Rwanda Part 3 – Organic Agro & Lil Wayne

And he’ll tell her – He’s working late again
But she knows too well there’s something goin’ on.

By virtue of its inclusion on our Land Rover driver’s country-western mix CD, Kenny Rogers’ classic “Daytime Friends” has gone micro-viral this week amongst our traveling group. This song was a #1 hit on the Country Western charts in August 1977, and stayed on the C/W charts for more than 12 weeks. The Gambler’s masterpiece is absolutely unstoppably awesome, and provides further fodder for the argument that 1977 was the greatest year in music history, but we digress…

She’s been neglected – and she needs a friend
So her trembling fingers dial the telephone.

Essays like this one the two that precede it are meant to be a synthesis of multiple days and experiences we’ve had over the last week in Rwanda. Did you watch that Kenny Rogers video yet? Good, we’ll just go ahead and dive right in. More formal write-ups of the washing stations and cooperatives are located elsewhere on Sprudge. All of this coverage was made possible by Fair Trade USA.

We’ve been keenly focused on asking questions about organic certification during this trip, primarily because of our involvement and advocacy of Counter Culture’s “Save Our Soil” campaign, but also because, y’know, “organic” is one of those things we see on labels and literature in the consumer West, and to be able to see it enacted or hear it discussed at origin is surely a chance for education. What we’ve found is, while organic certification is a matter of enormous pride (or future ambition) for many of the private and cooperative washing stations here in Rwanda, others are focused on pushing different priorities first and foremost, particular the notions of “quality” and “volume”. We don’t believe it’s our place as journalists to place value judgments on how priorities are ordered by Rwandan washing station owners and cooperative associations, but we do think it’s fair to talk through what we saw there as it relates to organic agriculture, with an eye towards how this cycles back to us in the West.

Coffee quality and organic agriculture are not mutually exclusive – far from it. Several of the high-quality washing stations we visited were in the process of obtaining organic certification, and already consider themselves “functionally organic”. Abakundakawa‘s two washing stations predict organic certification by 2014, and the same goes for all four stations serviced by Dukunde Kawa, including the currently en vogue Coko washing station (pronounced “cho-ko”, and very much part of Dukunde Kawa as opposed to being its own cooperative outright). One group we talked to, the Fair Trade certified Abahuzamugambi Cooperative in Maraba, pointed to environmental protection as one of their chief goals, and talked us through how FTUSA premiums had allowed them to successfully address their waste water concerns in an environmentally responsible way. They’re concentrating now on building a solar power station with revenue from the 2011 harvest, and deeply concerned about market fluctuations that may require them to overpay farmers in 2013 to keep pace with the payment rates from 2012 and 2011, which are now expected by the coop member farmers.

Only one washing station we visited during our trip had formal organic certification. The Kabirizi station is part of COOPAC, a former coopeartive organization on Lake Kivu that is now managed under joint ownership between a private owner and its member cooperatives. COOPAC attained organic certification for Kabirizi from the French agency ECOCERT in 2011, which is right around the same time Rwandan president Paul Kigame forced COOPAC’s longtime managing director, Emmanuel Nzungize, to buy the cooperative and make it private in order to 1. pay off debts to the Rwandan governement and 2. alter COOPAC’s tax status. COOPAC is the largest and most financially successful cooperative / whatever it is now in all of Rwanda, and such are the perils of success.

Anyway, like all things in Rwanda, if you start talking about one thing you wind up talking about five things. Let’s go back to a fundamental and provable truth in the global supply chain: Agricultural and processing practices that earn a higher price become intensely desirable for the people whose livelihoods depend on that price. We saw this as a reality all over Rwanda in relation to the concept of quality – the leader of the Duhingekawa women’s organization at Abakundekawa called us out on it, actually, when she accurately said “You are here because of the quality of our coffee!” – and now high quality coffee produced in Rwanda, and elsewhere, can strive to be detached from the cruel fluctuations of the C-market.

This is all directly and entirely because of you, and your roaster and your importer and your exporter, because all of you are now willing to pay more money for delicious coffee. If a similar trend takes root for organic coffee, gains momentum, becomes something we demand and expect as specialty coffee lovers, we’ll likely see organic agricultural practices become more important to the livelihoods of farmers and cooperative managers and washing station owners in Rwanda, and elsewhere. You yourself can push this concept by requesting organic coffees from your favorite roasters, by talking about organic options from your importer or spot coffee provider, and by willingly paying more for organic coffees each step of the way when the option is made available. That money actually really does go back to these places on the other side of the world, and can enact real change there, no shade.

And Lord, it hurts her – doin’ this again
He’s the best friend that her husband ever knew.

We want to take a moment to again state what a personal joy it was for us to meet Epiphanie and Sam Muhirwa, of Buf Cafe. Several roasters whose work at origin is an inspiration to us – particularly Intelligentsia and Counter Culture – have longstanding relationships with the Muhirwas, whose coffee quality has impressed and delighted us and many others for years. It was our pleasure to pass along greetings to Sam and Epiphanie from a few members of the North American specialty coffee community, and we won’t go into more detail here other than to say, they were happy to hear from you and they say “Hi”.

When she’s lonely – he’s more than just a friend
He’s the one she longs to give her body to.

On the long and stunning drive along the shores of Lake Kivu to check out the Kinunu washing station, driving up and down and up and down red clay switchbacks, we were almost constantly greeted by a variety of cheers and waves from the people we passed by. We’re told that Gisenyi, a region that encompasses around half of the Lake Kivu shoreline in Rwanda, is a relatively wealthy place. Coffee plays a large part in that, but also the soil here is just wildly fecund, so there’s plenty to grow and sell and eat, plus the lake serves as a kind of transit highway for people buying and selling all manner of agricultural goods. The large Primus beer factory in the city of Gisenyi proper also contributes to a higher standard of living in the region. So anyway, we were greeted by a whole range of reactions from people over the age of 16 on our drive out to Kinunu – some smile, some wave, some stare, some kind of grimace at us, some say “hello” or “bonjour” or “amakuru” or “comera, comera” (which mean “hello” and “have strength” in Kinyarwanda).

But the kids? The kids here on Lake Kivu absolutely lose their collective shit as we drive by, pointing and shouting “Abazungu! Abazungu!” at our cars, which loosely translated means “A bunch of white people! A bunch of white people!” At one point we drive through a private religious school, and our cars are engulfed by a flood of uniformed school children, chasing after the car and generally just flipping out. It’s uhm, it’s an experience, and thinking about it gets pretty complicated pretty quickly, but that’s what happened to us as we drove along the back roads on Lake Kivu, and we just waved and said “hi” and got sunburned hanging out the side of our car.

Daytime friends are night time lovers
hopin no one else discovers
where they go- what they do
in their secret hideaway

North American culture cognitive dissonance watch: we spotted Beavis & Butthead, Eminem, St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves t-shirts along our drive to Kinunu, and in the city of Gisenyi, right on the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there is a giant mural of Lil Wayne, bling’d out beyond belief, a primal wail of eternal graffiti fresco.

Daytime friends are nighttime lovers –
They don’t want to hurt the other
So they love – In the nighttime –
And shake hands in the light of day.

This recap has been giant and freewheeling, so thanks for sticking with us if you’re still sticking with us; we’re almost done with our time here, just a few more features left to go. On a personal note, all of the notation for this trip was taken on a “Columbia University Journalism School” pen. This is funny and ironic because we wouldn’t be here, writing and filming and listening to Kenny Rogers in Rwanda, had either of us decided to go back to school.

And when it’s over – there’s no peace of mind
Just a longin’ for the way things should have been.
And she wonders – Why some men never find
That a woman needs a lover and a friend.

Photo Credits:

Epiphanie Portrait by Mercanta

Lil Wayne Mural by Hexodus