Success now brewing for Rwanda's coffee
In the aftermath of Rwanda's 1994 genocide, this tiny hill nation's coffee industry also lingered near death.
World prices for the country's unremarkable beans had bottomed out. Thousands of coffee farmers were dead. Century-old coffee plantations sat abandoned or were leveled to replant bananas.
"When we got here, the price was so bad people were pulling coffee out of their fields," recalled Tim Schilling, a Texas A&M University agronomist.
Today, Rwanda's coffee industry has reversed its tailspin so convincingly that its once-pedestrian beans are now considered some of the tastiest in the world.
"Medium strong with citrus high notes over deep chocolate undertones," raves Thanksgiving Coffee Co., a California-based specialty coffee roaster.
For most of its century of coffee producing, Rwanda hasn't made much of its advantages. Small-scale coffee producers have long chucked underripe and overripe beans into sacks along with the best ones, then let the mix ferment in the sun for hours before cranking it through a home washing machine. The result was bitter and poor selling.
That began to change in 2001 when Dan Clay, an international agriculture specialist at Michigan State University, set out to try to resurrect Rwanda's coffee industry.
With Schilling, an African agronomy specialist, experts at the National University of Rwanda and funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, he persuaded farmers to try producing top-quality coffee for the international specialty coffee market.
Today, the initiative, the Partnership for Enhancing Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages, has built more than a dozen washing and sorting stations and helped set up cooperatives around the country. Farmers have been trained to sort their fresh-picked coffee. The beans are washed and sorted again. The coffee is later tasted to ensure quality.