The Nyamasheke district in Rwanda is gifted in terroir. The cool, humid climates of both Lake Kivu and the Nyungwe Forest National Park keep groundwater abundant throughout the uniquely hilly region. Kivu is part of the East African Rift, whose consistent drift creates volcanic seepage from the lake’s bottom and enriches the surrounding soils. Coffees from this region are often jammier and heavier than the rest of the country.
Ngoma Coffee Washing Station is located in the southern part of Nyamasheke district, in a fantastic location right on the shore of Lake Kivu. The station is owned and operated by Baho Coffee Company, a small community-focused processing and exporting group that currently operates six washing stations in 6 different districts in Rwanda and is presently constructing two more. In addition to thoroughly washed lots like this one, Baho produces excellent quality naturals and experiments annually with honey processing and anaerobic fermentation styles. Participating farmers delivering cherry to Baho’s washing stations can count on annual payment premiums and farm-level support, including yearly coffee seedlings, health insurance, fertilizer, and harvest loans.
Despite its diminutive size compared to other East Africa coffee producing countries, Rwanda’s coffee has a significant history and terroir unique to the rest of the continent. The Belgians initially forced coffee into remote communities as a colony-funding cash crop. The Belgians distributed varieties cultivated by the French on Ile de Bourbon (now Reunion Island, near Madagascar) but had so little invested in coffee’s success that they immediately allowed production to decline through a lack of investment in national infrastructure, as well as the farmers who grew it. As a result, the sector suffered near total obscurity in the coffee world from Rwanda’s independence in 1962 until rebuilding following the country’s devastating civil war and astonishingly tragic genocide in 1994.
Rwanda’s former cash crop, however, roared to international buyer attention in the late 2000s thanks to one of East Africa’s most successful coffee interventions, the Partnership for Enhancing Agriculture in Rwanda Through Linkages (PEARL). PEARL was a sweeping infrastructure and education investment targeting large regions of Rwanda whose coffee was mainly processed poorly at home and exported with little traceability. The program, designed and led by the University of Michigan, Texas A&M, and a host of Rwandan organizations, vastly increased processing hygiene by building washing stations. It also organized remote and under-resourced smallholders into cooperative businesses capable of specialty partnerships. Perhaps most significantly for the long term, it took the legacy bourbon genetics buried in abandonment and polished them anew to the amazement of coffee drinkers everywhere. The snappy acidity, stone fruit flavors, and fragrant herbaceousness found in Rwanda’s coffee are still unique to bourbon produced anywhere else in the world. Producer groups like Baho cherish their farmers’ potential and are learning to maximize the quality and variety available from Rwanda’s most promising terroirs.