Coffee, a pick-me-up for Rwanda

By Kate Kilpatrick
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Emblazoned on the windows of Bourbon Coffee is the phrase "Murakaza neza," which in the Rwandan language of Kinyarwanda means "We welcome you with blessings."

Rwanda is better known for the 1994 genocide that left more than 800,000 people dead than for its cappuccino. But that doesn't stop Arthur Karuletwa, founder of Bourbon Coffee, from dreaming big.

"If done right, it could be the platform to re-brand the country," says Karuletwa, former chief executive and now a shareholder in the company. Coffee can "create awareness that there's recovery, there's trade, there's investment opportunities, there's tourism. There's life after death."

After opening three stores in Kigali, Rwanda, over the past three years, Bourbon expanded operations to Washington in July, taking over a converted Starbucks at 21st and L streets NW. The cafe is furnished with dark wood tables and red-leather-upholstered chairs; the walls are painted gold, moss green and burnt orange; woven baskets and traditional African motifs decorate the shelves and walls.

General Manager Bosco Munga, a Rwandan native and former refugee, says the location was chosen in part because of its proximity to international aid and sustainability organizations and their employees: The U.S. Green Building Council shares the building; the Peace Corps is down the street. A fair amount of the U.S. aid pumped into Rwanda over the past decade can be traced to surrounding lobbyists and nonprofit organizations.

Plans call for Bourbon to open a cafe in Boston at the end of the year, and later a New York location. Unlike the D.C. shop, those stores will offer on-site roasting and daily cuppings.

Although Bourbon is the only District coffee shop to specialize in Rwandan coffee, several others, including Peregrine Espresso in the Eastern Market neighborhood, feature Rwandan cups on their rotating menus.

"Obviously in D.C. we have a lot of development types who have a sense of the back story, so that sort of education sets it up in a way that might be different if people weren't as familiar with what happened in Rwanda," says Peregrine owner Ryan Jensen. "But you could not have any idea about Rwandan people and still enjoy the coffee."

Since the late 1990s, post-genocide Rwanda has been on a fast track to rebuild coffee farms and improve the quality of beans to cater to the specialty market.

In Rwanda, traditionally a tea-drinking country, coffee is closely linked to reconciliation, Karuletwa says.

"Coffee is a very intimate, emotional product," he says. "The preparation, the processes and the profiling of coffee is similar to wine." Those processes, he adds, must be shared and passed down to be properly developed and preserved. Complicating matters more, the "land of a thousand hills" is dotted with tiny coffee farms that produce small batches that are difficult to monitor for quality control.

"There are over 500,000 farmers that own 100 to 200 trees in the back of their yards, so the only way they can come up with a product is to come together in a cooperative sense," says Karuletwa. Coffee farmers in Rwanda, he says, are learning to work together, trust each other and be accountable to each other: "Neighbors that once killed each other and communities that once floated in the same bloodbath are now hand in hand producing one of the most amazing products."

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