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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 March, 2004, 18:16 GMT
Coffee buzz lifts wartorn Rwanda
By Ben Richardson
BBC News Online business reporter

Packet of coffee
Supermarkets in the UK and US are now stocking Rwandan coffee
Gemima Mukashyaka's smile beams out from the packets of coffee that have been produced by her cooperative in Rwanda's hilly south.

Wrapped up against the London cold in a jacket that is a couple of sizes too big, the 26-year-old grower seems far less jovial.

In a quiet, unhurried voice Ms Mukashyaka explains how difficult life was following the genocide that killed eight of her family in 1994.

"Everybody was struggling on their own to produce what they could," she says without looking up from her cup of sweet tea.

"To sell to producers, we would have to travel long distances."


The turning point came when a handful of growers joined forces to deal with Rwanda's national coffee company, allowing them to get a "better price and bargain as one voice".

The cooperative, helped by groups such as US Agency for International Development, has now swelled to about 1,500 members and has an agreement to supply the Union Coffee Roasters (UCR).

Gemima Mukashyaka and UCR's Jeremy Torz
Gemima Mukashyaka's life has been changed by the cooperative

The UK company is an advocate of fair trade and buys its beans from countries around the globe, including Brazil, Ethiopia, Java and Zambia.

While UCR is a profit-making business, it does pay a premium for the raw beans in the belief it improves the product as well as the lives of the growers.

At a time when global coffee prices are in a 30-year slump, it is an outlook that can make all the difference.

Making a living

"From the money I earned, I was also able to hire labourers, buy clothes for me and my children, buy food, and even afford our local beer," Ms Mukashyaka says.

"I was able to subscribe to the health care system and build a new house for our family."

As well as improving her life on an economic level, Ms Mukashyaka says that working together with her neighbours is helping to ease tensions within the country.

While money can never erase the memories of a slaughter that saw more than 800,000 people butchered during a crazed few months, the cooperative is helping people to look past the ethnic divisions that so split the country.

"It has changed my social life by putting me in contact with others like me who had suffered from the genocide," Ms Mukashyaka explains, running a hand over her close-cropped hair.

"Before, my problems at home were very difficult to resolve. There was no one to help me. It has brought a spirit of togetherness that is part of the process of reconciliation."

Looking ahead

The theme of putting the past to rest is echoed by Rwanda's Agriculture Minister Patrick Habamenshi.

In a sparsely decorated embassy office near London's Marylebone railway station, the minister explains that "the last 10 years have been a period of healing, of reaffirming who we are as a nation".

Coffee beans
The key is producing fewer, higher quality beans that cost more

For its part, the government wants more and more farmers to merge.

They should concentrate on one cash crop, Mr Habamenshi says, and understand that instead of living at a subsistence level, they can make money from the land in the same way a lawyer can from the law.

Making a choice

Fair trade and partnerships with companies such as UCR are vital to improving conditions in a country where Mr Habamenshi estimates that six out of 10 people live below the poverty line.

African farm
Some African nations want to reduce their dependence on farming

"International terms of trade are overwhelmingly unfavourable to us," he says.

"What fair trade does is tell the story behind the product."

"It gives the consumer a chance to participate in rebuilding a country that was almost completely destroyed."

It also gives the growers direct access to the market place and helps them learn about international commerce, he says.

"I want to see a population that is more empowered to make their own choices and decisions."


Watching the lunch time trade drink coffee and eat cakes, Ms Mukashyaka is glad she has had the chance to come to London and see how popular the drink is.

Seeing the roasting and packaging process, as well as the thought of it being appreciated so far from home, will give the growers the impetus to further improve their product, she says.

Putting down her spoon, Ms Mukashyaka talks about a rainbow of hope stretching from her homeland and the smile returns to her face.

Ethiopia swaps coffee for drugs
10 Dec 03  |  Africa
Co-op moves to fair trade coffee
13 Nov 03  |  Business
Kenyan coffee faces tough 2003
15 Apr 03  |  Business

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