Rwanda, known as “The Land of a Thousand Hills,” is found in east Africa just below the equator. It’s a land of high mountains, great lakes, and vast savannahs, where mountain gorillas roam in their native habitat. With not one but two rainy seasons and two dry seasons annually, the nation is both ancient and young. Ethnically and linguistically descended from the Banyarwanda people group, residents are divided predominantly into three subgroups: Twa, Tutsi, and Hutu. Ultimately, the latter two tribes and the political parties backing them sought to wipe each other out, resulting in the genocide of 1994 that left the country ravaged, full of orphans and widows, and without many of the older generation.
By the end, 800,000 people had been murdered. Such loss is mind-boggling. Achingly tragic. Recovery has been heartrendingly difficult. But coffee is part of the rebuilding--slightly ironic, seeing that when coffee was brought to Rwanda by Belgium in the 1930s, farmers were required to plant it. The abundance of trees resulted in low quality coffee and low prices. Lack of proper infrastructure necessary for coffee processing further hampered quality. By the 1980s, coffee was in crisis, and once the genocide began, there was no safety in which to tend trees or pick and process the cherries. Fathers, brothers, sons were taken, leaving mothers and children to fend for themselves; the coffee industry in Rwanda completely tanked.
Yet twenty years later, Rwanda has stabilized, a tribute to the resilience of her people. Now governed by a presidential system in which corruption is low compared to other countries, human rights organisations are working hard to alleviate suppression of opposition groups, freedom of speech and intimidation. Due in part to the loss of so many men, Rwanda is one of only two countries in which the majority of the national parliament is female.
Collective efforts of the U.S. African Development Foundation (USADF) created Rwanda Smallholder Specialty Coffee Company, which includes a U.S. Agency for International Development project. The company processes and exports coffee from its six coffee cooperatives, putting power into the hands of the farmers themselves to stabilize and invest in their own lives and in their own corner of the world. And it is working. Coffee from Rwanda, with its big-bodied, sweet profile rich with dried fruit and citric acidity, is starting to rank in the top of African coffees, and the people are working together to rebuild their lives, their communities, and their country.