This is a great complex coffee with a full bodied sweetness and a ginger tang.
Kinunu washing station lies on the shores of Lake Kivu, a large ‘inland sea’ along Rwanda’s western border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is a magical place, with Bourbon coffee trees growing down steep, fertile hills right to the shore of the lake (whose surface elevation is 1460m).
Kinunu is one of two washing stations owned by SOCOR ltd. This privately owned business was founded by the local Kubwimana family, who have recently partnered with KZ Noir, a Kigali-based specialty coffee investment company managed by Gilbert Gatali. This well-run and quality focused organisation is helping to manage and improve the quality of coffee processed at the family’s washing stations.
Kinunu buys cherries from 1,796 farmers who live and grow coffee near the washing station and also has partnerships with several local cooperatives and farmers’ associations. Almost all of these farms are very small – typically less than a quarter a hectare each, which farmers use to produce both coffee (300 – 800 trees per farm is normal) and subsistence food crops to feed their families. This year (2013) a total of 309,069kg of cherry was delivered to Kinunu. The ripe cherries are picked by hand and then delivered to the washing station in a multitude of ways – in baskets on farmers’ heads, on bicycles, in trucks (which pick up cherries from various collection stations in the area) and even by boat.
At Kinunu the cherries are carefully hand sorted to make sure only red cherries are accepted. They are then pulped the same day – almost always in the evening – using a mechanical pulper that divides the beans into three grades. After pulping the coffee is fermented overnight (for around 12 hours) and then graded again using flotation channels that sort the coffee by weight (heaviest usually being the best). The beans are then soaked for a further 24 hours, before being moved to raised screens for ‘wet-sorting’ by hand – this is a task almost always carried out by women.
The sorted beans are finally dried in the sun on raised screens (‘African beds’) overlooking the lake, and sorted again several times prior to milling.
Unlike almost all other washing stations in Rwanda, SOCOR has its own dry mill on site at Kinunu and so does not have to rely on a central mill in Kigali (the capital – where mills are traditionally located). This means that SOCOR can oversee the whole supply chain – and so can ensure that it has full control of the quality process from farm to export. As part of this process, SOCOR’s quality control team – some of whom have participated as jurors in several Cup of Excellence competitions – cups lots daily to ensure quality and consistency.
SOCOR employs over 1400 staff at peak season. The organisation has also hired a fulltime agronomist, who is training local farmers on best practices in coffee farming, with the aim of increasing both yield and quality.
Employees at all levels receive training in not only their immediate role (be that, for example, sorting coffee, managing the wet mill, quality control cupping or accounts) but also in the entire coffee chain. The idea is to motivate and inspire employees by encouraging them to feel part of a bigger chain that stretches from their washing station to coffee consumers worldwide.
SOCOR has recently helped to build a secondary school in the area where their farmers are located and, with other partners, has also built a playground at the same school. It also offers advances on school fees to employees and farmers that deliver to the washing station.
Lying almost in the centre of the continent, Rwanda is a fertile, mountainous and compact nation – roughly half the size of Scotland and smaller than most US states. Officially Africa’s most densely populated country, it has been inhabited since the Iron Age (if not earlier) and its seemingly endless terraced hills are scattered with dwellings. The 11 million strong population is still largely rural – around 90% of Rwandans are engaged in agriculture of some kind, though much of this is subsistence farming.
While travelling around this vibrant, welcoming country it is almost impossible to believe the scale of the violence in 1994, when more than an eighth of the population was massacred in only 100 days. From this unimaginable destruction, Rwanda has regenerated in an extraordinary way. It is now considered one of the most stable countries in the region, and its economy has grown by an annual average of 7-8% since 2003. Coffee, along with tea exports and tourism, has been a key driver of this growth.
In global coffee terms, Rwanda is a small but by no means insignificant producer – with some tremendous potential. In 2010 it produced a total of 433,00 bags – to put that into perspective, that’s over three times more than Bolivia produced in the same year (140,000 bags), but only around half that of Kenya (850,000 bags) and some 17 times less than African coffee giant Ethiopia (7,450,000 bags!).
With no coastline of its own, Rwanda’s coffees must first be sent 1,500km overland to Mombasa (Kenya) or Dar-es-Salam (Tanzania) – a process that usually costs more than shipping the container from Africa to Europe or the US!
Unlike its East African neighbours, Rwanda has no large estates. The majority of its coffee is grown by some 400,000 small-scale farmers and their families, most of whom own less than quarter a hectare of land each. All of Rwanda’s coffee is Arabica, and 95% is one of several long-established Bourbon varieties.
Despite Rwanda’s huge potential for quality production, its specialty coffee industry is still young. The first private washing station was built in 2001, with the help of USAID-financed projects, PEARL (now SPREAD) and ADAR. These transformational programmes were aimed at switching the focus in the Rwandan coffee sector from an historic emphasis on quantity to one of quality – and so opening up Rwanda to the far higher-earning specialty coffee market.
Many new washing stations have sprung up since 2001, allowing co-ops and local private buying groups to process cherries themselves – and therefore sell them on to international buyers for far higher prices. Before the proliferation of these washing stations, the norm in Rwanda was for small farmers to sell semi-processed cherries on to a middleman – and the market was dominated by a single exporter (whose monopoly status made for even less flexibility on price). This commodity-focused system – coupled with declining world prices in the 1990s – brought severe hardship to farmers, some of whom abandoned coffee entirely.
Today, it’s a different picture. Farmers who work with the washing stations have seen their income at least double. Meanwhile, following a dry run in 2007 with the ‘Crop of Gold’, Rwanda held its first Cup of Excellence competition in 2008 and since then has introduced many more buyers to the exceptional Bourbon coffees that this country produces.