Burdened by debts, coffee farmers threaten to sue OCIR-CAFÉ

A group of coffee farmers in the Eastern Province are threatening to sue OCIR-Cafe, Rwanda’s Coffee Marketing agency, for allegedly introducing new coffee varieties which failed. 

A group of coffee farmers in the Eastern Province are threatening to sue OCIR-Cafe, Rwanda’s Coffee Marketing agency, for allegedly introducing new coffee varieties which failed. 

The farmers claim that they embraced the growing of new coffee varieties called CATUAI and CATURRA 140 –which was introduced by OCIR-Cafe to replace Arabica coffee which was not doing well at the world market-but the crop did not return good yields as expected. 

The farmers say they acquired bank loans to invest in the failed varieties but they have since sold other personal property to service the loans and hold OCIR-CAFÉ responsible.

Between 1999 and 2002 about 1,423 farmers in the Eastern Province adopted the growing of the new varieties which had been tried by Rwanda Institute of Agricultural Research (ISAR) and distributed by OCIR-CAFÉ.

Farmers argue they were sensitized about the quality and yields they would get from the new types of coffee which convinced many of them to adopt it.

When contacted, Alex Kanyankole, the Director General of OCIR-Cafe said they were in touch with the farmers to find a solution, but he was not aware of the impending legal action.

Many farmers planted nursery beds of the new varieties and sent their projects to Rural Sector Support Project (RSSP), a project that works under the Ministry of Agriculture, seeking for loans.

According to farmers, both RSSP and the Ministry of Agriculture approved their project plans and recommended them to get loans from Rwanda Development Bank (BRD). 

However, in mid 2002, the crop started to wither after one harvest affecting all farmers who had planted it.

Jean de Dieu Butera, one of the affected farmers from Ngoma district, who secured Frw10million loan, says the coffee failure was a big blow to their development.

“I could not believe my eyes when all my 10 hectares of coffee withered yet OCIR-Cafe had assured us,” Butera said. 

He says he had thought that it was out of his negligence that it withered but he later learnt that the problem cut across other farmers.

He adds that this has made him sell his property to service the loan yet he never got anything out of it.

“We secured the loans in 2002 which we were supposed to pay in five years,” Butera says adding: “We invested the whole money in this coffee….but to our surprise we ended up selling our own properties to service the bank loans.”

When the coffee withered, farmers say they informed OCIR-CAFÉ of the development and they admitted supplying poor quality seeds; not suitable for the country’s climate.

The farmers were advised to uproot the crop and OCIR-CAFÉ promised to give out new seeds and fertilisers but never honoured the pledge. 

Mid last month, a meeting between farmers and OCIR-CAFÉ was held at Ngoma district headquarters to resolve the problem.

However, the meeting ended without yielding anything after farmers demanded to be compensated in cash in stead of giving them new seeds.

“How can they tell us to acquire other seeds when we have sold all our properties to service the previous loans?” Emmanuel Rumumba, a farmer from Kirehe who reportedly sold his house to clear the Frw12million loan asked.

“We have struggled to pay the past loans and they should first pay us our money because they are the ones who made us poor,” he added.

“I think now what they should be thinking of is how to pay us for the losses we incurred but not telling us to again get other coffee seeds. This kind of compensation they are telling us should have come immediately after we informed them that the seeds they had given us had withered. But they let us suffer paying back the loans by selling our properties and after we are left with nothing that’s when they are now planning to give us the seeds,” Jeremie Karangwa says.

“I think that’s why courts of law are there and we think this is the only alternative to recover our money,” Karangwa adds.

Kanyankole however, explained that it was hard to determine the financial loss accruing from the project. This he says was because by the time the coffee withered some farmers had harvested coffee ‘for four or five times.

“It is going to be difficult…no body knows the financial worth,” he said. Kanyankole suggested that the crop might have failed due to lack of proper care on the part of the farmers, saying the crop is doing well on demonstration farms owned by ISAR.

On whether OCIR-CAFÉ was responsible for the loss, Kanyankole said they hold the ‘moral responsibility but they were not bound legally because it was a government decision to introduce the new varieties after being tried by ISAR’.

He said they intend to give out other coffee varieties to willing farmers before the year’s end.

According to sources from OCIR-Cafe, about 115 hectares of withered coffee has been uprooted and other 315 is yet to be uprooted.

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