Small Batches of Rwandan Coffee Pack Big Punch in World Market

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One reason cooperatives are attracting smallholder farmers is the need to access the international market and gain production and management skills

They may be from the smallest country in eastern Africa, but coffee farmers in Rwanda can still compete in the international market with giant coffee exporters like Colombia, Brazil and Mexico.

The way they 'punch above their weight' is to ensure that hey export high quality coffee, while remaining united through their cooperative movements, according to Angelique Karekezi, the managing director at the Rwanda Small Holder Specialty Coffee Company (RWASHOSCCO)."Our farmers do not export much coffee produce, but the little that reaches the international market is of very high quality. This has enabled their products to remain competitive amid price fluctuations, which keep changing every second," says Karekezi.

It is not price fluctuations alone that continue to frustrate coffee farmers in eastern Africa. Long value chains, exploitative intermediaries and limited access to lines of credit also stifle the growth of the coffee sector in the region, according to Samuel Kamau, the executive director at the African Coffee Association. Climate change, too, affects coffee produce, due to erratic weather, where strong winds in countries like Rwanda have been known to destroy plantations.New pests and diseases also leave a destructive trail in their wake, says Karekezi.

But the worst of these challenges reared its head this year when Covid-19 sickened the world, shutting markets and businesses from access to financial institutions, she says, adding that harvest volumes were low, due to fewer farmers picking cherries during the lockdown."It took long for farmers to process produce for export due to the health protocols put in place by the government to curb the spread of the virus. The export markets, too, were affected, because there were fewer buyers due to the lockdown," says Karekezi.

But farmers kept going, united by the cooperative movement which has strong historical roots in the country. Rebecca Ruzibuka, the managing director at Africa Development Consultant Ltd (ADC) says communities are held together by the self-help principle, locally known as Muganda, which has also helped spur the growth of the cooperative movement in Rwanda. According to Ruzibeka, more than four million farmers are engaged in the cooperative movement, where 45 percent of them are active in the agriculture and livestock sector. At RWASHOSCCO, which was founded in 2005, about 13,800 coffee farmers are active in the cooperative movement.

One reason cooperatives are attracting smallholder farmers in Rwanda is the need to access the international market and gain production and management skills. Another is the support they are getting from development partners like the United States Development Foundation (USADF), an independent U.S. government agency established by Congress to invest directly in African grassroots enterprises and social entrepreneurs.

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