The Land of A Thousand Hills

They call this place the land of a thousand hills. Depending on who is counting, that might be an understatement. And in a country this small, it’s a striking geographic signature. In the north of Rwanda, high atop a meandering series of ridges, our partners the Dukunde Kawa Cooperative link over 2,000 small farms and families. Five years into their existence, Dukunde Kawa is actually one of the oldest cooperatives in the country, an early part of a national movement of economic recovery and reconciliation after the horrors of the 1994 genocide. They’ve climbed a long way, but as with any path in Rwanda, there are always more hills to climb.

The Cooperative, like others in Rwanda, is struggling to cross the threshold from a small incubating business, to a growing and self-sustaining enterprise. And this within the context of global financial crisis and an early history of overambitious sales expectations.   In their early years, The Cooperative produced only one container (37,500 lbs) of coffee annually. A handful of neighboring cooperatives produced about the same. And thanks to strong support from the Rwandan government and USAID-funded PEARL Project (now SPREAD), the quality was fantastic from the beginning. Buyers flocked, and prices soared. But now, as the small group of forward-moving coffee companies who were the first buyers either move on (or like us, stay committed as ever to a good volume at high prices—but not keeping up with growth in production) there is a shortage of new buyers for the additional volume. The result is a downward drive in prices, and a high-stakes season as cooperatives try to regroup and restructure to make a profit at larger volumes but at a more moderate average price.

I came here first and foremost to select the best of this year’s harvest. But also to advise the cooperative on this challenging situation, and help, as I can, to connect them with the additional buyers they now need.

 

I’m happy to report that I’ve got a container of the best of this year’s coffee shipping from Mombassa next month, which should arrive in our warehouse by May. The lots I selected came from growing regions at the highest elevations, which the cooperative recently separated out from the bulk of their production. This year’s coffee is grown at a minimum elevation of 2,200 meters. Some of it is grown as high as 2,600 meters. If that’s just numbers to you, let me tell you this: these are some of the highest-grown coffees in the world. In fact, if it were not for the consistent equatorial sun and heat (Dukunde Kawa is about .1 degrees south), coffee couldn’t grow here at all. Like wine and apples, altitude stresses the plants, and produces sweeter, more intense flavors. Fruit matures more slowly, and later. Beans are harder. The complexity of the acidity is greater. I’m looking forward to sharing this year’s coffee!

 

I spent few days with the Coop’s GM Abraham Twilingiyamana and his board of directors, discussing their challenges, especially the need for a restructuring of their marketing and operations plan, and a long-term growth strategy. We still need to find a few more buyers for their coffee, but I’m confident that with the exceptional quality of all of their production, we can find the right partners to join in this effort.

 

We then turned to the other long-term challenges: facing the challenges of climate change head on, understanding its impacts, and preparing to adapt to them. We spent a day surveying the landscape, mapping ecologically strong and diverse areas, deforested and eroding land, and the underlying watersheds that connect the two with the towns below. As you can see from these pictures, the land is steep and intensely farmed, making it vulnerable to flooding and erosion during heavy rains. It’s also impossible to irrigate, so unless the water table is stable, roots are going to have a hard time finding any moisture. Already, farmers say, they are losing topsoils and seeing yields of food crops decline.

 

The good news is that the solution is simple: trees. Well, not that simple. Detailed surveys need to conducted, strategies mapped out, and pilot projects launched, but the cooperative is clear about their strategy: reforest the ridge tops, establish water breaks on the slopes, and use their coffee farms to rebuild diverse agro-ecosystems composed of coffee, and a variety of shade and food producing trees and crops. I’m looking forward to developing this project with them, and to sharing more as our work unfolds.

 

Underscoring the point, a heavy downpour greeted me after a dusty 4 hour bus-ride back to Kigali. It’s supposed to be the dry season. But weather is changing and everyone knows it. As we face the may challenges of producing coffee, sustaining farmers and the earth, I think of the resilience of these amazing people and ask myself what’s to doubt, given everything they’ve built out of the ashes of their past?

~BCM

 

Hello from Africa

Greetings from Kigali, Rwanda, home to this year’s East African Fine Coffee Association’s annual meeting and conference. EAFCA is a trade association of 8 producing countries, but their annual gathering is much more than a chance to vote on some motions and coordinate marketing. It’s a gathering of industry players ranging from big to small, banks, development organizations, and government agencies. Everyone converges to make deals, make plans, and hopefully, develop mutually beneficial partnerships.

I’m here along with our friends from TransfairUSA, and a host of private and public sector partners to spend some time with our three East African coffee suppliers: the Dukunde Kawa Cooperative, from Rwanda, Peace Kawomera, from Uganda, and the Sidama Farmers Cooperative Union, from Ethiopia.

And after a long day of presentations, meetings, and negotiations, I’m happy to report that while we are small fish in a big sea, we’re strong, and our partnerships are dynamic, deeply rooted, and capable of adapting to new challenges and going after new opportunities. I can’t help but feel a familiar sense of happy marginalization—while big multinational traders talk about volume, efficiencies, and risk management, we talk about quality improvements, social benefits, and environmental sustainability. The analogy might be a little clumsy, but its kind of like going shopping at the farmers market where you meet the farmer, and maybe get a little dirt along with the sweetest carrot of the season, versus going to Wal-Mart and getting these strange pre-cut and wittled-down carrot sticks from a few continents away. Actually, that’s a pretty good analogy.

I’m happy to report that the fair trade cooperatives are stronger than ever. They’re seeing increased interest in their coffee, and with production volumes down this year, have seen good prices and have pretty much cleared their books of coffee from the 2008/2009 season. They still face a lot of challenges, especially around their needs for affordable finance which is a perennial challenge made more difficult by the global economic crisis and banking freeze-up.

I’m also happy to share that we’re making good progress on building an alliance of private and public-sector partners around a new pilot project that’s going to map out strategies available to cooperatives as they look to reduce the impact of climate change and enhance the adaptability of their farm systems. We’re looking to start that project here in Rwanda this year, and scale it out to Uganda in the next three years. After that, if all goes well, we’ll have a working model we can take to Ethiopia, and to our Central American partners.

I’ll be here for the next two days attending the conference, then traveling to Musasa in the north of Rwanda to spend a few days with the farmers at Dukunde Kawa. After that it’s on to Uganda for a week, so stay tuned for more news and reflections on the current state and future of our work here with family farmers in East Africa.

-BCM

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