After fifteen days working in Dubai I went along with Leon and Gabriel and Rommel from Nightjar Coffee on a trip to Rwanda. We went to meet with Nightjar’s trading company and to visit the farms and washing stations that are the source for Nightjar’s excellent beans. This was my first trip to sub-Saharan Africa and I was very excited.
First leg: Rwandair from Dubai to Kigali at 1:50 AM on a Saturday. The plane was dirty, my video screen didn’t work and the armrest was cracked. Fortunately my experience with American carriers had prepared me for these conditions and I was unbothered. At the Kigali airport I went through the “visa on arrival” line without incident and wandered outside to find my car and driver. It tooks some time, but some other friendly chauffeurs helped me find the car and then rapped on the window until my driver woke up. We started off toward town, and even before leaving the parking lot the enterprising and well-rested Cristian was pitching me on tours of the city.
I stayed the first night at the Marriott: a very modern and clean hotel with a beautiful pool surrounded by tall palms. On the lower level, opening out to the pool deck, I found a small gym and a spa area with sauna and steam. After checking in I worked out in the gym and then took a stroll to see some of the city and buy a local SIM card.
The downtown area of Kigali has some modern glass-walled office buildings, but also many two and three story buildings with small shops on each level that open to the street. At every corner, crowds of men in Airtel vests sat on idling motor scooters: these are the moto taxis. Men on bicycles with padded seats over the rear wheel wove through traffic or waited near traffic lights: these are the bike taxis. Outside of an old theatre women were selling t-shirts and leggings off piles on their arms and shoulders.
As I passed one of the larger buildings on my way back to the hotel, a news vendor in a blue apron rushed up to me, making persistent, rapid-fire offers of old magazines, used daily papers and laminate-cover language learning books. I wasn’t interested in buying a 6 month old Economist, but a clean escape seemed unlikely so I chose a homemade English instructional manual for Kinyarwanda speakers. Score! The book is full of delightfully weird phonetic spellings and even stranger suggested English dialogues. “Give me that hot story!”
As I neared the Mariott again, which is just past the president’s house and across from the Chinese embassy, I saw a wedding party crossing the road and heading for city hall. The celebrants laughed at me taking pictures, presumably because I was such an odd sight beside the half-dozen Rwandans who were also photographing the scene. One of the groomsman kindly called out to me, “Join us; you are welcome.” I didn’t want to intrude, though, so I continued back to the hotel.
Lake Kivu and Surroundings
On Sunday morning Team Nightjar arrived. They picked me up at the Marriott, accompanied by Eustace from the Mizuho Trading Company, and we immediately set out for the Nyamasheke District in western Rwanda to visit coffee farms and washing stations in the hills surrounding Lake Kivu.
The main roads out of Kigali are smooth and look recently paved. High-tech speed cameras are arranged every few miles, but once we left the city area we saw almost no cars. Instead there were many people walking on or beside the road with sacks of animal feed, yellow jugs of oil or water or fuel, or buckets of fruit or cassava on their heads. There were more people tending the goats and cows tethered everywhere on the shoulders of the road, taking advantage of the grass that grew there.
Where did the funding for these new, paved roads and high-tech speed cameras come from? Various sources indicate that it’s the Chinese: that 70% of the paved roads in Rwanda were built by the Chinese who are busy in Africa with a sort of loan-to-own program. Wikipedia tells me that there isn’t much mineral wealth in Rwanda, but just across Lake Kivu in Congo there is extensive cobalt mining, so if not just arable land and coffee farms then maybe cobalt is the target.
Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, but it is also extremely poor. In addition to the roads being almost car-free (outside of Kigali) they are also billboard free, restaurant free and trash free. There are very few stores out in the countryside and even fewer packaged goods, so it was rare to see any litter. In fact, our plastic water bottles were coveted items that could be given as small gifts.
The Coffee Process
On Sunday we visited two coffee stations, arriving at both by boat. At each stop as we disembarked we would be surrounded by children — running to the shore from their play or from watching goats or tending fields — chanting “Give me my money” or “Cash money! Cash money!” or sometimes, especially on first sight of us, “Umuzunga!” (which means “white person” in Kinyarwanda).
We spent Sunday night in the Kibogora Guest House, which formerly housed Methodist missionaries and sits on the grounds of Kibogora Hospital. Our sleeping quarters were in a one-story 1970’s brick house with a patio, perched on a hilltop overlooking Lake Kivu. Outside the house, mossy wooden planks led up the sloped trunk of a giant, old tree to a moldering tree fort.
Coffee, as I learned on this trip, is a labor intensive business: not just the farming and the hand harvesting, but the hauling of berries from fields to washing stations, the wet-milling and washing and then hauling back to racks for drying, the carrying again from racks up steep hills to trucks, the truck transport to dry mills and then a final manual sorting. If coffee grew in northern Europe the labor costs would require it to be priced like single-malt Scotch whisky. At the bottom of this post I’ve described the whole thing in more detail.
On Monday we drove to Cyesha station, which involved first taking the car slowly along a rutted and pot-holed dirt road past little houses and farms – “Umuzunga! Umuzunga!” — and then, when the road started to peter out, walking 30 minutes down into a narrow valley that opened onto Lake Kivu. Coffee plants grew all along our way. The washing station was perched on a steep hillside with the drying racks arrayed below it and receiving the benefit of the air flowing up from the lake.
While walking to the station we met a group of boys who were riding homemade wooden scooters. They were excited to show us their skills, careening down the steep and rocky dirt road at death-defying speed.
On Monday afternoon we left Cyesha and drove back to Kigali, stopping first in the small cluster of buildings at the intersection of the dirt road and the paved one. On a small porch with a waist-high wall a man was grilling goat meat over charcoal and the smell was delicious. It was raining but nevermind: we all got out of the car and bought skewers of goat liver, goat kidney, goat meat and finally — all meat and organs gone — goat intestines (parboiled first in a pot that sat on the fire). Before serving a skewer the grill master would take blanched Scotch-bonnet peppers and dab them gently on the meat for a spicy burst of flavor.
Back in Kigali we checked in to our Chinese-built and Chinese-managed hotel apartments, rested up and showered and then went out to dinner at Sundowners restaurant, which we were told had delicious goat ribs on the menu. The receptionist from our building (also Chinese) recommended that we phone ahead to reserve two racks of ribs, which seemed odd but I suppose is necessary when you’re eating goat-to-table. We met Eustace and caught a taxi to the restaurant where we sat outside in a walled garden and had ribs and beer and more goat meat and french fries.
The next morning we all went to the trading company for a coffee cupping and then to the market to look for shirt material. That was the last stop for me: I flew from Kigali that afternoon, first to Nairobi and then to London. I wanted to visit the genocide memorial — that 1994 atrocity still feels raw and signs of remembrance are all around — but had to put it on my list for the next trip.
Coffee: the Extended ReMix
The farmers and their workers pick the coffee cherries by hand from bushes on steep hills, then put them into plastic tubs and carry them on their heads to the washing station. These farmers are all smallholders: they work independently and sell their coffee cherries to the trading company that owns the washing station. At the washing station, female workers spread the cherries on screens stretched on wooden racks at waist level. They sort through the cherries to remove the green and damaged ones. And then the workers put the cherries back into plastic tubs, put the tubs on their heads and carry them up the steep hills to the wet mill.
The wet mill, operated by men, is a machine that separates the pulp (or cascara) from the greenish-colored seed (or bean). Before being loaded into the mill, the tubs of beans are filled with water and the floaters removed. Men then lift the tubs of beans up and pour them through the mill. The cascara is sluiced off to one side for composting and the now-naked beans are gathered back into tubs. Most beans are then put into a series of open cement tanks and subjected to a series of washings to remove the mucilaginous cover to produce the ‘washed coffee’ that is spread on the screens to dry. A smaller quantity of beans are not washed, and are instead spread in their natural mucilaginous state to dry to produce what’s referred to as ‘honey’ coffee. At each stage there is further inspection of the beans and hand removal of any defective ones. Once the beans have dried on the screens, women put them back into plastic tubs and carry those on their heads up the steep hillsides to roads where trucks are waiting and transfer the beans into bags.
Each truck can carry several tons of dried beans to a dry mill. The sacks of beans are stacked and stored and then — just before they are required for export — further processed to remove the remaining thin husk and to mechanically sort them based on size. After being put through the dry mill the beans are inspected and hand sorted one final time by teams of women sitting on large cloths spread on the floor of the warehouse. Any bad bean can affect the flavor of a sack, so it’s important to remove all defective ones.
The owners of the trading company said that from all the cherries picked only 10% of the beans make it all the way through to the export market. The small-sized beans (harder to roast and considered inferior) are saved for local markets. The damaged, bug-bitten or otherwise defective beans, too poor in quality to be sold to any discerning buyer, foreign or domestic, are bought up by western food conglomerates (such as Nestle) to make instant coffee.
Nightjar Coffee (https://www.nightjar.coffee) is in four locations in Dubai and will soon be opening in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and elsewhere.
Sundowners Restaurant (doesn’t have its own website but information is at this TripAdvisor link) – relaxed atmosphere and tasty goat skewers and ribs.
Kibogora Hospital (https://kibogora.org/) – a free Methodist hospital serving 250,000 people. The website takes donations.
Genocide Memorial (https://kgm.rw/)