Americans like to know the stories behind their coffee.
This is one of the surprising facts I’ve learned on my visits to the United States, from my coffee farm in southwest Rwanda.
So let me tell you my story—both what it is, and what I hope it might become.
I grow Arabica coffee in the western part of my country in the middle of Africa on 25 acres that hold about 8,000 coffee trees. I also operate four coffee washing stations, which is where we turn the ripe red cherries plucked from coffee trees into the beans that people around the world enjoy. More than 5,000 other farmers bring their coffee to these stations.
Growing coffee is labor intensive but an important source of revenue for small farmers. Coffee is one of the few crops we can sell and get paid in cash. Rwanda is supporting its farmers and promoting its brand under the slogan: “Rwandan coffee. The Second Sunrise!”
If you’ve ever purchased Costco’s Kirkland brand of Rwandan coffee, then you’ve possibly tasted coffee from my farm or, more likely, from one of my washing stations. We’ve also sold coffee to Starbucks and the Rogers Family Company.
Despite these opportunities, coffee farming presents plenty of challenges.
Like farmers everywhere, we suffer from market volatility and unpredictable weather. Due to climate change, temperatures in our region have risen by a full degree over the last 30 years or so. We receive about the same amount of rainfall as ever, but the rain comes in heavier and more destructive bursts. Finally, the banks are reluctant to finance agricultural projects—and when they do agree, their interest rates can top 18 percent.
Coffee farmers like me need technology to mitigate and adapt to the changes that are happening for which we do not have any control. We have nothing like America’s high-tech tractors, which use computers to analyze soil composition, release exact quantities of fertilizer, and plant seeds into ideal growing conditions. Yet we do try to boost our productivity by matching the needs of the soil with the right amount of fertilizer.
The antestia bug is a major pest and we control it with crop-protection products. We apply pesticides everywhere at the same time, without surveying the country to know where the bugs are bad—and where the pesticides might do the most good. Using technology would give us the information we need to make better application decisions with more effective use of the crop protection products.
Finally, technology can improve post-harvest techniques, thus reducing crop losses. A recent study claimed that we’re losing about 30 percent of our production each year to poor post-harvest practices.
In other areas, technology has helped us make great progress. Every Rwandan coffee farm has been surveyed by GPS, providing clear land titles to agricultural plots. This allows us to use our land as collateral for bank loans. Farmers also communicate through mobile phones and social media, allowing us to trade news and information faster than ever before.
One day, I hope we’ll also have access to genetically modified technologies, so that we can grow coffee trees that resist disease and drought. This would help us defend and improve our yields, especially as we confront the looming problem of climate change.
So far, science has not delivered on this prospect—though it’s probably only a matter of time. Our ultimate test, however, won’t come from science. It will come from consumer acceptance, and the possibility that some of our customers in distant lands will fail to understand the promise of GMO coffee.
We depend on these buyers. If they want organic coffee, then that’s what we’ll grow. Yet it would make sense for everyone if Rwandan farmers could begin to experiment with the safe technologies that have benefitted the farming of cotton, corn, and soybeans in so many other countries.
For us, there’s a direct connection between better technology and better lives.
Right now, most Rwandans farmers are subsistence farmers who grow what they need for themselves and their families. Coffee, however, is a cash crop: We can grow it and get paid for what we produce. This allows us to afford school fees for our children and medical insurance for our families. We can also invest in livestock, possibly buying a goat or a pig or even a cow.
If I could say one thing to an American who drinks Rwandan coffee each morning, it would be this: Thank you for making it possible for us to educate our children and care for our families.
And if I could add one more thing: Enjoy your cup of coffee.
*Pierre’s column also appeared Dec 15, 2016 in The New Times (Rwanda)