Rwandan coffees are special: Not just because the flavour profile is out of this world (and it is), but also because the industry itself has such deep national significance. It’s been a coffee-producing country since the early 1900s, and by the 1990s coffee was the primary export, despite catastrophically low market prices. However, the tragedy of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 threw the population into confusion and tumult socially, economically, and morally. In the recovery efforts, both government agencies and foreign aid turned in part to the emerging specialty coffee market, encouraging people to plant trees on their small sustenance farms, to focus on quality, and to capture the growing international interest. By 2003, new washing stations were being built, and Rwanda now has more than 400,000 families that make their primary income from coffee.
Around 8,000 of those families know the name of Emmanuel Rwakagara, the founder and managing director of the cooperative COOPAC, Coopérative pour la Promotion des Activités Café. Emmanuel was born in Congo and moved to Rwanda in 2001 with the goal of re-envigorating the coffee industry in the Gisenyi region, on the country’s northwestern shore at Lake Kivu. He started the co-op in 2001 with just 110 farmer members, but now more than 8,000 smallholder families are shareholders, and all share a particular focus on and dedication to environmental and social sustainability. The cooperative operates 50 washing stations, including Nyambumera, the first that Emmanuel and his early associates built in 2004—and home to our microlot offerings for this year.
Nyambumera helped COOPAC prove itself in the area of quality very early on: By 2010, the washing station earned 8th place in the Cup of Excellence competition, and continues to perform well in cupping contests as well as on the offer table. As at the other washing stations, coffee is sorted meticulously, then soaked for 16–36 hours before its pulp is removed. The coffee is then given another underwater fermentation for 36 hours. It is sorted once more through water channels: Unripe or damaged seeds will float to the top and are easily sloughed off into a channel of lesser quality, while high-quality, ripe-picked coffee sinks and can be collected for drying. The drying process takes as long as three weeks on raised beds. We’re expecting flavours of red grape, watermelon, and a fantastic sugary sweetness.
Meanwhile, on the lake…
About 700 meters’ boat ride from the shores of Lake Kivu is a small island called Gishamwana, which is easy to mistake as a mirage: Part of the island is covered in vibrant-green coffee trees that are grown under a cover of lush shade like a secluded, caffeinated heaven. This semi-secluded farm is managed by the COOPAC cooperative, specifically overseen by Emmanuel himself.
The farm on Gishamwana Island was established in 2004, and it fits the contentious ethos that COOPAC has for its impact on the environment, especially: The coffee is grown using certified-organic methods, such as composted coffee cherry as natural fertilizers and surrounded by native trees for both shade and to prevent soil erosion. COOPAC and Emmanuel go to great lengths to protect the island’s biodiversity. An albino rabbit can even sometimes be seen hopping around in between the coffee plants. The island’s distance from mainland coffee areas, as well as its elevation at 1,500–1,750 meters above sea level, has so far protected it from many pests and diseases, and is processed right on-site at its own washing station. There are 20 full-time employees, with an additional 50 hired for the harvest season.
Gishamwana Island coffee is picked ripe, depulped, dry- and wet-fermented, washed, soaked, and dried on raised beds before being transported by boat for dry milling. This attention to detail and localized production does wonders for the quality, and the lots we’ve sourced here has been stellar year after year: sugar-cane juice, lemon, lime, sweet and savory tomato, grapefruit, cranberry, caramel, and a syrupy body.
“Gishamwana” means “little boy” in Swahili, one of Rwanda’s national languages, and it’s an apropos name: There is only a small quantity of these wonderful Rwandan microlots available, and they’re likely to run away if you don’t pay close attention—so be sure to let us know now if you’d like samples!