Before I can comprehend my surroundings, beyond the sleepless night and unending flight that preceded, suddenly I’m faced with something so familiar and grounding it’s as if I’d fallen from the sky in a million pieces, only to serendipitously reassemble perfectly where I land.
35 coffees, a cupping table, and two familiar faces: Uzziel Habimana and Laeticia Mukandahiro. And a new cupping lab in Kigali: Ikawa House.
It’s been eight years since my last visit, though I’ve been in touch off and on with the all-star tasting team, graduates of Rwanda’s first cupping training program in 2004. USAID, PEARL, and a few other acronyms targeted coffee as a sector for economic development and value chain improvement around the time I got my start as a barista.
Laeticia and I shared a mentor, have similar tasting styles, and easily align on notes and scores. Uzziel once hosted me at his former post at Starbucks’s lab in Kigali, ushering me through one of the largest single cuppings I can recall. They’re now my primary contacts and some of the tasters I trust most anywhere. Quality sampling is a critical ingredient to the specialty sector, and a well-calibrated export partner makes all the difference.
After the cupping, I press them to hurry, as our agenda includes a 3-plus-hour drive to the west, to Lake Kivu. I’m reminded more than once about “Africa time” by my hosts, acknowledging our unhurried pace to meet my impossibly tight schedule. I wish I’d had more time; a feeling that conflicts with my fear of imposing and overstaying my welcome.
Uzziel and I and our driver Janvier climb into a jeep, while Claudine Kantengwa, the Managing Director of Kivubelt Coffee, and her quality specialist Axel Ngarambe will follow. Outside of the city, a network of suburb districts and semi-rural agriculture dot the landscape; rice and bananas in the valleys, coffee and bananas in the hills. Many of the houses look new, many with tile roofs instead of the tin I’d seen in 2015.
Kivubelt’s a deep relationship for me; I met its founder, Rwandan-born Furaha Umwizeye a decade prior and bought her coffee nearly every year since. However, Furaha resides in Switzerland with her husband (and the business’s primary investor) whose health is in decline. Claudine, the managing director, is my new primary contact.
We soon stop for coffee at a newly built establishment to let the duo from Kivubelt catch up. There’s nothing to do but kill time, despite the urgency I feel to stay on the road. I order an espresso and pause at the juice menu. Janvier asks for mango and I follow suit. Uzziel orders tree tomato.
“Maybe I should have tree tomato also. Will it be very sour?”
“Not so sour.”
He’s right. It’s a warm, frothy freshly pressed semi-smoothie. The espresso is pleasantly and surprisingly tart, roasted lighter than I expected. It’s a little after two in the afternoon on a Friday and the place is pretty quiet aside from the 5 or so staff, but its existence alone implies a curiosity for hand-crafted beverages outside of Kigali’s city limits.
Rwanda is Africa’s most densely populated nation, a country of some 14 million people crowded into borders roughly the square acreage of Vermont. There is always someone close by. The faces are full and bright, the clothing colorful. Everyone wears shoes or sandals, and livestock are everywhere, plenty of goats but also many cattle and some pigs (I’m later informed at restaurants that you may casually order “the Benz” and receive pork, denoting its status on top of the pyramid).
“Do you feel Rwanda is better off now than ten years ago?” I ask Uzziel, back in the car.
“I can tell. I’m not sure I can say the same for the US.”
“Maybe the thing that is worse here is the roads.”
As if on cue, the smooth tarmac suddenly gives way to a broken patchwork of potholes and gaps in the pavement more common than the alternative, and we slow to a crawl.
We eventually crest a tall peak and can see for miles ahead, the sparkling still waters of Lake Kivu just barely visible before us. I let out a small sigh of gratitude and exhaustion, knowing we were near the destination.
Janvier looks at me, having been mostly silent for the trip, and in perfect English inquires, “Do you know why it’s called the land of a thousand hills?”
The reference is to the country’s nickname. The question, hanging in the air as it is without answer, begins to feel less rhetorical and more like the setup for a joke for which Janvier has forgotten the punchline.
“Mm-hmm” I nod.
Claudine and Axel pull up behind us in Kibuye, the city on the shoreline and at the crossroads of two highways, and it’s the first I’ve seen Claudine animated. Even though they’ve lagged behind us, she’s anxious to move us along to Jarama, a location I hadn’t realized was another 90 minutes south. The discrepancy between timeframes and destinations I hadn’t understood earlier comes into relief – Laeticia told me it would take three-and-a-half hours to reach the west, while Claudine told me five. They’re both right. There’s nothing to do but to continue on.
Uzziel and I clamber back into the jeep and Janvier sets us back on the road. Axel and Claudine soon pass us. It becomes suddenly clear that the roads are no longer what’s keeping us from traveling at pace. Janvier’s cautious driving through pot-hole-riddled roads between Kigali and Kibuye translates into an uncomfortably sluggish pace as we race the sunset on the slick tarmac.
There are signs here and there of landslides, a slick of foot-thick mud on a hairpin turn that slows us to a crawl, and a pile of trees by a guardrail. The main road skirts the lake’s edge and the headlands here are dramatically steep. Just two days prior sudden hillside erosion events had killed over a hundred residents in the west, and even more across the border in DRC.
The lake waters, out the window on my right, are calm and elegantly reflective. The air is cool now that the sun lingers on the cusp of the horizon. Intermittent clouds linger over the hills and refract the last rays of light into spectacular shades of peach and lavender. The day’s light dies with aplomb.
A few electric lights greet us at Jarama, where scattered staff members are receiving the last deliveries of the day’s harvest. Coffee Washing Stations like Jarama are multifunctional operations: smallholders will deliver their pickings to the centrally located mill, where employees sort and then process the coffee.
Processing typically involves mechanically removing the coffee’s outer fruit layers, fermenting the remaining seeds overnight, often underwater, washing the next morning, and then carrying the damp, heavy husk-covered beans to elevated mesh-covered platforms where they’ll be spread out, sorted by hand, and allowed to dry over a few weeks in the sun.
Defeat is in the air as Claudine seeks to summon the energy to give me the tour in the dark. We gather in a small makeshift café under the station where I’m pressed to order a coffee from an employee who seems to have been waiting interminably behind the bar for us to arrive. It seems wrong to refuse, and perhaps the caffeine will power me through the next few hours. Exhaustion is setting in and it’s only seven, we must still drive back to Kibuye for dinner and rest.
I watch in silence as the team turns on the depulping machine, a belt-drive mechanical sorting and fruit-stripping device that must be cranked up like an old tractor engine before kicking into gear. It’s a noisy affair, and there’s a little conversation here I haven’t had before. Coffee goes in here, comes out there. Water, energy, spinning gears, sugar-seeking flies swarming over the ripened cherries sitting in plastic bags. The berries smell sweet and radiate a ripening warmth, just hours away from beginning to rot. This is why processing must start at night; the window between perfectly ripe and spoiled is narrow. The task now is to quickly remove the fruit from its precious contents and control the fermentation for a few hours.
We leave them to it, and change plans for tomorrow on the road. We’ll return after a visit to Mahembe, yet another hour away on dirt roads, where the Murundo washing station awaits.
By the light of day, everything is changed.
We returned in the early afternoon to the coffee highlands from Kibuye, driving first to Murundo. After crossing a wooden bridge, Axel pulls off the road and stops. Behind us, another jeep filled with men in uniform black t-shirts, embroidered with the Kivubelt logo, follows suit. The reason we’ve stopped becomes clear after a few meters – the road has washed out.
“Can the trucks still get to the coffee?” I ask.
“They carried bags of parchment by hand at first,” Claudine informs me, “down to the bridge.”
“But they can get pickups across the road now,” Axel adds.
“Coffee keeps moving,” I nod.
We pause at the crack in the road, nearly a foot difference between its new and old position, and observe the washing station in grand view, bulky gray clouds floating like colorless balloons in between the hills. Claudine whispers a prayer of gratitude as a sunbeam breaks through.
The station’s most impressive feature, to me (which I’ve failed to capture on camera), is its fully enclosed and stacked raised bed platform. While traditional beds with yellow tarp spill down the hillside from the washing station, it’s the vinyl tarp-covered multi-story structure that captures my interest. I poke my head inside and it must be nearly 20F warmer than the heat in the afternoon sun outside.
Axel grabs me by the shoulder and spins me around outside the greenhouse.
“You know how we can tell it will rain?” he asks, looking at the clouds. This is a constant concern during the coffee harvest season – sudden spontaneous rains can ruin an entire field of drying parchment if left unattended.
He pinches my forearm.
“When the sun stings like this, we can tell it will rain soon and we send the women down to cover the coffee,” he points at the beds. Claudine is instructing the workers to lift the tarps as the threat of rain is passing, and because every visitor must run their hand through the pile of drying parchment. It’s tradition.
Much like I’d see the following week in Burundi at JNP’s Turihamwe station, the Murundo site is bustling with activity and brimming with coffee. These women-led enterprises have found ways to keep farmers coming back, and even in one of the leanest years in recent memory their stations continue to stay busy.
I’m completely exhausted from lack of sleep, jetlag, and a bout of traveler’s sickness the evening prior, but we all pause for group photos and on the hike back to the trucks Claudine breaks out in song. It seems magical to me, her joy and exuberance. I’ve forgotten to note any of the usual details: how many contributing farmers, how long to dry the parchment, how many metric tons per season… I can ask again later. There are some meetings, however, that can never be emails, and this is beginning to feel like one of that sort.
We make our way down the dirt road and back to the main, winding paved highway along the lakeshore, once again racing the sunset to Jarama, but the mood light and airy. We turn a corner and the same road we’d traversed in darkness the night prior has been fully transformed, three feet of soil cover the pavement and a line of cars has formed on both sides.
Claudine calls ahead to a driver from the station and she and I jump out and walk. A child on a hillside, looking down on the chaos calls out, and others echo.
I chuckle a little to myself, wave.
“The first English they’re taught in the schools is to say ‘Good morning, Teacher,’” Claudine tells me.
“They must practice on all the muzungus.”
“Yes,” she laughs.
As we cross the narrow, muddy slick on a hairpin, some banana leaves have been laid down where others preceded us to cross the most treacherous part of the path. The crowd is pressed in close here, though mostly the passage is clear. I can hear the whispered “muzungu” buzzing in my ear. I’m out of place here; unexpected. What is it exactly that I’m muddying my Sambas for, here in rural Rwanda? Someone extends a hand, which I take as I step across gingerly on squishy soil.
The driver meets us on the road a half-mile or less further, and we reach the station just before sunset. Axel and the rest find a backroad and rejoin us shortly after. Other than the last rays of the sun and some heat lightning in the distance, the scene is much the same as last night, but now colored by victory – we’ve made it, seen all the parchment, taken the photos, offered our grateful ‘murakoze chani’s. And I’ve got good news for Claudine and the team – confirmation of intent to purchase. I mark the coffees we cupped at Ikawa House in my notebook, and will send a quick email the next time I’m on wifi.
An unplanned extra evening, compounded with the additional time to avoid the mudslide and traverse dirt roads back to Kibuye, puts me in a new hotel around 11 pm. Claudine is staying elsewhere, I tell her I’ll fend for myself for dinner. We ride at dawn for Kigali the next morning. This is just the beginning of the journey for me, I’m off directly to Dukunde Kawa in the north the moment we’re back in the city.
You can book coffee from Kivubelt with your trader or online from the recently landed 2023 harvest.