Yesterday on All Things Considered, Allison Aubrey explained how coffee is the new wine — or, at least, how our morning brew is catching up with the evening Chardonnay in terms of our appreciation for its flavor and textures. And that’s piquing our interest in learning where our coffee comes from.
So, we wondered, how does this new trend impact coffee farmers around the world? On Twitter, we stumbled on Jonathan Kalan, a freelance photographer and journalist in Africa, who just happens to have returned from visiting coffee farms in Rwanda.
Coffee from Rwanda, you say? Believe it. About 10 years ago, Rwandan farmers started selling premium coffee instead of plain-old joe. Now its coffee fetches some of the world’s highest prices and is sought after by coffee giants and gurus around the world, including Starbucks. We caught up with Kalan, and asked him a few questions about his recent work, featured above.
Q: What’s it like on a coffee farm in Rwanda?
A: Aptly named the “Land of a Thousand Hills,” Rwanda has endless rolling, green hills dotted with banana trees, tin-roofed houses and small farms. In Western Rwanda, where it’s ideal for growing coffee, the altitude is around 5,600 feet, and steep hills plunge into the crystal blue banks of Lake Kivu.
There are about 400,000 families who farm coffee in Rwanda, and most of them live in small mud and brick houses, or a concrete house, when they are better off. The average family owns around 450 coffee trees, but they also harvest sorghum, beans, sweet potatoes and vegetables.
Q: Why did Rwandan farmers switch from growing regular coffee to growing premium coffee?
A: Rwandan farmers didn’t switch beans to start producing specialty coffee; they simply switched their methods. Unlike regular coffee, premium beans must be fully washed, and they must score at least 80 points on a quality scale. Many factors influence the score, from climate and soil quality to the time between when the ripe coffee cherries are picked and dropped off for processing.
Coffee has been a major source of revenue for Rwanda since it was introduced by German missionaries a century ago. For most of this time, the state controlled nearly all stages of production. Beans were exported as regular, unwashed coffee, and farmers were given a set price by the government. Farmers clearly had little incentive to produce specialty coffee, or invest in better production, harvesting and washing methods.
But then, after the genocide, the coffee industry was privatized. This opened up new markets and avenues for selling coffee.
Q: How did the farmers learn to grow and produce top-grade coffees?
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