Part II: Rwanda Finds Hope in Coffee
Part I of this series described Rwanda’s burgeoning cooperative movement and its thriving coffee industry, which have combined to alleviate crippling poverty and ethnic tensions in this country. Part II of this series places the current success of Rwanda’s coffee industry in a broader historical context and explains why export oriented development might not be such a good thing after all.
Coffee was introduced to what is now present day Rwanda by Belgium colonialists, who, in 1933, made it compulsory for Rwandan’s to grow coffee on at least a quarter of their land. Even today, more than forty years after independence, coffee has the foul aftertaste of colonialism here and many Rwanda’s refuse to drink it, opting instead for tea. But for highbrow American connoisseurs, Rwandan coffee is a delicacy. Premium coffee roasters, with snooty names like Intelligentsia, are coming to Rwanda in droves and paying upwards of $3.50 a pound for high quality beans. And with entire armies of coffee-sipping yuppies taking over neighborhood cafes in the United States, Rwanda’s coffee bean growers, who now produce some of the world’s highest quality beans, are finally seeing this vestige of colonialism pay off.But is exporting high-end coffee beans for yuppie consumption the best and most sustainable form of economic development? Granted, coffee is currently playing an important role in bringing increased stability and relative prosperity to Rwanda. But what happens if the economy turns south or the market becomes oversaturated, causing coffee prices to plummet? The New York Times notes that when coffee prices crashed five years ago, Rwanda’s farmers were desperately scrambling to grow enough food just for themselves, ?uprooting their coffee trees and planting quick-growing food crops to survive.? For yuppies, the difference between economic growth and economic stagnation is the difference between a grande and a tall mocha at Starbucks. But for many Rwandan farmers, an economic lull can be a life threatening situation.
There is a strong case to be made, I think, that economic activity in Rwanda should not revolve entirely around global commodity markets. That is, developing a diverse range of businesses that meet local needs and patterns of consumption is the best way to foster a dynamic economy that is well equipped to ride out a financial storm. So while investment in coffee is currently a good thing, it should not distract attention away from other business ventures, which directly confront the problems facing Rwandans.
The Musheri Center, for example, is a women’s cooperative that owns a cell phone and sells calls to villagers in Rwanda. According to the Chicago Tribune, the co-op is planning to use a microloan from CARE to purchase a Weza, a foot-powered generator, and charge local residents a small fee for recharging their cell phones and car batteries. Because 95% of Rwandans don?t have access to electricity, the Musheri Center’s business scheme promises to generate a whole lot more than electricity. Being able to work and study after the sun sets, without the health complications associated with kerosene and candles, is perhaps the most tangible benefit of the Musheri Center’s business.
In sum, don?t believe the hype. The coffee industry is booming in Rwanda, but it won?t last forever. So while Rwanda is ahead in the game, it should seize this opportunity, diversify its economy, and invest in more programs like the Musheri Center. If it doesn?t, and it continues to focus exclusively on coffee cultivation, it is very likely that coffee farmers will soon be uprooting their coffee trees and planting fast growing crops just so they can survive.