Use of old coffee varieties hinders Rwanda's exports growth

Sunday February 19 2017

Rwandan coffee on display. Coffee is Rwanda’s second largest export earner after minerals and the sector employs about 400,000 farmers. PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA

Rwandan coffee on display. Coffee is Rwanda’s second largest export earner after minerals and the sector employs about 400,000 farmers. PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA 

By Jean-Pierre Afadhali

Rwanda's agriculture export authority has projected higher coffee earnings for the new fiscal year, despite productivity obstacles that hinder output.

The National Agriculture Export Board (NAEB) has set an ambitious target of $70 million for 2017/18 fiscal year, but coffee productivity is being hampered by the use of old varieties, extreme weather effects, low use of fertiliser and limited use of coffee washing stations.

While NAEB’s projections are based on expected production and international market prices, the continuous use of old coffee varieties is problematic. These varieties have low yield, but authorities are keen to preserve their unique taste, as they increase their output.

“Current coffee varieties are good quality, but we want to research ways to have this same taste but on new coffee varieties,” said Corneille Ntakirutimana, Strategic Planning Division manager at NAEB.

According to experts, current coffee yields in Rwanda are around 2.8 kilogrammes per tree, but the potential is to get it up to seven-eight kilogrammes per tree.

“Currently one in four coffee trees are above productive age (30+ years),” said Ameet Morjaria, an economist for the International Growth Centre, who has conducted several studies on Rwanda’s coffee sector.

Advertisement

According to Mr Marjaria, introducing new varieties represents a challenge because it would mean depriving smallholder farmers of their income for several years, while the trees mature.

He said some form of compensation may be needed to motivate farmers to make the short-term sacrifice, adding that similar support has been provided by donors for tea farmers. Mr Ntakirutimana said NAEB is working on improving coffee processing and maintaining the quality of coffee for export.

According to a 2015 IGC survey, a key constraint for coffee washing stations is access to finance to purchase cherries at harvest. Washing coffee stations add value to harvested coffee and increase export revenues.

“Even with adequate finance some struggle to procure cherries from farmers,” said Mr Morjaria.

In the past, many washing stations processed less than 25 per cent of their installed capacity, but this has increased to 60 per cent; while fully washed coffee exports stand at about 50 per cent.

According to official figures, coffee production ranges from 267,000 to 420,000 bags per year; while the total area under coffee plantations is currently 42,000 hectares.

In the 2017-2018 fiscal year, officials are targeting international exhibitions to market the coffee and attract new buyers.