From Bean to Cup: Tracing Rwandan Coffee

Coffee has become an integral part of our daily lives, but where does this delicious beverage actually come from? In celebration of National Coffee Day, we are tracing coffee’s journey from the farm to your cup, with coffee from Rwanda as our example.

A Rwandan coffee landscape

According to a recent study, 64 percent of Americans drink coffee on a daily basis. But how much do you know about where that coffee comes from? Around the world, over 12 million people grow coffee, and the vast majority are smallholder farmers. For these farmers, growing coffee is more than just a way to make money – it’s a way of life.

Growing and Harvesting the Coffee

In Rwanda, where sparkling lakes meet verdant hills, coffee is the main source of income for many families. Rwanda’s coffee is grown on hillsides in high-altitude regions between 5,600 and 7,200 feet. Here, coffee trees are an integral part of the landscape, and have been for many years. However, farmers in this region often face challenges such as lack of technical knowledge, access to quality inputs, and access to markets. TechnoServe works with coffee farmers throughout all stages of the value chain to improve productivity and income.

Rwanda has optimal conditions to produce high-quality coffee and earn premium prices – when harvested, handled, and processed correctly. However, challenges such as poor soil quality, plant disease and pests, and unpredictable weather patterns can make it difficult to earn a living from coffee. At the farm level, TechnoServe works with farmers to teach climate-smart agricultural techniques, including mulching, composting, shade management, and rejuvenating old coffee trees.

Coffee plants typically mature in three to five years. The Bourbon variety, which is most common in Rwanda, fully matures after four years. Once the trees are mature, there is one harvest season per year that lasts approximately three months. In the case of specialty coffee, when the coffee cherries are ripe, they are selectively harvested by hand and delivered whole to a cooperative wet mill. The coffee farmers get their first payment after the cherries are delivered to the cooperative. If the cooperative is able to sell the coffee at a good price, the farmers will be paid again at the end of the harvest season.

Processing Coffee at the Wet Mill

At the wet mill, the cherries are sorted, and any defective cherries are discarded. After sorting, the remaining cherries are soaked in water and run through a pulping machine, a process in which the skin and pulp are stripped from the seed, which will eventually be transformed into what we think of as a coffee bean.

Once the beans are separated, they go to a fermentation tank where the remaining pulp is removed and the bean’s flavor is enhanced.

After fermentation, the beans are washed and then laid out on drying beds. During this stage, the beans are carefully monitored to ensure optimal moisture content and sun exposure. This often requires hand-turning the beans multiple times per day.

Coffee dries on large drying beds in Rwanda
In Rwanda, coffee dries in the sun on massive drying beds.

Shipping and Roasting the Coffee

Once the beans are dry (now called “parchment” coffee), they are ready to be packaged and shipped to an export company. The export company will hull and polish the parchment coffee before grading and sorting by size and weight. The green coffee will then be packed up again, sent to the Port of Mombasa in Kenya, loaded onto a boat, and shipped to a roaster in the country consuming the coffee.

At the roaster, the green coffee is funneled into large, heated machines that tumble the beans until they reach varying roast levels. Light roasts, which spend the least amount of time in the machine, are typically fairly acidic and retain their unique origin flavors. Medium roasts, which are popular in the United States, have a more balanced flavor and acidity. Medium-dark and dark roasts tend to be more bitter and lose most of the coffee’s origin flavors because they spend the most time in the heated machines.

Once the coffee is roasted, the beans are repackaged and shipped (usually whole) to coffee shops, grocery stores, and straight to consumers. Here, they will eventually be ground into varying levels of coarseness, brewed, and ultimately transformed into your preferred type of coffee.

The Power of a Cup of Coffee

A simple cup of coffee has the power to unite far corners of the world in a way few other commodities can. Over the years, TechnoServe has worked with over 400,000 coffee farmers in 16 countries to increase their coffee income through improved productivity, coffee quality, and access to premium markets.

TechnoServe is involved in many stages of coffee value chain, including helping to establish wet mills and providing technical training such as how to properly wash and dry coffee. TechnoServe also provides business training for coffee farmers, including guidance on pricing, how to access finance, and how to negotiate with exporters. At the cooperative level, training focuses on governance and effective leadership skills. TechnoServe’s Coffee Initiative, for instance, helped participating Rwandan coffee farmers increase their incomes by an average of 62 percent.

So the next time you drink a cup of coffee, take some time to think about where it came from – and about the hard-working men and women who produced it.

Learn more about TechnoServe’s coffee expertise.