We source from nine countries, currently, and each and everyone of them is different. We talk a lot about farming practices in places like Colombia and Brazil - where we buy from individual farms, as generally most are large enough to produce a commercially viable amount of coffee.
In Rwanda, it’s a different situation. Families might own a couple of coffee trees at most. So washing stations (where the cherries are processed into green beans) buy the small amounts grown locally, sort them, and process as one lot. That’s what Bufcoffee do.
You may have read about Epiphanie, or Bufcoffee, before. Epiphanie, widowed during the Rwandan genocide, turned to coffee farming, with the help of PEARL, to provide for her children. From there, she created Bufcoffee - and now owns four washing stations across Rwanda.
Her children are following in her footsteps. Sam, her son, now acts as Managing Director of Bufcoffee - and has boosted production in a big way. And because of rising competitiveness, that’s important.
Bufcoffee buy cherries from roughly 12,000 farmers - limited by government regulations of the surrounding regions washing stations can buy from, almost like catchment areas. There’s a few probable reasons for this. One is for the sake of farmers - meaning there’s more washing stations closer to them, so they don’t have to travel as far to sell their coffee.
Another reason is to reduce a monopoly, and increase competition. Washing stations are forced to go head-to-head in getting the best sale from the coffee they process - and those profits can be passed onto farmers.
When Bufcoffee was founded in 2003, they largely produced washed- or ‘clean’ - coffee. Hence, washing station. When Sam took a leading role, he started trying to boost quality by carefully sorting through cherries, for ripeness and defects, to create better cup profiles.
But he and Epiphanie went further - with natural processing. This was a risky endeavour - export of natural coffee was banned in Rwanda in the early 2000s, for a few reasons. The general perception of natural coffee was that it was low quality, and therefore less valuable - it was even referred to as ‘dirty’ (as opposed to ‘clean’). So to protect livelihoods and the nation’s GDP, the government made it illegal to export.
But opinions about natural processing were shifting. The speciality coffee market growing led to the development of long-since-abandoned techniques, that could have excellent results when carefully administered. Sam decided to try naturally processing their coffee, and actually managed to sneak out a sample to us.
The ban was lifted in 2011, and natural processing has proved an innovative move by Bufcoffee that has put them ahead of the competition. The flavours that in-cherry fermentation allows to develop are incredible, and mean higher prices for both Buf and the farmers they buy from.
Boosting coffee quality is not a fast process. Experiments take months to carry out, and it takes years until the results of them can be applied. Here’s an idea of how it works:
- Fermentation of whole cherries is usually just done overnight, but Sam and Bufcoffe are experimenting with different time frames - including up to five days of fermentation!
- To do optimum experiments, you need perfectly ripe cherries. There’s about one month of the two-to-three month harvest season where the cherries are suitable, so you have to start work then.
- Once the cherries are fermented (for one night to five days, any anything in-between), they must be dried for two to three weeks. So by the time the cherries are dried, and ready to be cupped and tested for results, harvest season is over.
- Harvest season comes once a year, so they have to wait a whole year until the results can be applied or even re-tested/altered. That means it takes literal years to see results
We first visited Bufcoffee in 2014, and immediately we gave our input into their experiments. It was only four years later, in 2018, that they produced a commercially viable amount of coffee based on these experiments. That’s four years, but a big improvement in quality.
That’s why we are so committed to long-term sourcing relationships. It’s a long pay-off period, but when you finally sip a cup of something that’s had that much care put into it? It’s worth it.
We’re proud to be working so closely with Bufcoffee.
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