Rwanda Part One: Primus Guma Guma Superstar

To be very clear from the get-go, we are not Rwanda experts, or East African specialty coffee experts, or travel experts or yellow fever inoculation experts. But we are most assuredly here, working from the Hotel des Mille Collines, which most of the world knows from the film “Hotel Rwanda” but is in actuality a lovely several-star luxury hotel perched high above the endless rolling hills of urban Kigali. Next week we’ll be back in the United States, and will return to photoshopping you and your colleagues in horrendous flagrante delicato, but for now… we’re here in Rwanda, and we’re going to talk to you about it for a week, so we hope that’s cool.

We’ll be acquiring and dropping travel partners throughout the week, but for today we’re running around Kigali with Richard Sandlin and Ben Schmerler, both of Fair Trade USA, along with Tim Hill of Counter Culture Coffee and Cory Bush of Falcon Commodities, a UK-based green coffee trading company. There’s a USAID caravan touring Burundi right now, and meeting up with them would be awesome, but crossing that border is likely not in the cards; we’re also crisscrossing paths with Colby Barr of Verve Coffee Roasters, and hopefully we’ll be able to hang out with him a little bit while we’re here this week.

Ben and Cory have spent vast chunks of the last 5 years in East Africa, as has Tim Hill, who is in Rwanda directly following travel in Burundi and has a backpack full of Burundi green to prove it; these are people who measure their lives in additional passport inserts. Equally well-traveled is Patricia Chin-Sweeney, an in-field projects manager for I-DEV who will be traveling with us as well for much of the week. She’s staying at the nearby Banana Hotel, which is just down the hill from the Gorillas Hotel, in case you were wondering.

Our first day is spent walking around the area immediately surrounding the Mille Collines, including a visit to a nearby shopping mall to visit a Bourbon Coffee cafe, a pretty nice local chain of cafes featuring a variety of Rwandan coffees. Listed under the “Expresso Hot Drinks” portion of the menu are options like “Farmers Choice”, a shot of espresso pulled into a capp cup and drizzled with local honey, and “African Coffee”, a kind of mid-2000s competition coffee signature drink made with chocolate, ginger, steamed milk, foam, and a double shot. The weather outside is a gorgeous 65 degrees, overcast and misting rain, which is the first taste of “Portland weather” we’ve had since leaving home 2 weeks ago.

A few hours later we head to the KZ Noir cupping lab in the nearby Gikondo neighborhood (for more on KZ Noir, please see here). Located in a small building compound above a petrol station, accessible up a few flights of stairs, the lab is bordered by red brick courtyard walls; the compound includes an access driveway out front and a small garden in the back, where the KZ Noir staff are growing carrots. Gikondo is a hillside neighborhood, though that’s true of pretty much every neighborhood in Kigali, and the lab is perched overlooking an industrial valley, and beyond that a concrete & metal shanty town cobbled together up the opposite hillside.

KZ Noir has a Pinhalense sample roaster on site, powered by its own “automatic stabilizer”, and they’ve used it to sample roast 20 different lots of coffee from around several private washing stations. On hand are staff from KZ Noir and Bufcafe, a relatively famed private washing station that we’ll be visiting next week. It’s worth mentioning that none of these washing stations currently have a relationship with FTUSA, though some of the recent changes at FTUSA mean that this could change in the future, if Ben and the Fair Trade staff decide that’s best. We’re here because the reps from these stations enjoy a close relationship with Falcon and Counter Culture Coffee, and everyone in the group seems to know each other in that way that speaks to years of doing business together whilst simultaneously hanging out; there’s a lot of catching up on the kids, the family, and the state of specialty coffee around East Africa. Sam Muhirwa from Bufcafe – whom we’ll be profiling in further depth later this week – recognizes us from the Intelligentsia ECW event in Los Angeles last fall, and greets us both with a big familiar hug.

On the way home, we past multiple billboards advertising something called “Primus Guma Guma Superstar“, which we understand to be a sort of Rwandan Idol singing competition; sign after sign advocate for a whole host of musical acts, including Knowlese, Jay Boly, Bulldog, Dream Boys, and Riderman, who is wearing by far the coolest clothes of anybody in the Gumma Gumma Superstar contest (at least in our group’s opinion). Today was a really urban day; tomorrow we’re going to the first of several cooperatives we’ll be seeing on this trip, though the real legs of the week won’t start til Tuesday, when we head west to Lake Kivu to visit several more cooperatives, and hopefully not die on the gnarly mountain roads.

Follow our exploits in Rwanda all week long on Sprudge. Coverage made possible by Fair Trade USA.