The Musasa Dukundekawa cooperative lies high in Rwanda’s rugged north-west, at around 2,020 metres. This was the second washing station built by the co-op in 2005, with the profits made from their first washing station and a loan from the bank. Mbilima has been operational since 2005.
The USAID-financed PEARL project has been a transformational programme aimed at switching the focus in the Rwandan coffee sector from an historic emphasis on quantity to one of quality – and so opening up Rwanda to the far higher-earning specialty coffee market. The programme and its successor, SPREAD, have been invaluable in helping Rwanda’s small-scale coffee farmers to rebuild their production in the wake of the devastating 1994 genocide and the 1990s world coffee crash.
Musasa Dukundekawa now owns three washing stations and is one of Rwanda’s larger cooperatives, with 2,100 members in the 2012/13 crop year. In addition, Mbilima buys and processes cherries from around a further 70 farmers in the area – so the numbers (and paperwork) involved are staggering!
Most of these small scale producers own less than a quarter of a hectare of land, where they cultivate an average of only 250 – 300 coffee trees each as well as other subsistence food crops such as maize and beans. Musasa Dukundekawa gives these small farmers the chance to combine their harvests and process cherries centrally. Before the proliferation of washing stations such as Musasa Dukundekawa Mbilima, the norm in Rwanda was for small farmers to sell semi-processed cherries on to a middleman – and the market was dominated by a single exporter. This commodity-focused system – coupled with declining world prices in the 1990s – brought severe hardship to farmers, some of whom abandoned coffee entirely.
Today, it’s a different picture. Farmers who work with Musasa Dukundekawa have seen their income at least double, and the co-op produces some outstanding lots for the specialty market year after year. ‘Dukundekawa’ means ‘lets love coffee’ in Kinyarwanda (Rwanda’s official language) – in reference to the power of coffee to improve the lives of those in rural communities.
This coffee that we have bought from Musasa Dukundekawa is produced by the Mbilima washing station, which lies at 2,020 metres. Around 67 people work at Mbilima during the harvest season, as well as 5 permanent workers year round.
The level of care that Musasa Dukundekawa Mbilima takes over the processing is impressive. Cherries are hand picked only when fully ripe and then pulped that same evening using a mechanical pulper that divides the beans into three grades by weight. After pulping the coffee is fermented overnight (for around 12 hours) and then graded again using flotation channels that sort the coffee by weight (heaviest usually being the best). The wet parchment is then soaked in water for between 18 and 24 hours.
As at most washing stations in Rwanda, women do most of the hand sorting. This takes place in two stages – on the covered pre-drying tables and on the drying tables. The washed beans are moved from the wet fermentation tanks onto the pre-drying tables, where they are intensively sorted for around six hours. The idea is that greens (unripes) are still visible when the beans are damp, while the roofs over the tables protect the beans from the direct sunlight. Next, the beans are moved onto the drying tables for around 14 – 20 days (depending on the weather), where they are sorted again for defects, turned regularly and protected from rain and the midday sun by covers. The coffee is then stored in parchment in Mbilima’s small purpose-built warehouse prior to final dry-milling and hand-sorting in Kigali.