Most Rwandans are poor farmers.
And most depend upon growing coffee for half or more of their annual income.
A four-year-old social enterprise project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation appears to be helping farmers significantly increase their income by taking better advantage of this mountainous nation’s fairly unique ability to grow the best coffee in the world.
By geographical happenstance — very high elevations and wet, tropical weather – Rwanda’s unlike almost any other place when it comes to growing coffee. But until recently, few coffee farmers here were making the most of their advantage.
“Now we’re seeing some farmers earning up to three times more than they were before we started working with them,” said Paul Stewart, regional director of the Technoserve Coffee Initiative in Rwanda.
Overall, Stewart said, the incomes of participating farmers have increased by 70 percent over the last four years.
Technoserve is a non-profit organization devoted to helping the poor make a profit. It’s been around a long time, created in 1968 by an American businessman who felt the best way to fight poverty was to help the poor improve their business prospects.
In 2007, the Gates Foundation gave Stewart and his colleagues at Technoserve a $47 million grant to apply their strategy in Rwanda – to see if showing farmers how to boost the quality of coffee could put a big dent in poverty. The first step is showing them how to properly care for the newly picked coffee beans.
“What happens in the first few hours can make a big difference in coffee quality,” Stewart said.
I met with him this week at the offices of the Rwanda Trading Company in Kigali along with a dozen other journalists exploring this up-and-coming East African nation with the International Reporting Project. Joining Stewart were two coffee brokers who see Rwanda as a good investment, with potential for major growth.
“Virtually all of Rwanda’s coffee could be high quality coffee,” said Stewart.
The way farmers can create coffee worth three times their current crop is by getting to use “wet mill processing” rather than simply drying the beans, as is traditionally done.
The difficulty in getting poor farmers to adopt this additional step is, to begin with, the upfront cost of establishing a wet mill.
That’s where Technoserve comes in. It’s a non-profit with a business approach. Stewart and his team meet with farmers, explain the potential of wet milling and usually suggest the farmers in a community form a cooperative to purchase wet mill equipment. Technoserve gives them a loan but they have to pay it back.
“It’s been quite successful,” said Richard Rogers, a program officer at the Gates Foundation who oversees many of its agricultural development projects. Rogers sees the Rwanda project as the beginning of something that could potentially transform the lives of many smallholder coffee farmers throughout East Africa.
“It’s really been fascinating to see the multiplication effects setting up these farmer cooperatives have had on the overall community,” Rogers said. “Some have used the profits to build schools, improve their schools or dig a well…. The reason for the success is that we aren’t giving them something so much as helping them develop business models.”
Farmers in Rwanda, and many parts of East Africa, make about $1.25 a day. It may not sound like a big deal to increase that to something like $3 per day, Stewart said, but it can make the difference between a family’s children going to school, clean water or never having to go to bed hungry anymore.
A decade ago, nobody in the global coffee market paid any attention to Rwanda, he said. That’s already changed as the country has become a significant producer of the highest quality of coffee. Costco buys perhaps 30 percent of all of Rwanda’s premium quality coffee right now.