- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 23, 2003

MARABA, Rwanda The world coffee market has taken poor countries all over the world on a roller-coaster ride, but from Francois Habimana's plantation in southern Rwanda, it looks lucrative.
Mr. Habimana, 40, cultivates 2,500 coffee bushes that cover a steep slope bisected by a dirt road that is tough going even for a four-wheel-drive vehicle. During the harvest season from March to June, he and some helpers will pluck the ripe, red coffee "cherries" the fruit that yields two coffee beans and begin the processing.
The beans harvested by Mr. Habimana and his 1,500-member Abahuzamugambi cooperative will head for supermarkets and the dining room tables of affluent Europeans and Americans, who regularly spend $10 for a pound of gourmet coffee.
"Coffee lets me stay near my home and work for a good profit," he said.
But few other coffee farmers are smiling these days.
The average price of a pound of coffee one that could become cheap grind or instant powder peaked at about $1.40 in 1997 but has fallen to about 40 cents now, according to the World Bank. Even with rising production, countries such as Uganda, Vietnam and Brazil that depend on the commodity for hard currency are earning less money.
But one segment of the coffee market took off in the 1990s: specialty coffee. The type of java that costs $2 a cup at Starbucks or similar outlets has richly rewarded farmers because their customers care much more quality than about price.
In 1990, there were just more than 1,000 retail outlets in the United States devoted to good but expensive coffee. By 2001, there were 13,500, according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America.
The Abahuzamugambi co-op, which includes many Tutsi women who were widowed when Hutu mobs killed 800,000 people in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, was formed in 1999 to buy chemicals and tools in bulk and resell them to its members at affordable prices.
The variety of coffee that members grow, Maraba bourbon, offers them a shot at the specialty-coffee market. With a smooth, even fruity taste, it can compete with the best Kenyan AA or Ethiopian Yergacheffe two types of coffee that have achieved worldwide recognition if harvested and prepared correctly.
What the Maraba district in Butare province needed was a "washing station" and some sound advice on how to use it. In 2000, that help arrived in the form of Tim Schilling, a professor at Texas A&M; University who heads a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
A washing station a combination of machinery, water basins and drying tables extracts the two coffee beans from the fleshy coffee cherry that Rwandan farmers pick in the early spring. Unwashed coffee yields a bitter brew because the fruit ferments on the bean and it commands terrible prices.
"Washing stations don't make good coffee," Mr. Schilling said. "They allow good coffee to express itself."
Last year, the Maraba cooperative got $1.36 per pound for its product, nearly three times the going rate for a pound of run-of-the-mill coffee beans. Community Coffee of Baton Rouge, La., was the co-op's main customer last year, and this year, the co-op is close to scoring a deal with Union Coffee Roasters, a British company.
What the Maraba farmers get is only a fraction of what customers pay when they pony up $8 to $12 per pound of gourmet coffee. The price reflects the time and money that roasters and marketers put into getting coffee into stores. It also includes a hefty profit margin that they say they need on a product that moves in much lower volumes than staples such as bread and milk.
Even so, the price now being paid for Maraba bourbon coffee is enough to keep the members of the co-op keenly interested in a business that is slowly raising their standard of living in one of the world's poorest countries.
Marcella Mukamazimpaka, 56, a gaunt Tutsi widow who lost her husband and three children in the genocide, tends 500 coffee plants atop a steep hill accessible only by a narrow path.
She bought a cow and a goat with her share of the profits from last year's harvest. They have helped her make a big improvement in her nutrition and living standard.
But while Maraba illustrates the chances for poor coffee farmers to benefit from the global economy, it also highlights the barriers, financial and otherwise, to exploiting those opportunities.
Getting Rwandan coffee into American and European cups required help from a small army of foreigners and government agencies.
USAID ponied up $5 million so that Texas A&M;, in a partnership with Michigan State University, could do its part in the project the two universities have named Project Pearl. ACDI/Voca, a group that sells surplus U.S. government commodities and uses the proceeds on behalf of Rwandans, pitched in. The Rwandan government also retained a consulting company, Boston-based On the Frontier, to do market research.
Rwanda's coffee testing and marketing agency, Ocir Cafe, donated machinery for the washing station, and the district government gave the land. The National University of Rwanda in nearby Butare also lent its know-how.
"Completely private financing for coffee in Rwanda just isn't there," said Olaf Schmidt, a consultant with On the Frontier.
Even with help, Rwandan farmers still need to master new skills to harvest good beans. Picking only the right beans at the right time and tending to the coffee bushes in the off-season are as important as proper washing.
But Rwanda does have something that only it can provide: a marketing niche.
With widows growing coffee in a country where a campaign of extermination was under way less than nine years ago, Maraba bourbon can appeal to affluent Americans and European who want coffee that tastes good and does good at the same time. Union Coffee Roasters is even formulating a marketing campaign around the genocide widows who belong to the Maraba co-op.
"You want widows, we have that handicapped and orphan kids, too," Mr. Schilling said. "If they like the coffee, that's fine with us."

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