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Coffee in Rwanda

August 31, 2011

Naturally, I was particularly intrigued with Margee & Bertrand’s section on coffee in Rwanda.

In 2007, Rwanda’s three largest exports were coffee, tea, and pyrethrum (a natural insecticide with which I have some experience from my pest control days on the west coast). These amounted to more than 60% of the country’s exports. Coffee has traditionally been a central pillar of Rwanda’s economy, but much of its infrastructure was disturbed by the genocide (more on this in another post).

From Margee & Bertrand:

The successful recovery of the coffee industry is a story that involved the US government represented by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the Rwandan government, and the private sector in the US, first with the Community Coffee Company of Baton Rouge, Louisiana and more recently, Starbucks. These have been very successful partnerships: coffee is now Rwanda’s major export crop, representing 75% of export income. Rwandan coffee is now considered by many experts to be among the highest quality in the world. In 2007 the mega-coffee retailer Starbucks sold out the “Rwandan Blue Bourbon” brand in 5,000 of its shops.

The eternal critic in me has questions about the perspective and the depth of the subsequent analysis. I’ll explore USAID’s role in re-stimulating coffee production after the genocide at some future date, but my connection to Bikes to Rwanda also wants to know more about smaller coffee outfits—in the United States and elsewhere—that have played a role in galvanizing the revival of the Rwandan coffee industry. As major chains go, Starbucks is a pretty decent model of quality and good global citizen (the “as major chains go” bit is a pretty hefty qualifier, mind—more on this, perhaps, another time), but their presence can also have the effect of diminishing the input and participation of others (on scale alone).

Margee & Bertrand note some of the ups and downs within the coffee industry and the need to modernize production and distribution within the country, but also point out that the majority of the population is not involved in growing tea or coffee, which poses an important challenge: increasing the income and productivity of subsistence farmers. Building on this, it might be worth going into deeper discussion of the various forms of coffee production in Rwanda—between independent coffee growers and larger plantations.

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