KIGALI, RWANDA – After near extinction, Rwanda’s coffee industry and reputation as a country of origin for specialty coffee have ‘perked up’ to where Rwanda has been chosen to host Africa’s first Cup of Excellence competition in August.
The Cup of Excellence is an internationally sanctioned and highly prestigious coffee competition and online auction of the best specialty coffees in the world, according to event organizers.
“As the host country of the first Cup of Excellence competition in Africa, Rwanda will set the stage and create the benchmark for the rest of the quality coffee-producing countries on the continent where coffee was born,” said Susie Spindler, Cup of Excellence director. “The farmers of Rwanda have worked very hard to produce exquisite coffee. We are pleased by the support these farmers have received from even the highest levels of their government and think this competition will have thrilling results.”
The Cup of Excellence is a strict competition selecting the best coffee produced in a country for that particular year, she said.
“But the competition is more than that,” Spindler added. “It helps build infrastructure by bringing farmers out of anonymity and rewarding them through the competition’s auction results. It also builds a bridge to long-term relationships between the international marketplace and their country.”
“Rwanda is expected to submit about 200 coffees for the competition,” said Dr. Tim Schilling, a project director for the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture of the Texas A&M System, one of the competition’s sponsors. “These coffees will be submitted by some 120 coffee washing stations throughout Rwanda.”
Rwanda’s National Coffee Board, OCIR-Café, will host the event. The organization has been working with farmers and farmer groups since February to establish coffee quality protocols for lot preparation and sample qualification.
“Every local government official, processing center and farmer cooperative in the country has received extensive briefings on the Cup of Excellence,” Schilling said. “The event has helped cement the Rwandan coffee sector.”
Schilling said the competition is particularly significant for Rwanda because its coffee industry was almost non-existent less than a decade ago.
“As recently as 2001, coffee farmers were literally pulling up trees because they couldn’t sell their product,” he said. “Rwanda was being penalized in the world coffee market for poor quality, and it was virtually unknown as a country of origin for specialty coffee.”
But Schilling said due in large measure to the efforts of the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded Sustaining Partnerships to Enhance Rural Enterprise and Agribusiness Development (SPREAD) project, the Rwandan coffee industry has made a remarkable comeback.
The project is an alliance of U.S. and Rwandan agricultural universities, U.S. and European agribusiness and industry, Rwandan enterprises, and U.S. and Rwandan non-governmental organizations. Project activities are led by the Borlaug Institute.
For the past six years, the project has been helping rural Rwandan agricultural co-ops and enterprises by providing technical assistance, hands-on instruction, agribusiness expertise and other support to help Rwandan farmers increase their income and improve their quality of life, said Schilling, who has lived and worked in Rwanda since 2001.
“A lot of this work has been done to help Rwanda professionalize and improve its coffee industry, and now it’s a bona fide contender in the world specialty coffee market and hosting the most prestigious coffee competition in the world,” he said.
Schilling helped bring the Cup of Excellence to Rwanda through his efforts in helping orchestrate Rwanda’s first national coffee competition last year, the 2007 Golden Cup.
“The Golden Cup contest served as a testing ground to demonstrate to Cup of Excellence officials that Rwanda was ready to host their world-renowned competition,” he said.
During the Cup of Excellence, winning coffees are selected through a three-stage process, which begins with pre-selection and is followed by judging by a national and international panel of jurors, officials said.
The international panel judging consists of a rigorous “cupping search process” in which judges rate coffees on a scale of 100 based on characteristics including aroma, sweetness, cleanliness, flavor, acidity, aftertaste and balance.
“The Cup of Excellence competition cycle was conceived with the purpose of finding masterpiece lots of coffee from hundreds of entries,” said George H. Howell, co-creator of the Cup of Excellence and its first head judge. “Three overlapping juries inspect and cup samples in an ever-narrowing field of better and better coffee until the last day.”
This year’s international panel will consist of 24 judges, including coffee experts from the U.S., U.K., France, The Netherlands, Japan and Guatemala, said organizers.
Cup of Excellence competition judging by Rwanda’s national panel will be Aug. 18-22. International panel judging will be Aug. 24-29. Both national and international judging will take place at the Rwandan Small Holder Specialty Coffee Company’s facility in Huye, Butare.
As part of Cup of Excellence event activities, a National Coffee Day celebration on Aug. 29 will be followed by a post-competition awards ceremony at the Serena Hotel in Kigali. The ceremony will be attended by The Honorable Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, as well as Rwanda’s ministers of commerce and agriculture and other dignitaries.
Non-winning coffees from the Cup of Excellence competition will be sold at a live auction to take place on Aug. 29. Winning coffees will be sold via an Internet auction to begin on Oct. 14.
“Rwanda not only has made great strides in coffee production and processing but also in coffee quality evaluation by learning exacting coffee quality ‘cupping’ techniques like those used by international coffee experts,” Schiling said.
During last year’s Rwandan Golden Cup competition, five of the top ten Rwandan coffees scored at least 90/100 as evaluated by that competition’s international jury.
“The winning coffee lot received an exceptionally high auction price of $25 per pound,” Schilling said. “That was unprecedented for a Rwandan specialty coffee and extraordinary for any specialty coffee from any country of origin.”
Schilling said he expects the competition this year will identify some equally impressive Rwandan coffees.
“Rwanda’s time has finally come,” he said. “The Cup of Excellence is the ‘Olympics’ of coffee, and Rwanda is ready to compete on the world stage.”
For more information on the Cup of Excellence, go to http://www.cupofexcellence.org/ .
For information on the Borlaug Institute and SPREAD, go to http://borlaug.tamu.edu/ .
Principal sponsors of this year’s Cup of Excellence competition in Rwanda include: USAID’s SPREAD project, Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture, Alliance for Coffee Excellence, National Coffee Board of Rwanda, the National University of Rwanda and the Rwandan Small Holder Specialty Coffee Company.
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