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Specialty Coffee Roasters - Our Origin trip to Rwanda

An origin trip provides a unique opportunity for specialty coffee roasters like Bean Smitten to meet producers, industry peers and gain a deeper understanding of the supply chain. When our account manager at Falcon Specialty invited me to join him on his forthcoming trip, I jumped at the chance.

Saturday, 8th June 2024 - London - Kigali

Cupping coffee in Rwanda
Cupping session at Rwanda Trading Company

Arriving on an overnight flight from Heathrow, I was greeted by my driver and transferred, to The Great Seasons Hotel, our base for the next two days. Matt, our account manager at Falcon Specialty was already there, along with Donald (Quality Controller at The Coffee Gardens, Uganda) and Razvan (Founder at Pressco Roastery & Coffee House, Romania).

Bags were dropped, clothes were changed and before long, 'JJ' (MD at Rwanda Trading Company - RTC) was on the scene to collect us from Hotel for the short ride to RTC's lab and dry mill where we cupped samples of the latest coffee to come from their own and co-owned washing stations.

There was then a tour of the dry-mill before returning to the hotel.

A coffee dry mill
The dry mill. Rwanda Trading Company

I was very impressed by the scale of the operation and the workers, there who made lifting 60 kg sacks of coffee look easy! Aside from 'coffee tourism' there was some serious business to be done. Matt and fellow cuppers at RTC assigned preliminary cupping scores to newly roasted samples, just in from washing stations that we were scheduled to visit later in the week.

Sunday, 9th June 2024 - Kigali

For some of us, today was a rest day. For others in the group it was anything but. Some had registered for The Kigali Peace Marathon.

Donald and I went out to watch the runners. We went to slightly the wrong place and missed our 'group' go past. Matt did a full marathon, whilst 'JJ' and Razvan ran 10 km. Exhausted from all the spectating, I retired to the Hotel and spent most of the day by the pool.

Monday, 10th June 2024 - Kigali - Huye

Toyota Land Cruiser
Departing for the field trip

Joseph (Operations Manager at RTC) picked us up from the hotel. For our trip into 'the field' we were riding in a Toyota Land Cruiser Prado.

We saw more of Kigali today. It's a huge sprawling capital city, made up of 3 districts which seem to go on forever. It is home to The Kigali Genocide Memorial which, documents the 1994 mass killings in Rwanda, associated with the country’s civil war. Thanks to the efforts of it's president and it's people, the country is now transformed. We saw a diverse array of businesses, homes and the people going about their business. I am told that by African standards, Kigali is a quiet place but, compare it to the UK and it is busy!

We drove south and west towards Huye, in Rwanda's Southern Province, stopping for lunch at Stafford Coffee in Nyanza. This coffee shop is one of three opened by a former RTC employee and it was very well done.

We dropped our bags off at the Galileo Hotel in Huye. In Huye, you start to get a better insight into what life is like outside of the capital. People are on the move from dawn until dusk. Collecting drinking water, walking their cow or goat and working in a myriad of different businesses. The Banana Wine Co. being one of them! We saw people carrying or pushing a bike laden with huge loads along the roadside. Bananas, grains, water and firewood and coffee were just some of the things we saw being carried.

The tarmac gave way to rough, rocky roads with red soil and bridges made of just a few logs. The dust flew and we were jolted about on our way to the first two washing stations. Marabo and Ibisi were the first two. We have previously bought coffee from Ibisi, so it was great to see the actual place where the coffee originated from. It would be the first of many.

Coffee drying on raised beds
Coffee drying on raised beds at Ibisi

The air was thick with the smell of coffee cherries. A sweet, intoxicating aroma. Very noticeable as soon as we got out of the car.

It was the end of the harvest and the last few 'lots' were drying in the sun. Marabo was currently focussed on naturally processed coffees. The cherries were drying on the beds which, are raised to allow air to circulate underneath. There were also some experimentations with anaerobic fermentation. At Ibisi, we mainly saw washed coffees.

It had been a long day, with a lot of driving so, we didn't stay long. We headed back to the hotel, via the Banana Wine Co.

Tuesday, 11th June 2024 - Huye - Kibogora

We started off the day, with a short but, very steep and bumpy trip to Gitega Hills washing station. This is high altitude, around 2,000 MASL and processes coffee from around 1,000 farmers.

The harvest was a little later here and the farmers were still bringing in their cherries so, we were lucky enough to see the wet mill in action. This is where wet processed coffees are mechanically pulped before being laid out to dry and for further sorting.

Coffee cherries going into the wet mill
The wet mill. Pulping cherries at Gitega Hills Washing Station.

We then drove west, through the Nyungwe National Park. This is a huge forest comprising mainly a road and a few hiking trails. It took about an hour to cross it. We saw baboons, several broken down trucks and many soldiers, guarding the boarder against infiltrators from neighbouring Burundi.

Having passed through the forest, we found ourselves on the shores of Lake Kivu. This is an enormous lake and it would feature in our travels over the next few days.

Onwards to Mwito washing station which, was right at the waters edge and later in the afternoon, Nyungwe washing station, further inland. Nyungwe has an excellent reputation for high quality coffee. It provides training to farmers who are also blessed with great soil. Experimental processing is also order of the day here, particularly anaerobic fermentation.

African beds drying coffee
Darren at Mwito Washing Station. Lake Kivu.

Anaerobic fermentation is a coffee processing method where coffee is fermented in pressurized sealed tanks (barrels in the case of Nyungwe) and deprived of oxygen. This lack of oxygen produces distinct acids, lactic acids for example, that create a different and distinct flavour profile for the coffee.

We had been lucky enough to follow a farmer up the hill leading to Nyungwe. He was carrying his harvest on the back of his bicycle. We watched the cherries being unloaded then floated in water. The good cherries sank to the bottom whilst the bad ones floated on top and were removed.

Coffee arriving at Nyungwe Washing Station
This farmer (centre) just cycled up hill with this load of coffee.

It was the end of another long day. We stayed overnight at The Mission in Kibogora, situated in beautiful gardens on the shores of Lake Kivu.

Wednesday, 12th June 2024 - Kiborgora

Our busiest day yet. We visited four washing stations: Mutovo, Gatare, Gitwe, and Karambo. We also experienced four different types of coffee processing: washed, natural, anaerobic and honey.

For the first time on the trip, we saw coffee growing on trees and being hand-harvested by the farmers. At Karambo, we also saw a coffee tree nursery, experimental varieties and a second dry-mill not, yet fully operational.

Lake Kivu in Rwanda
Lake Kivu from The Mission

It was an exhausting day. In the evening, we chilled at The Mission.

Thursday, 13th June 2024 - Kiborgora - Kigali

We left The Mission around 9 am and headed north-east along the lake shore towards our final washing station, Gishyta. There was less to see at this station. The last of this seasons cherries were being uncovered so that they might finish drying in the sunlight.

Picking coffee
Picking only the ripe (red) cherries

With our final visit completed, we hit the road in the direction of Kigali stopping only for coffee (of course) along the way.

Our group checked into Lebanon Hotel, Kigali and went on to dinner at Habesha, Ethiopian restaurant.

Friday, 14th June 2024 - Kigali - Akagera National Park

Today, I left my colleagues behind in Kigali as I embarked on a two day trip to Akagera National Park.

My driver, Kim, picked me up from the hotel and we drove North and East to the Park stopping for perhaps the best takeaway americano I've ever had, at Bashana Art Centre. I wasn't expecting much, but the barista nailed it. Result!

Elephant in Rwanda
Can you spot the elephant?

On arrival at the park, I headed to Lake Ihema, for a boat trip. I saw hippos, an elephant, buffalo, crocodiles and many species of birds. Back on dry land a family of baboons escorted me to my accommodation at Akagera Game Lodge.

Saturday, 15th June 2024 - Akagera National Park - London

I checked out of the hotel. Met Kim, who took me on a game drive through the southern region of The Park. Today, there were zebra, buffalo, antelope and impala. After a promising start, the animals became scarcer as the day grew warmer.

Zebra and Antelope in Akagera National Park
Zebra and Antelope in Akagera National Park

As evening fell, we drove back to Kigali. I said my farewells to Kim and checked in for my flight to London Heathrow.

My thoughts about the trip

So much happened in such a short space of time, that I am still processing exactly what I saw. I guess my main takeaway is an increased understanding and appreciation of the sheer amount of human effort it takes to get the beans to us, ready to roast.

I knew our coffee was hand sorted, but the level of actual hand sorting is off the scale. The amount of coffee taken to fill one sack becomes evident once you see it laid out on a drying table. It's a lot and most likely comes from several different smallholder farmers.

I knew that most of the high quality coffee is exported but, they don't even have brew gear to make good coffee coffee at washing stations! Many of the workers have not tasted the end product. However, whilst most locals are still drinking lower grade coffee, specialty coffee is beginning to take off in Africa.

A town in Rwanda
A typical small, Rwandan town.

People are always on the go in Rwanda, making sure they gather the essentials for daily life. It's an amazing place and often in the news in the UK for all the wrong reasons. I would strongly recommend a visit if you ever get the opportunity.

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Very interesting insight into the end product we drink. As an ex kenyan, I well remember visiting friends whos fathers grew coffee and I remember the smell as the beans were laid out to dry on tables. So glad you enjoyed your trip to Rwanda Darren. Thank you for the write up.

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