Coffee Origins: Rwanda
Our new series delves into history, one country (and coffee) at a time.
Every bag of Blue Bottle coffee comes with a story. Written on a little card, you’ll find your coffee’s name, a few details about where it came from and who grew it, and the delightful flavors you’ll soon enjoy.
We share these stories because we think the people who grow, select, process, ship, and make your coffee matter, and we share them because coffee is ultimately about people. It’s a history that’s so fascinating, complex, and influential that a few lines on a coffee card don’t even come close to encompassing it. With Jean-Luc Godard, who famously said, “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to,” we must humbly disagree: The roots of our coffee are as vital as their cherries.
Conflict and Cash Crops
For many in the West, the Republic of Rwanda tends to be one of two things: the origin of delicious coffees characterized by bright berry-sweetness or plush, chocolatey notes—or a place of tragedy, where political violence has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands as recently as twenty-three years ago.
We know from our relationships with Rwandan farmers—a group of innovative coffee aficionados—that reducing this country to conflict and cash crops would be a mistake. Nevertheless, understanding the recent history of Rwanda (and coffee in Rwanda) is impossible without acknowledging the influence of these forces.
Even since attaining its independence in 1962, Rwanda has experienced civil war, genocide, and the long and arduous climb toward economic stability. As an integral part of its economy since the early days of the twentieth century, coffee has become one of the crops that many contemporary Rwandans rely on. Before we talk about Rwanda’s present, however, we have to dig into the past.
The beginning of the colonial era in Rwanda began with the Berlin Conference of 1884, which gave Germany control of the newly created country. German colonists introduced class domination into Rwandan society by delegating indigenous leadership to the minority Tutsi ethnic group, putting them in charge of the significantly larger Hutu ethnic group.
The Germans justified this stratification with pseudoscience ostensibly proving that the Tutsis were racially superior to the Hutus. This system, in which the Tutsis were arbitrarily given power over the Hutus, created a poisonous dynamic that influenced politics for decades to come.
Belgium and Independence
In 1918, at the end of World War I, the League of Nations dismantled German East Africa and distributed it among the war’s victors. Rwanda was placed under Belgian control; the Belgians continued to empower the Tutsis over the Hutus.
As the century progressed, decolonization and Pan-African movements challenged the oppressive Belgian government and strengthened the Hutu political opposition, which stood to gain the most from unseating their oppressors. The opposition continued to gain momentum until 1959, when a Hutu uprising forced as many as 300,000 Tutsis to flee the country. This uprising spurred a national vote, and rather than continuing on as a monarchy, the Rwandan people overwhelmingly voted in a republic. Amidst continued fighting between Hutu troops and Tutsi guerrilla forces, the Tutsi monarch was forced into exile, and in 1962, the Republic of Rwanda became independent.
The Rwandan Genocide
Independence from Belgian control did nothing to eradicate conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis; as Alan Cowell wrote for The New York Times on the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide,
“Decades after the so-called winds of change blew away colonial rule, the impact of this colonial cartography lingers in profound sensitivities at the legacy of the outsiders’ incursions into a continent that did not invite them to define its frontiers or impose their definitions of nationhood.”
Seeking to regain control of Rwanda, Tutsis who had fled to nearby countries like continued to attack the Hutu government. In retaliation, large numbers of civilian Tutsis still in Rwanda were murdered by Hutus. Many more Tutsis fled to Burundi, Uganda, Zaire, and Tanzania. A Tutsi movement to return to Rwanda continued, even as the first elected president of Rwanda, Grégoire Kayibanda, was overthrown by Defence Minister Juvénal Habyarimana, who instituted a military dictatorship.
In 1991, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel group composed of Tutsi refugees, invaded the country, beginning the Rwandan Civil War. On April 6, 1994, Habrayimana was assassinated, spurring the Rwandan Genocide and the First Congo War. By the time the RPF gained control of the country in July, 800,000 people—mostly of the Tutsi minority—had been killed, and two million more refugees, mainly Hutu, were left homeless.
The Role of Coffee
As Kevin J. Mullally, Mission Director of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), told The New York Times in 2006, "Coffee has played a crucial role in the positive changes in Rwanda.” While this can’t be downplayed, coffee’s presence in Rwanda goes back a lot further than the Civil War.
With its high altitudes, rich volcanic soils, and sunny, tropical climate, Rwanda is an excellent place to grow coffee, which was introduced as a cash crop by German missionaries in 1904. The project of economic development through coffee growth was continued by the Belgians after World War I, although rather than the more indirect approach taken by the Germans—who commanded cash taxes, hoping this would motivate Rwandans to plant the coffee themselves—the Belgians used slavery, through a system known as corvée, to cultivate it.
Rwandans continued growing coffee after independence, but when world coffee prices dropped in the 1980s, it became more difficult for small farmers to turn a profit. Farmers returned to growing coffee after the Civil War, but their options were often limited by lack of infrastructure and training in the farming, processing, quality control, and marketing techniques necessary to succeed in the global market.
Thanks to efforts by the Rwandan government, NGOs, and farmer cooperatives, Rwanda has seen a return to a strong coffee culture, with an increase in infrastructure and resources for coffee farmers, and the numbers of cooperatives and small entrepreneurs continue to grow. In 2012, coffee accounted for almost 30% of Rwanda’s total export revenue. Today, coffee is Rwanda’s largest agricultural export, and the second largest exported good.
While Rwanda is still a very poor country, coffee is proving to be one reliable way out of poverty, giving many the chance to participate in the global economy. While many Rwandans still do subsistence farming, demand for higher-quality, more traceable microlots has made it possible to transition from selling coffee cherry to survive, to joining or forming cooperatives in which the focus on higher-grade coffee results in more benefits to individuals farmers.
Colonialism’s legacy continues to cause immense destruction, even though Rwanda has been independent for more than half a century. Three years ago, Rwandan President Paul Kagame identified Belgium’s "direct role" in the genocide:
“The people who planned and carried out the genocide were Rwandans. But the history and root causes go beyond this country.”
Rwandan coffee farmers know that healing—like growing coffee—takes time, effort, and care. As their colleagues in the coffee industry, we hope to support that process by continuing to source the most delicious beans we can in the most responsible way possible.
In the words of Rwandan-American author and genocide survivor Immaculate Ilibagiza, “Rwanda can be a paradise again, but it will take the love of the entire world to heal my homeland. And that's as it should be, for what happened in Rwanda happened to us all—humanity was wounded by the genocide.”