Getting Rwandans to drink their own coffee, the best in the world

Thursday September 4 2014

Rwandan coffee beans at Cafe Neo. PHOTO | CYRIL

Rwandan coffee beans at Cafe Neo. PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By KATHERINE SULLIVAN

Rwanda has some of the best coffee in the world, but, until recently, you would be hard pressed to find a decent cup in the country. In fact, the vast majority of Rwandans have never even tasted their country’s coffee, despite its role as a great source of both income and pride.

When Bourbon Coffee opened in 2007, it was among the first Western-style coffee shops in Rwanda to serve more than the imported, poor quality instant coffee found in so many offices, homes, and restaurants. Something of a Rwandan Starbucks, Bourbon brought local coffee to Rwanda in a true “café experience” setting.

But even Bourbon, which has four locations in Kigali alone and retails its own line of coffee beans, didn’t find its initial success as a coffee shop.

At the time it opened, it was difficult to procure local, roasted coffee; nearly all coffee is exported green, pre-roasting. The only coffee roasted for sale in the country was low quality, made up of left-over, scrap beans. Bourbon had to buy premium coffee directly from co-operatives and have it roasted.

“We sold as many soda drinks as coffee drinks and rarely sold a coffee without sugar; we also sold lots of African tea,” explained a former Bourbon manager.

Rather than consolidate the menu around coffee, Bourbon evolved into a “restaurant with coffee,” which, although that may not have been the goal, has been successful in getting Rwandans into a café setting.

Rwanda’s lack of excitement over coffee may have historical roots. Under both German and Belgian colonisation, Rwandan farmers were forced to grow coffee, all of which was then exported by colonial powers. Rwandans were given no chance to appreciate the fruits of their labour.

The National Agricultural Export Development Board (NAEB) has instituted a number of strategies to convert the masses to drinking coffee. Since 2009, they have been encouraging restaurants and hotels, especially those with convention facilities, to serve local Rwandan coffee.

Recently, NAEB introduced “coffee days” across the country, where Rwandans upcountry are taught how to roast their own beans at home and how to brew coffee. They are also coming up with a national coffee brand to raise the reputation and recognition of Rwandan coffee at home and abroad.

Still, growth has been so slow that NAEB has refrained from putting a target percentage on domestic consumption for the future. Domestic consumption increased from less than 1 per cent in 2007-2008, to 2 per cent today.

Robinah Uwera, the director of marketing at NAEB, sees this slight rise, coupled with the overall increase in coffee production, as a good sign. The boon of cafés opening in Kigali since Bourbon first paved the way may also be a sign of shifting national habits. Or it may just a result of an increased expatriate population.

“We have the best coffee in the world, but it’s all exported. You couldn’t sit here and say you’re drinking the best coffee. That bothered me,” said Gilbert Gatali, the CEO of KZ Noir Ltd and owner of Neo coffee shop in Kacyiru, when asked why he chose to open a coffee shop in a country of primarily tea and Fanta drinkers. “I want to see excitement and curiosity about coffee. How do we engage folks about coffee?”

Neo, which opened in June, is one of the only cafes in town for true coffee aficionados. Late one morning, a customer inquired about the complex looking pour-over setup on the café counter, and the barrista — knowledgeable and skilled in coffee preparation — explained the various ways in which to brew a good cup of coffee, and the subtle differences each method has on the resulting taste.

Neo also holds public coffee tastings, something akin to wine or cheese tastings, to educate and get people interested in quality coffee.

But, Gatali says at least 60 per cent of Neo’s clientele are foreigners. It will take something of a ‘’mind shift” to get Rwandans interested in coffee. While still prohibitively expensive for the average citizen, Neo is slightly cheaper than Bourbon and other high-end cafes in town, aiming for a no-nonsense, just-great-coffee approach.

Gatali is hopeful and realistic about the local coffee market’s potential. “Look at how many people drink Nescafe! That is potential,” he says. “To get people to consume more, you are going to need to come up with cheaper and more convenient ways.”

Having a local population that drinks and appreciates quality coffee is an added advantage to local producers. Last month, after the Cup of Excellence Competition, Gatali brought in some of the winning farmers to Neo to try a cup of their own award-winning coffee. For many, it was the first time they had ever tried a sip of the product on which they base their livelihoods.

“It’s important for farmers to drink their own coffee as a way to identify with the beans,” says Gatali. “It’s important for them to understand why they put so much work into their crops and why it’s worth it.”