Written by Andrea Otte, CCR Head of Coffee
In Late June last year, myself and Alex, our Head of Quality, made the long journey to the town of Muhanga in central Rwanda to meet the members of the Sholi Cooperative, a farmers collective. Arrival into Sholi is via a long dirt road which winds through several small villages, with many friendly greetings lining the way. Sholi’s cooperative offices, wet mill and warehouse are perched on the edge of a steep slope, and a colorful assortment of birds sang from the trees that line the driveway, perched among orchid-laden branches. Signs in Kinyarwanda, English and French posted throughout the complex remind visitors to respect the natural environment.
Our visit was timed with the end of the Rwandan coffee harvest, which runs from April to June each year. The purpose of our visit was to meet the cooperative, in particular the leaders of the women’s association, who have been selling coffee to Caravan for three years. The coop’s general manager is Nshimiye Aimable, whose ambitions for the 690 member cooperative were evident from the offset.
Touring the facilities with him, he pointed out numerous projects and areas of improvement, including a new coffee tree nursery, an organic compost facility, and new drying beds for natural coffees. As we walked around the wet mill in the afternoon heat, another reason for our visit was visible – natural coffees drying to a deep purple, the smell of sweet raisin rising in the air.
In the summer of 2021, Caravan and Sholi began a small but ambitious competiton, designed to encourage and reward those farmers who deliver the year’s best crop. The competition focuses (for now) only on the coop’s natural process coffees, as those lots are selected from the best cherry collected throughout the harvest. Holding the cupping via Zoom, as was the requirement of the time, that first year proved to be an awkward execution but ultimately exciting opportunity – a chance to build rapport with their quality team and to celebrate the farmer’s efforts.
While the original plan was to pay a cash premium to the winners, Aimable approached us after that first competition with a request from the participants – instead of cash, they would prefer a premium that pays dividends all year round. What sort of premium is that, you ask? The sort which runs on four legs, gives milk, eats everything in sight – do you get where I’m going? A goat! We agreed, and with goat-sourcing support provided by Aimable, a couple months later a team of Sholi staff held a ceremony to give the goats to the winning farmers.
This past summer, at our second inaugural and first in-person competition, we cupped through several tables of samples alongside the talented quality team at Sholi, scoring the coffees on the SCA cupping scale. Narrowing down the top ten took two days, followed by a close assessment to determine this year’s ‘Top Lot’. Once announced, the winning lot was separated and the farmer’s informed of their success. All participants received detailed feedback on their coffee’s performance in the competition, a way to increase understanding of what buyers and consumers are looking for in a great cup and encourage even better coffee year on year.
After the season had ended, and all coffee exported to its homes across the globe, the goat ceremony took place in the square in front of the cooperative’s office. Goats are an amazing resource for farmers, their voracious appetites and undiscerning tastes working to clear weeds and food scraps, and providing manure which is used to fertilise the coffee trees. On top of this, they produce milk which can be eaten or sold, and can produce baby goats (and let’s be honest, who doesn’t love a baby goat). The families who received the goats can expect this special premium will provide benefits much farther into the future than a one-off cash payment.
Though quality is an important aspect of how we buy coffee, it is by no means the only reason we work with a particular farmer or producer group. The journey to great quality coffee involves many different factors, not all of which are under the farmers’ control (or the roasters’, for that matter). The reason we pay more for our coffee is not only to enjoy a fantastic tasting brew, but also because we understand the many challenges at play in the places we source from, and how fair compensation and relationship building can alleviate some of those pressures. However, and in the case of this amazing 2022 Sholi Top Lot, sometimes it is important that we celebrate and reward just how delicious coffee can be!
For us, it was a genuine pleasure to get to know the members of Sholi cooperative during our visit, and to reward the best of this year’s harvest – a trip we cannot wait to make again this summer. We will be featuring this year’s Sholi Top Lot for a limited time as a single origin filter, but get it while you can because this author will be consuming slightly more than her fair share!