Cooperatives turning coffee farming into profitable business

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Coffee berries. (File)

For many years, Ferdinand Ahobamuteze had been attracted to coffee growing. But, while he hoped his dream to grow quality coffee would materialise, the traditional farming techniques he shared with other farmers in his community was always a challenge. The resident of Ngoma Sector in Ngoma District in Eastern Province would only hear from others that coffee was a lucrative crop but, for him, it was not the case.

“We did not produce enough and the little we had would be sold locally and it only benefited the middlemen. We did not know the value of coffee we were growing even if we knew it was being exported,” says Ahobamuteze.

He said farmers were faced with many challenges, ranging from lack of modern farming skills to poor farming practices which resulted into poor yields.

In 2000s, farmers began forming cooperatives and tried to work together to boost their productivity. They formed Abakangukiyekawa cooperative with 227 members.

Years later, with support from the National Agriculture Exports Board (NAEB) they worked with SNV, a Dutch NGO that empowers communities, businesses and organisations with tools, knowledge and connections needed to boost incomes.

Over 50 cooperatives were supported with financial and managerial skills and how to improve productivity, both in quality and quantity, through Coffee Working Stations, linking them to external markets and other skills under “Turn Around” programme.

The partnership started in 2014 and apart from the coops which were already functioning, 40 new others were created, according to the officials.

Three years down the road, farmers and NAEB officials say the partnership is bearing fruit as farmers are benefiting from it.

“We first embraced a new mindset toward modern farming. Before we started working with SNV, we were very disorganised and there was little collaboration among coop members,” Ahobamuteze said.

But he added that since they started working together, their produce increased threefold, from 294 tonnes in 2014 to 726.5 tonnes in 2015. He hopes the trend will continue.

“They taught us how to increase production by applying modern farming methods and using coffee washing stations to get quality coffee beans,” he says.

“They also taught us how to better manage members and our finances. Now we have books where our activities are registered. We have our own offices and almost every member has built a modern house and manages to pay school fees for their children,” he adds.

The cooperative now has 341 members.

According to Dr Celestin Gatarayiha, the coffee division manager at NAEB, SNV has contributed a lot in coffee farming.

There are about 400,000 coffee farmers countrywide, 20 per cent of whom are in cooperatives, he said.

He said that despite fluctuation in coffee prices on the international market, currently the farm gate price is Rwf264 per kilogramme of ripe cherries, up from Rwf160 the previous year.

“The journey is still long. We still have many farmers who are not in cooperatives and it is difficult for them to get good produce. This programme is about to wind up and we call on other stakeholders to come in and support,” Gatarayiha added.

Last year, the national dried coffee produce was 22,000 tonnes, of which 19,000 tonnes were exported and brought in $58 million. This year, NAEB expects to export some 23,000 tonnes, worth $70 million, according to Gatarayiha.

Phomolo Maphosa, the SNV country director, said: “Using the value chain approach, we have addressed bottlenecks and strengthened the chain as a whole with demonstrable results. In total, we have supported 18,295 households, including 7,796 female-headed households. The coops we work with are now profitable operations, producing higher quantities of good quality coffee.”

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