Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cupping Rwanda


A few years ago I helped a client edit a paper on improving African value chains. The paper looked at out how, say, Ugandan growers who made just a nickel on each pineapple could capture more of the five euros the same pineapple fetched by the time it wound up at a Paris grocery store.

There are lots of ways to pull this off. Growers can band together to demand better prices from middlemen, or form their own middleman organization. Or they can pool funds for a processing plant that creates value-added foods like pineapple chunks or slices. Or get a reputable group to certify the pineapples as organic. Or create a brand around the supposed uniqueness of pineapples from a specific Ugandan region, much like the DOC system does for Italian wines. Even simply building cool-storage facilities that keep a surplus fresh for sale at a more favorable time can improve returns.

If you're Rwanda and you have excellent coffee beans but a slight image problem thanks to the 1994 genocide, rebranding seems to be the way to go. In this morning's Post, "A pick-me-up for Rwanda" details how some entrepreneurs are promoting Rwandan coffee here in D.C., a town that I assure you is in desperate need of better espresso:

Emblazoned on the windows of Bourbon Coffee is the phrase "Murakaza neza," which in the Rwandan language of Kinyarwanda means "We welcome you with blessings."

Rwanda is better known for the 1994 genocide that left more than 800,000 people dead than for its cappuccino. But that doesn't stop Arthur Karuletwa, founder of Bourbon Coffee, from dreaming big.

"If done right, it could be the platform to re-brand the country," says Karuletwa, former chief executive and now a shareholder in the company. Coffee can "create awareness that there's recovery, there's trade, there's investment opportunities, there's tourism. There's life after death."

Rwandan coffee growers experience some typical developing-world problems, including poor infrastructure for getting coffee to market, large numbers of small growers, and corrupt officials. But they've also got a product that raises eyebrows among coffee professionals:

"Rwanda is a very wanted origin," says Susie Spindler, executive director of the Alliance for Coffee Excellence, which runs the Cup of Excellence competition [the Oscars of coffee]. She says coffee traders and roasters visiting Rwanda are discovering unusual flavor profiles they never knew existed.

"It mixes a lot of regular characteristics that you usually only find in one area," agrees Stacey Manley, Bourbon's barista. "Latin American coffees tend to be lighter-bodied and kind of nutty with cocoa. But you almost never find an earthy, really heavy-bodied Latin American coffee. Those are typically Indonesian characteristics. And in Indonesia, coffee is very rarely bright. So the weird thing about Rwandan coffee is it'll have all these different characteristics in one coffee."

In the tradition of European wines, Rwanda has succeeded in establishing five distinct coffee appellations. Altitudes and soils vary among the appellations, creating unique flavors: spicy with hints of tea and cocoa in one, nutty with berry and floral notes in another.

So I'm going to go and try Bourbon Coffee, which is at 2101 L St. NW. Watch for stores in Boston and New York. Socioeconomic competitor: the three Juan Valdez Coffee outlets in D.C., which I tried once. While the decor was beautiful, I could barely gak down the espresso; Juan must have been having an off day because everyone else seems to love the joint.

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