2022…
187km south-west of Kigali city, through the foothills and rice fields and into the Land of a Thousand Hills is the Bwenda washing station. Just north-west of Butare in the Kbumbwe sector, Bwenda occupies a small area of between 2-3 ha. Established by RTC in 2019, Bwenda is named after the cell of land it’s on. It’s manager, Eric, resides in nearby Huwe and has been the manager since RTC took ownership. He welcomed us to the station, seeming happy after the long pandemic period of 2020/21 to be having some face-to-face interaction with us. When I asked him what it was that made him happy about the work he does at the station, he replied that thanks to the training the farmers have received in financial management (which is just one aspect of RTC’s training) he is content in knowing that they have been provided the opportunity to make savings, thus ensuring some longer term stability and financial independence. While we chatted, a truck was being loaded for delivery to the warehouse. The truck’s windscreen was adorned with a huge slogan: NEVER GIVE UP. Elsewhere, the last of the season’s natural lots were being delivered and sorted on raised beds by the women.
The station employs 3 people full-time, including Eric, with the addition of providing seasonal work for around 60 casual workers during the harvest season. Women account for around 85% of the labour force at Bwenda, and when I asked if this was because the work required less physical labour than other roles on the station Eric replied “No, they are just better at it than the men”. This, I discovered, was common to all of the stations we would visit over the course of our trip.
At the time of our visit, 1600 smallholder farmers local to Bwenda were contributing cherry to the station. Farm sizes ranged from just 100 trees to 7000 trees (around 3 hectares), and the farms lay between 0.5km to 4km away. The vast majority of farmers are between the ages of 30-55/60 with around 25% being either elderly or under 25. To enable farmers to contribute cherry in spite of access to the station from farms or issues of mobility, the site provides collection points and site collectors who gather cherry from across 20 locations. Collectors will inspect and weigh deliveries of cherry and pay the farmers straight away. Additionally, the station provides farmers with organic EM2 compost which consists of recycled cherry pulp with some animal manure. This was a common occurrence between all the stations we visited. All 1600 farmers using Bwenda have completed or are current participants in the Agribusiness Training Program.
Just 12km from neighbouring Bwenda in the Cyanika sector and slightly higher up, adjacent to a disused quartz quarry, sits Gitega Hills. Slightly larger than Bwenda, Gitega covers an area of around 6 hectares and is nearby the small town of Miko. Gitega is the name of the surrounding land cell. A cell being a smaller area within a larger sector, within a larger region or province. Established by RTC in 2016, the station has been managed since then by Alex. He told me that everyone who works at Gitega is from the local community and he feels that the station plays a valuable and positive role in the area for the work it provides. He was also excited to tell me that the good rainfall the area had experienced during the harvest pointed to great quality for the 2022 season’s yields. Gitega employs 150 people including 11 permanently, with the rest being seasonal workers. 90% are women. 1040 farmers contribute cherry to Gitega’s annual production and in 2016 they processed 400 tons of cherry. At the time of our visit they had aready hit 500 tons with the expectation to hit 700 before they stopped processing for the season. The farms all lie between 0.5km and 7km away and are serviced by 33 different cherry collection points. On average the contributing farms grow just 400 trees (1 hectare). Additionally, the station provides farmers with organic EM2 compost which consists of recycled cherry pulp from the station with some animal manure. All 1040 farmers using Gitega have completed or are current participants in the ATP.
Horizon (Supreme Coffee)
Not far from sister stations Bwenda and Gitega Hills is the Horizon station, found in the neighbouring Kigoma sector. The site is just 20km from Huye Mountain and nearby to the small town of Simbi. The story behind Horizon’s name is a curious and slightly unsettling one. Sometime after the station was built in 2006, production was halted when the original owner was arrested and jailed due to his involvement in the genocide of 1994. The station lay dormant until RTC re-established production in partnership with its new owner, Fdel. Since Fdel is not originally from the area, his taking ownership of the station was met with some hostility by the local community. Now, passing through Kigali city you will notice the slogan ‘Horizon’ everywhere, on trucks and buildings. The Horizon group, whose business is infrastructure construction and repair are in fact owned by Rwanda’s defence ministry. In a move to tease the locals, Fdel named the Station ‘Horizon – Supreme Coffee’ to make the point that he was in conflict with them.
Fortunately the joke was taken as playful rather than mean-spirited and the station has become a positive addition to the community in the work it provides for the local people. 94 people are employed by the station with 4 full-time. 70% of staff are women.
Horizon must be one of the most beautiful sites in the Southern Province. The small 3 hectare area sits long in the valley with steep slopes surrounding it. Pineapples grow on the verges and avocado trees line the walk down to the site. It sits at 1680 metres but the farms surrounding the station are much higher up, closer to 2000 metres. 1200 farmers contribute cherry to the station from farms that are all within 2km from the site. The average farm size is 7000 trees (3ha), and some have only 100 trees, amongst other crops. In 2019, the first year production restarted, the station processed 450 tons of cherry. As we approach the end of the season, total production for 2022 is estimated at 1000 tons. All 1200 farmers are members of the ATP. Farmers receive organic fertiliser from the station consisting of recycled cherry pulp, which is fermented with lime and molasses to create EM2.
Approaching from the south, passing through Butare and Gikongoro, the journey to Kirambo takes you high up the mountain pass over 2000 metres through the Nyungwe National Forest Park. Here the native L’Hoest’s monkeys dive from the roadside into the jungle below and occasionally baboons sit stubbornly in the road. Rwanda’s National Guard patrol stretches of the forest road, deterring people attempting to enter the country from bordering Congo and Burundi through the jungle.
The small town of Kirambo sits on Lake Kivu’s eastern shore in the Kibuye region, within Rwanda’s Western Province. The washing station covers a 6 hectare area and sits on the lake side, looking west to Congo. Established in 1999, RTC took ownership in 2017 employing 7 full-time and 40 casual staff during the harvest. 95% of staff at Kirambo are women, including Esperance, the accountant, and Florence, the main field officer for the station who works to support the farmers of Kirambo with their participation in RTC’s training program. Florence, 23, has lived and worked in this area all her life and takes great pride in playing a role in the area that supports the local economy. During the training program’s initial enrolment of station employees, Florence stood out to our colleague Brooke Cantrell – Westrock’s sustainability manager – as someone with huge potential, curiosity and inner passion, but who back in 2017 was lacking confidence. I was happy to report back to Brooke when we met in Kigali a few days after our visit to Kirambo, that Florence had taken great ownership of the station, proudly showing us around the grounds as the processing activity was drawing to a close.
500 farmers contribute cherry to the station that produces exclusively natural processed lots, with an annual average production of 300 tons. Average farm sizes are 300 trees only (less than 1 hectare) with some farmers owning as a few as 50 trees amongst their other crops. All the farms lay within 3km of the station. Many farmers are able to delivery cherry themselves as the station is so close to the farms, and some who have less mobility – often older farmers – will have their cherry collected from the station’s site collectors.
Karambi Mountain Coffee
Just a few miles inland from Kirambo at the edge of Lake Kivu, is the Karambi washing station, named after the nearby village and surrounding sector. Tucked onto steep and largely inaccessible slopes, the site is just over an area of 2.5 hectares. Station manager Anton and accountant Claude greeted us on a hot and humid day. The air was thick with moisture after the rains of the night before. Geckos skittered across rocks on the walk to the site, and the helicopter thrum of a locust taking off nearby filled the air.
Karambi was established in 2016 and RTC took ownership the following year. 4 staff are employed full time with the addition of 60 further staff during the harvest, of whom 90% are women. 1500 farmers contribute cherry to the station and all have successfully participated in RTC’s training program. Since 2017, annual production has doubled from 220 tons of cherry processed to an expected 400+ this year. At the time of our visit at the end of May, the station was on 292 tons processed. The farms surrounding Karambi are all within 3 kilometres of the station, located on steep slopes. On average farms are 4 hectare in size, with approximately 8000 trees per farm.
The reason that production volume at Karambi was relatively low this year, when compared to other stations of a similar size, is because the station shares local farmers with neighbouring station Gesharu. In many of Rwanda’s coffee growing regions, the government has sought to ensure local farmers have access to supply chains through expanding the number of washing station facilities in a given area through the Coffee Value Chain Development Project, an initiative co-funded by the European Union. Consensus opinion seems to be that while this creates more access and opportunities for farmers to sell cherry, it can be counter productive for washing stations and exporters who must compete for volumes of cherry.
Just 5km from Karambi Mountain station within the same sector is neighbouring site Mutovu, named after the river that flows at the foot of the site, the river also provides the washing station with its water source along with the rainwaters that come down from the mountain. Like many of the washing stations, rainwater is stored in tanks and channelled throughout the site. After use the water is treated through filtration with lime added to raise the PH content before being held in small lagoons for anaerobic breakdown and eventual evaporation.
The small station is just 2 hectares in size and not far from the neighbouring towns of Gatare and Gikangaga. The station was built in 2012 and RTC took ownership in 2018, employing 5 full time staff with an additional 70 during the season. 90% are women. 995 farmers contribute cherry to Motovu’s annual production. All have successfully passed though or are active participants in RTC’s training program. Annual production is 300 tons of cherry processed, up from 240 tons since 2018. Farms in the area range from 0.5km to 5km away and are serviced by 12 collection points. Farms have on average 3500 coffee trees.
We were met by station manager Samuel who has been the manager since RTC took over. When I asked him what he loved the most about the station, he waved a hand toward the river, laughed and said “look around you”.
Despite the area surrounding the Gatare station being another area in which competing washing stations share the local farmer populations, Gatare was there first – established in 2003 – so earned the monopoly on the title. Just 3km from sister site Mutovu River, the sound of the rush of water is mixed with birdsong and the noises from the nearby Gatare village that echo across the deep valley. Station manager Fred has been the manager of the site since RTC took ownership in 2016. Although just a small 2 hectare site, the station services 1096 local farmers who contributed 1000 tons of cherry in 2017. Due to numbers of stations in the small surrounding area, however, the annual production has been decreasing; 600 tons were processed in 2019 and at the time of our visit in late May, annual production for 2022 was estimated to stop at 400 tons.
The station employs 7 full time staff with an additional 90 during the season. 80% are women. Farm sizes in the are very small with an average size of just 1 hectare. Some may only have 10 coffee trees amongst other crops. Nonetheless, all farmers currently contributing to Gatare’s lots are trained by RTC on how to get the best yield quality from their trees.
Fred told me that he loves working in coffee because of how it increases his knowledge, and for him, more knowledge is the key for more opportunities.
Perhaps the station with the most revered coffees of all our Rwandan speciality lots, Gitwe is in fact the smallest washing station of all RTC’s stations in the Western Province. Covering an area of less than 1 hectare, Gitwe is blessed with being situated at the top of a mountain valley at almost 2000 metres. Just 3km from Gatare and near to the town of Kamina in the Karambi sector, Gitwe is the name of the land on which the station is built. Healthy coffee trees and tropical fruit line the trail down to the station from the road above.
Built recently in 2016 and bought by RTC in 2018 who employed 6 staff full time with the addition of 50 during the season. 90% are women. Despite being a tiny station, 1020 farmers contribute to Gitwe’s annual production of 500 tons of cherry, which is all high scoring specialty quality, all of whom have received training through RTC’s training program. Farm sizes range from just 150 coffee trees to 6000 (2.5 hectares). Though most farms are 2-3km from the station, many of the farmers are elderly with limited mobility and so the area is serviced by RTC through 15 cherry collection points.
Station manager, Augustin, told me that he is from Kigali but after a period of ill health left the city in favour of the mountain air and rural environment. He left the city to manage and live near the washing station in 2018 and has not been sick since.
Excitingly, for those like us, for whom the arrival of fresh crop from Gitwe each year is like an early Christmas present, this year promises to be extra special. For the 2022 season Gitwe is experimenting with producing honey processed lots for the first time.
And the winner of ‘station with the best view’ goes to: Gishyita. This tiny washing station, located in the Kigarama cell within the Karongi district, lies on the slope of a mountain looking west across Lake Kivu toward the hills of Congo in the distance. Near to the small town of Ngoma, the station was built in 2010 and acted a cooperative and was fully established as a washing station by RTC in 2018. The station employs 6 staff full time with the addition of 80 seasonal workers during the season, 90% of which are women.
Gishyita also has one of the most impressive success stories in regards to yield quality increases over time. 995 local farmers rely on Gishyita for cherry processing. In the first year RTC took ownership of the station, these famers contributed a total of 187 tons of cherry. In the past 4 years, all 995 famers have been trained in yield quality optimisation of their coffee through RTC’s training program. At the time of our visit in late May, annual production was 842 tons, an increase of 350%. Average farm size is 3 hectares with all farms within a 5km distance. Farmers are serviced by 6 collection points and are provided with organic compost which is produced on the station from recycled cherry pulp, with lime and molasses added to make EM2.
Gishyita is also one of the cleanest and well-maintained sites. Unlike other stations whose washing channels are just painted concrete, Gishyita’s washing channels benefit from being covered in porcelain tiles and appear very clean and well maintained.
It’s hard to decide on the most beautiful thing about Gishyita. Despite the view, the cool breeze coming from the lake or the evident quality of the cherry drying on the beds, it is the station manager, Providence, who made the biggest impact on us. A coffee farmer himself, owning an area with around 45,000 trees, much larger than the surrounding farms, Providence seemed to take great pride in providing support and an opportunity for collaboration for the local community of coffee farmers. He seemed almost europhic, expanding with pride when he spoke of the impact the training had provided for the farmers of Gishyita.
Towards the end of our time on the washing stations, after the technical information was accounted for, I would attempt to take away one interesting anecdote; some piece of information I could only have learned from being there that would give each place a storytelling ‘hook’ that went beyond the coffee. Something that would stick in the memory; something that a roaster or a barista or a casual coffee drinker could remember, that might aid a deeper appreciation of the coffee and help them understand what it is, where and who it came from, and how. Something that, if possible, could capture the value of the whole story in one image. I was conscious of not ‘interviewing’ the people I spoke to, not wanting to make them feel scrutinised, and trying to be as unintrusive with my questions as possible. I wanted to ask each person I spoke to what it was they found the most interesting about the work they did or loved the most, while trying not to come across as totally ignorant, appreciating that for many, the work they do is not something that is chosen. Sometimes the questions landed, sometimes they really didn’t and became lost in translation. When I asked Providence what made him most happy about his work at Gishyita, he shook with energy when he spoke of RTC and the opportunities that participating in good coffee supply chains had provided for him, his family and the surrounding families of the Gishyita farming community. His eyes shining with tears, he simply said repeatedly, “I am Providence because of them”.