The Rise of Rwanda's Coffee Culture

Thursday, 28 November, 2019

Rwanda grows some of the world’s best coffee, but the farmers themselves don’t necessarily know it – many of the country’s coffee farmers (along with the rest of the population) have never even tasted a cup of coffee. Rwanda’s government wants to change that, and is encouraging locals to drink more coffee…

Rwanda’s coffee industry nearly collapsed after the genocide in 1994, and it took many years for the industry to recover to the point that coffee is now one of Rwanda’s largest and most profitable agricultural exports. Funding from the Rwandan government, trade partners and private investors allowed Rwanda to focus on high grade specialty coffee, and Rwandan Bourbon Arabica beans are in high demand today. 

Coffee is a luxury

Rwanda’s own coffee culture is almost non-existent though – most Rwandans drink soft drinks and tea because it’s a lot more affordable than coffee. The price of coffee is a major obstacle – a cup can cost around $2–3 and more than 60% of the population earn less than $2 per day. Rwanda exports 99% of its coffee, but the government is hoping to increase the domestic market by taking advantage of the emerging middle class’s disposable income. 

Thanks to Rwanda’s growing middle class, local consumption has increased in recent years. Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, has seen a number of specialty coffee shops opening to cater to people in the city, including foreign expats and international visitors. The government is encouraging this trend by launching a “Let’s talk coffee” campaign to teach locals how to traditionally prepare and brew a cup of coffee, and sponsored radio ads to tout its health benefits and tell people that coffee isn’t just for foreigners. 

Building a coffee culture

People don’t consider coffee as being for them, mainly because of the taste and the price. But even small things like producing coffee in smaller packages so more people can afford it can strengthen the coffee culture in Rwanda,” says Dr. Celestine Gatarayiha from the National Agricultural Export Development Board (NAEB), a government agency dedicated to increasing agricultural exports.

There’s obviously a lot of education that has to happen around coffee in order to start to build a culture of consumption rather than just production. People need time to explore and discover the variety of coffee beverages and get used to the taste and flavour. The government is trying to boost local consumption and make coffee seem more accessible by organising barista training for restaurants and hotels, encouraging them to serve high quality locally roasted coffee, and organising coffee seminars and tastings for curious consumers. 

The popularity of coffee

The history of coffee in Rwanda could have a lot to do with why there isn’t much of a coffee culture. It was introduced by German and Belgian colonisers, who forced Rwandans to cultivate the crops under terrible conditions. Farmers were never taught to drink coffee, and the country exported all of its green coffee cherries to be roasted elsewhere before being reimported. Coffee is expensive as a result because Rwanda doesn’t have enough roasters, and roasted beans are worth much more than the green cherries.

The rise of coffee shops in Kigali is proving that there is a future for local consumption, with cafés serving as places to meet and socialise, attracting business professionals, freelancers and groups of friends. There’s a long way to go before coffee is the beverage of choice for most Rwandans, but its popularity is definitely on the rise. Local professionals are realising that it’s important to support the economy by buying (and drinking) local, and as taste preferences change, the coffee culture shift is sure to come, especially with each new generation showing a greater appreciation for this beloved brew.

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