Rwanda Coffee Production and Sourcing Guide
Does Rwanda Grow Coffee?
Rwanda is located in The Great Rift Valley of Eastern Africa. It is surrounded by many quality coffee growing countries such as Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This entire region is known for some of the best premium coffees in the world, and this especially applies to Rwanda. Though forced into coffee production almost one hundred years ago by the Belgian Colonial Empire, the country has persevered, regaining independence and control over its agricultural exports. Truly Rwanda has earned its place as a source of high standard coffee.
Rwanda’s Coffee Growing History
German missionaries are thought to have been the first to bring coffee to Rwanda in the early 1900s, however, this production was intensified by Colonising Belgians a few decades later, when cash crops like coffee were mandated by the government.
The westerners inevitably proved to be lacking in management, prioritising quantity over quality, providing little infrastructure for farmers, and cultivating a reputation for low grade, filler beans.
By the time of Rwanda’s Independence in 1962, the Belgians had left their mark: decades of poor stewardship that favoured mass production had stranded Rwandans with little information on how to grow a higher-earning crop. No, they were on their own, and things were about to get much worse.
A Brutal Decade for Rwanda
Through the 1990s the country experienced massive disruption to the overall economy, to which coffee was not exempt. Prices plummeted across the board, but this was only the beginning of the devastation. In 1994, tensions between two ethnic groups in Rwanda reached a boiling point, and more than 800,000 Rwandans were killed, primarily those of the Tutsi minority, in the span of 100 days. Not only was the human toll unfathomable, but many farms, washing stations, and processing locations were destroyed in the process. After that, it took ten years for the coffee industry in the country to rebound.
Coffee’s Rebound in Rwanda
Though Rwanda is still reeling from the impact that the 1994 genocide had on its development, its coffee, at least, has become the stuff of speciality brews. This is due to the tenacity of local farmers, government organisations, and co-operatives that are making the coffee industry much more robust than it once was. Shifting to best practices for coffee growing and the establishment of essential processing stations has made all the difference for the quality and economy of Rwandan coffee.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s USAID assisted Rwanda’s coffee producers by setting up cupping labs, wherein locals were trained to properly examine their own coffee. Such practices, where adopted, dramatically increased the quality of coffee grown by the locals; they were now able to start cultivating a distinct coffee profile for Rwanda. This sped up the timeframe for quality coffee production by decades in the region.
Where is Rwandan coffee grown?
Rwanda is a small, land-locked country in Eastern Africa. In fact, it is the smallest country in the region, however, it still ranks well among its larger counterparts in its production of premium coffee. Due to the country’s size, climate differences between regions are marginal and mostly affected by elevation.
These are the regions within Rwanda that are responsible for the success of this country’s coffee:
The Virunga coffee-growing region sits at the Northwest portion of the country. Named after the Virunga mountain that sits near the country’s border with Congo and Uganda, the elevation of this region can reach upwards of 2,100 metres. Virunga’s climate offers relatively cool conditions, having plenty of both sun and rain. Both the climate and the soil, which is lush and volcanic, allow for coffee to ripen slowly, imbuing beans with sweet honey notes and currant overtones with moderate acidity.
The Muhazi coffee-growing region sits slightly East of the country’s centre, and is named after the nearby small Muhazi Lake. It’s this lake that provides an abundant water source for many farmers of the region. The altitude for Muhazi lies 1,250 to 1,500 metres above sea level, with temperatures remaining fairly stable, and experiencing average amounts of rain compared to the rest of the country. Volcanic soils also mark this region and are known for producing exceptional coffee with warm tea/spice and cocoa notes.
The Kivu coffee-growing region sits on the Southwest corner of Rwanda. Its namesake is Lake Kivu which sits alongside the region’s coffee farms. The average elevation here settles between 1,200 and 1,550 metres above sea level, with the highest farms located at 1,600 m.a.s.l. As with many of the mountainous areas of the greater Rift Valley, the mountain sides where coffee is grown consists of volcanic soil, creating a delicate yet complex pallet of sweet orange, cherry, lime, and some cocoa notes.
The Kizi Rift farmers are also located in the Southwest corner of the country but sit slightly further South and to the East of Kivu. These farms have some of the highest average elevations of those mentioned, sitting between 1,550 and 2,150 m.a.s.l. The Kizi Rift emanates from the Nyungwe forest, with the Virunga volcanic mountains located on the other side. Rainfall is abundant during the rainy seasons and the variations in temperature are some of the greatest (due to the higher average elevation). Coffee originating here tends to be smooth, with berry notes adding a bit of pop to the mellow pecan hinted body.
In the Northeast portion of Rwanda lies the Akagera coffee-growing region. Most farms here reach an elevation similar to those in other areas, registering at 1,200 to 1,550 m.a.s.l. Temperatures are likewise fairly stable throughout the year, with volcanic soil contributing to the coffee’s balanced notes of spicy and berry, often favoured as a light roast.
What types of coffee are grown in Rwanda?
As with many other East African countries, Arabica coffee trees hold the majority in Rwanda, due in part to the fact that farmers are only able to make a living wage by successfully growing premium coffee, consequently ruling out the lower quality Robusta coffee trees from gaining traction for smallholders.
Rwanda and Bourbon
Bourbon coffee flourishes at high altitudes and creates some of the most desirable coffee worldwide, easily making it popular among Rwandan farmers. Mayaguez 71 is grown in lower elevation mountain regions, and Mayaguez 139 can be found producing high yields at higher elevations.
Harrar Rwanda was once a staple in Rwanda due to its high yield and excellent cup quality. In recent decades, however, hardier varietals have taken their place since it is susceptible to common diseases and has a short product lifespan.
Other Varietals in Rwanda
The likes of Pop 3033/21, RAB C15, and Mibirizi can also be found growing in Rwanda, with the latter being drought resistant and the former two being both drought resistant and also coffee rust-resistant.
When is coffee in Rwanda harvested?
Rwandan coffee is typically harvested starting as soon as March and goes through to July. If coffee is dry processed, then it typically is left to dry for 10 to 50 days, but the vast majority of coffee goes through the wet process in order to fully compliment the bright notes of berry and fruit which Rwandan coffee is known for.
The processing stations of Rwanda do an exceptional job at supporting local growers. They have been the proud product of international aid and hard work by the government to promote a better overall export.
How much coffee does Rwanda produce?
Rwanda’s annual coffee quantity produced typically varies between 20,000 to 22,000 metric tonnes, primarily furnished by smallholder farms of which there are more than 400,000 in the country2. Coffee production accounts for 24% of Rwanda's annual exports, although not widely consumed among the country’s populous.
What is the current price of coffee in Rwanda?
Rwanda’s Agriculture Ministry has reported that annual coffee income from 1994 to 2020 has increased from $38 million (USD) to more than $62.4 million (USD). In the most recent years, production has been up to but the price slightly down, with one kilo of exported coffee going for $3.44 in 2017, but $3.26 in 20183. The pandemic likely lowered prices slightly in 2020 but initial reports say that the price in 2021 had risen by 15%.