Compared to other African coffee beans, Rwanda coffee is new. Coffee plants were first introduced here in 1904, and over the past decade, their presence has grown to cover nearly every region in Rwanda. Rwandan coffee is more balanced compared to other African beans. It is also the most delicate, meaning you must be extra precise with preparation. Too much milk or slight over-extraction will smash the delicate flavours of this light roast to pieces.
The climate is not overly dissimilar to Ethiopian coffee, taking on similar floral aromas and citric notes. The acidity of Rwanda coffee is also reminiscent of the acidity Kenyan coffees are known for. What really sets Rwandan coffee apart from the rest of Africa is the well-balanced, full body. You might think of Ethiopian coffee as an ingredient, for example, a citrus flavour. But Rwandan coffee is more of a meal, with complex flavours already interacting in perfect harmony. The best recipes for Rwandan coffee are simple, with a dash of milk to complement the silky texture. Rwanda is largely dominated by mountainous regions and ancient rainforests, home to the majestic mountain gorillas and, of course, Rwanda coffee plants. When you imagine a jungle filled with thick greenery, the distant sound of monkey calls, tropical birds and waterfalls, it’s Rwanda you’re thinking of.
Altitudes vary greatly, as they do with any mountainous country. Most successful coffee farms are in the 1,700 to 2,000-meter bracket, with the exception being lake Kivu at 1,460 meters. The process of growing, harvesting and milling the beans is a ritual in Rwanda – usually, this entire process is done by hand. The beans are then hand-quality checked before being packaged up and sent abroad. They are usually lightly roasted closer to home, in the US or Europe depending on where you buy your coffee beans.
The highest coffee producing areas in Rwanda are around the central and western parts of the country, with additional coffee from the Lake Kivu area (which produces world-class, high-quality Rwandan coffee). Coffee is produced in nearly every area of Rwanda, grown wild and amongst the indigenous plants, on the sides of mountains where the gorillas live, and in the valleys. Coffee plants are one of the biggest cash crops in Rwanda and an essential part of their economy. Soils in Rwanda are incredibly fertile and highly productive – yet the overall soil quality is decreasing under the pressure of growing as much coffee as possible. Rwanda has a rocky history and today just under 40% of the population is living in poverty. This has all lead to an increasing dependency on the coffee plant, with over 450,000 farmers with independent coffee farms across the country. To maintain and improve the harvest of high-quality beans over mass harvest of low-quality beans, supporting Fairtrade, Direct Trade and other certified coffee farms are vital.
The Rainforest Alliance is a non-profit, tax-exempt organization based in New York. Its mission is to conserve biodiversity by promoting sustainability in agriculture, forestry, tourism and other businesses. The Rainforest Alliance certifies coffee, as well as other products and services, when it is produced under certain standards. Rainforest Alliance standards are intended to protect the environment and the rights of workers. Certified coffee carries the RFA seal. Rainforest Alliance partners with the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), which sets standards for farms and other operations.
What are the environmental standards?
The most important environmental standards applicable to coffee farms have to do with deforestation. The SAN has a single set of standards for all farms, rather than separate sets for different kinds of crops. Farms that coexist with natural forest cover, like coffee farms, are required to maintain 40 percent canopy coverage that consists of at least two strata. At least 12 native species of trees, on average, must be present per hectare of cultivated land. Farmers are not allowed to alter natural water courses. While they can use chemicals, such as pesticides, they must maintain buffer zones of natural vegetation between the crop areas and areas used by humans, including public roads. The standards also prohibit such activities as trafficking in wild animals, destruction of ecosystems, dumping untreated wastewater, and other harmful practices.
What are the labour standards?
SAN standards generally follow United Nations and International Labour Organization recommendations. Farms must meet local laws in terms of minimum wages and maximum work weeks and workers have the right to organize. Children under 15 cannot be hired and those under 18 must have parental permission. Work should not prevent them from attending school. Children are not supposed to operate machinery or work in dangerous locations. Farms are required to provide training and protective equipment for workers handling dangerous materials, such as pesticides