Mugshot: coffee helps heal wounds of Rwanda's dark past

Former US President Bill Clinton meeting local coffee growers in Kigali, Rwanda, in 2008.
Former US President Bill Clinton meeting local coffee growers in Kigali, Rwanda, in 2008. Photo: Getty

Rwanda lies just a few degrees south of the equator in central Africa. The country's lowest point is 950 metres above sea level (that's almost halfway up Mount Kosciuszko), and much of the land rises to between 1500 and 2200 metres, with rich volcanic soil and regular rainfall: great coffee-growing country.

German missionaries introduced the crop in the early 20th century and, by 1990, Rwanda was producing 45,000 tonnes of coffee a year, grown by hundreds of thousands of small farmers.

Like much else in Rwanda, that changed in the 1990s, with the Rwandan Civil War and the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. Many farmers who fled to refugee camps returned to find their farms in ruins.

Epiphanie Mukashyaka lost her husband, one child and much of her extended family. To support her surviving seven children, she sold coffee cherries (the pit inside the red fruit) from her husband's trees.

In 2000, through a program called Partnership for Enhancing Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages (PEARL), a collaboration between USAID, Texas A&M University and Rwanda's Ministry of Education, Mukashyaka learnt how to improve the quality of her crop through better cherry selection and processing.

In 2003, she was able to borrow money to build a washing station. She now owns two. The company, Buf Coffee, is managed by one of her sons, Sam Muhirwa.

''She is an incredibly inspirational lady,'' says Jenni Bryant, of Market Lane Coffee, who was in Rwanda in June.

Bryant is a big fan of Rwandan coffee. ''I love the taste. The profile tends to have a lot of brown sugar, baking spices, citric acidity and black tea, and some beautiful floral characteristics,'' she says.

''I'm also really passionate about the relationships with people there. They are so generous, joyful and kind.''

Much of Rwanda's coffee is grown by small farmers. Buf processes coffee from about 7000 farmers, who often bring their crop to the mills on foot.

One of the aims of PEARL and its successor programs has been to develop Rwanda as a specialty coffee producer.

''The coffee in Rwanda is fantastic and, considering the specialty end of the industry there is relatively new, there is potential for even greater quality,'' says Bryant.

''The people we work with are creative and motivated to do new things. I feel like the industry is evolving so much every year.''