Some of the best coffee beans in the world are grown in Africa, and while the number of coffee consumers there is growing, most Africans still don’t drink it. That’s something Rwanda’s government would like to change.
The country’s coffee industry, which nearly collapsed after the genocide in 1994, has gradually become one of its largest and most profitable agricultural exports. Rwanda exports 99 percent of its coffee.
Now, the government wants to increase the domestic market – mostly by tapping into the expendable cash of Rwanda’s growing middle class.
Gerardine Mukeshimana, minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources, says the future of coffee is both domestic and international, largely due to the instability of prices in international markets.
“You don’t want to be in a situation that if they go down, your whole economy is disturbed. You have to have a plan B. That’s why we promote local coffee consumption,” she says.
So the Rwandan government is attempting to get its citizens to at least try what they grow. For the past couple of years, government-sponsored radio ads have been touting the benefits of drinking coffee and telling people that the drink isn’t just for foreigners.
And in the past decade, privately owned coffee shops have popped up in Kigali, the country’s capital.
On a Sunday afternoon, expats and wealthier Rwandans are in a Kigali coffee shop which appears to be modeled after Starbucks. The walls are decorated with folk art and large photographs of coffee farmers.
Kayumba Polepole, a 33-year-old banker, sits alone at a table, drinking a latte and sending emails. He drinks coffee because he likes the taste, but also because he wants to buy local.
“If we have a finished product that is made in Rwanda, I think that it’s a pride also to consume that product instead of sending the best quality abroad,” he says.
But for most Rwandans, the price of coffee makes it unattainable. A single cup costs 2,500 francs – about U.S. $3. That’s the equivalent of several days’ pay in Rwanda. Most Rwandans drink Fanta and tea, which cost a lot less.
Coffee is so expensive because Rwanda doesn’t have enough places to roast the beans. They are exported to Europe or the United States, then reimported after roasting.
At a plantation in the lush Northwestern hills of Rwanda, Emmanuel Baziruwile and Fabien Ntawuruhunga are pruning dead branches from Bourbon Arabica coffee trees. They’ve worked here for decades, but neither of them had tasted coffee until they got a cup as part of a government campaign called “Coffee Days.”
“Because now I know the taste, if I could afford to buy it in any shop, then I can buy it and prepare it at home. But I don’t have any means to buy coffee,” says Baziruwile, as he carefully avoids snipping clusters of ripening coffee berries on branches.
Other than giving growers an annual taste, the government has no programs to subsidize the cost of coffee.
For Fabien Ntawuruhunga, who could afford a cup of coffee, drinking it is just not part of his culture.
“We didn’t drink coffee because we didn’t know anything about how to drink coffee,” he explains. “We knew coffee as beans — but nothing about drinking.”
German and Belgian colonizers introduced the crop to Rwanda more than a century ago. Under the Belgians, Rwandans were forced to grow coffee for export under brutal conditions.
“Beating them, forcing them, created a cycle of hate. They saw it as something they had to be forced to plant,” says Eric Rukwaya, who works for the National Agricultural Export Board. He said these conditions created distaste for coffee.
Reporting for this story was supported by The International Women’s Media Foundation.