Magazine article International Trade Forum

Rwandan Coffee Goes from Ordinary to Star(bucks): Rwandan Coffee Is Featured at Starbucks This Year. the Path to Creating a Premium, Well-Branded Coffee from a Low-Return Mass Product Involved Both Aid Agencies and Private Firms

Magazine article International Trade Forum

Rwandan Coffee Goes from Ordinary to Star(bucks): Rwandan Coffee Is Featured at Starbucks This Year. the Path to Creating a Premium, Well-Branded Coffee from a Low-Return Mass Product Involved Both Aid Agencies and Private Firms

Article excerpt

Interview with Philip Schluter, Schluter S.A.

To learn how Rwanda Ordinary transformed itself into a gourmet choice, we spoke to Schluter S.A., "the African coffee people" who have been in business since 1858. Philip Schluter, the sixth-generation head of the Swiss-based family firm, explained the process to Trade Forum.

Rwandan coffee is traditionally smallholder-produced. Until recently, they pick the ripe cherries (raw coffee beans), then use a small hand-pulper to take the skin off--or, in the worst-case scenario, with rocks. They would then dry the coffee, ferment it in a small bucket with water and dry it in the sun. One smallholder fermented it for 18 hours, another for 48. Some used dirty water, others used clean, depending on where they were. Coffee quality therefore varied widely. They delivered it in very small lots of "parchment" (beans still surrounded by a layer known as parchment) to a central buying station, where it was put into commercial-sized lots, hulled in the factory and exported.

The coffee obtained--because of variance in water quality, fermentation time and so on--is of industrial quality. It has been exported, primarily to large industrial roasters, under the names Rwanda Ordinary and Rwanda Standard, which is probably not a good example of branding. Up to 2000 this was true of all the coffee in Rwanda.

Better quality

In 2000, the authorities carried out a feasibility study through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to see how they could add value to coffee, whether the coffee had the inherent characteristics for better quality, which would require washing stations or wet mills. These are basically fermentation units. Like wine, fermented coffee is worth a lot more, but needs a central process. Fermentation was being done--in small buckets and with varied results. Central washing stations have small "swimming pools" where one puts the coffee and controls the fermentation process. Coffee can then be extremely well prepared.

Having decided it was feasible to produce better-grade coffee, the authorities set up two projects--one with cooperatives and one with private investors (the side that involved Schluter). When buying coffee from the small farmers, instead of taking the small parchment, project workers handpicked out cherries that were overripe or under ripe, providing jobs for local women, and controlled the fermentation process. …

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