The famed Buf Cafe washing station is high, high up in the mountains near the village of Karaba, in the Ginkongoro prefecture in south-central Rwanda. Buf’s story has been told and told again in the specialty coffee industry, and for good reason: Epiphanie Muhirwa has become a superstar in global specialty, a living emblem of Rwandan economic recovery through top-grade specialty coffee. Buf Cafe started operation in the year 2000, after funding aid from the Rwandan Development Bank and USAID’s PEARL project, directly paid for by United States taxpayers. Sam Muhirwa, Epiphanie’s son, now oversees daily operations at Buf Cafe.
The coffee collected and processed by Buf is special, though the relationship it has to the surrounding community is somewhat opaque. Buf Cafe is a private washing station, owned wholly by the Muhirwa family, processing coffee cherry from two distinct cooperatives in the Ginkongoro prefecture: Cobabakagi (1300 members) and Terimbere Kawa Yacu (between 400-600 members). They also collect cherry from farmers in other regions, siphoning away outside cooperative output by placing collection sites within the operating zones of other established groups. We personally saw one such collection zone near the Dukunde Kawa cooperative’s offices, and have been told by knowledgeable sources that this is a common practice for Buf Cafe throughout North and South Central Rwanda.
Because of these practices and its financially privatized nature, Buf Cafe is not certified by either FLO or Fair Trade USA. An argument can be made that, operating under FTUSA’s new small shareholder pilot program, private stations like Buf Cafe could someday achieve certification, due to their exemplary wage rates for contributing farmers and commitment to social services for the cooperatives they do choose to work with. For such a certification to be achieved, Buf’s practice of buying coffee from non-participating individual members from outside cooperatives would likely have to end. An argument can also be made that Buf Cafe’s quality output is so enormously high – they annually place in the top of Rwanda’s COE rankings – precisely because of the degree of flexibility afforded to them as a privately owned station. In researching this piece, we’ve concluded that there is a great deal of inaccurate information available as to the ownership nature of Buf Cafe, implying that it is in some way partially owned between the Mukashyaka family and its contributing cooperatives. We are in no way authorities on the matter, but as per information given to us directly by Sam Muhirwa, this portrayal of Buf Cafe’s operational structure is simply incorrect, or at the very least opaque indeed.
Buf Cafe operates two separate washing stations – Nyrusiza and Remera. The larger of the two, Remera sits at 1950 meters, and on the drive there we reached hilltop elevations nearing 2200 meters. You can feel Buf Cafe’s elevation simply hiking around the mill, not to mention the endless vantage points stretching out hundreds of miles to the north from Buf’s verdant green box canyon setting. This is the highest elevation washing station we’ll visit all week long in Rwanda, and it feels like it. Processing here follows the Rwandan standard, with a floating tank sort, 8-12 hour dry fermentation, second sort for weight using water shoots, then a 24 hour soak prior to hand washing and hand sorting, concluded by placement on a dramatic tableau of raised drying beds on the mountain valley floor. Similar practices are followed at Nyarusiza. Contributing farmers grow Bourbon, Jackson, and Mbezi coffee varieties, a tree triumvirate ubiquitous across the coffee lands of Rwanda.
We also had the rare opportunity to look in on Buf Cafe’s dry mill facility, which serves both wet mills. Even better, we got to eat lunch with Sam and Epiphanie at their family-owned restaurant in Karaba (on the menu: Brochette of goat, grilled banana, fresh and euphorically hot scotch bonnet pepper). Their dry mill is located in Karaba itself, where we personally watched the Buf Cafe folks measure the moisture content of coffee still covered in moisture, then put the beans into an enormous circular air dryer, then transfer those beans into the hulling machine, this great herky jerky piece of industrial workmanship made by something called Blair Engineering.
Buf Cafe has been exported, imported, purchased and roasted by the highest echelons of specialty coffee for much of the last decade, most visibly and consistently by Counter Culture Coffee, and with attenuated roast intentionality by Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters, Detour Coffee, Market Lane, and Gimme! Coffee (Ed. note: An incomplete list if there ever was one). Buf has been distributed recently as spot green in the United States by Mercanta, and in Australia by Melbourne Coffee Merchants, to name just two.
Detour’s Buf Cafe roast as featured by Coffee Common.