The Coocamu Cooperative, located on the shores of Lake Kivu, was founded in 2014. It is, to be clear, not the easiest place to grow and process coffee. Steep hills drop directly into the lake, with some of their contributing members even growing their coffee on small islands in Lake Kivu. Those members have to carry the coffee cherry by boat to the washing station the same day of picking. After that, the only way to get the pulped and dried coffee from the washing station to the dry mill is to wait for a break in the rain, then put it on a boat with a roof for a quick boat ride to Gitesi, a port with a loading dock. It’s no surprise that quality didn’t happen here overnight. After a few years their small washing station almost tripled in volume overnight (from 365 to 1010 farmers) in 2016 when Rwanda imposed a “zoning” policy that mandated farmers bring their cherries to washing stations within their approved zone. At the same time they were also receiving technical training, capacity building, and overall assistance from the now defunct NGO “TWIN” to specifically become Fairtrade certified. Now they had volume, training, farmers growing coffee between 1500-1820m, and close proximity to one of the best-known cooperatives in all of Rwanda…Kopakama. The thinking was that the terroir must have potential.
The marketing arm/export company for Kopakama (and several other large cooperatives) is called Misozi, and their managing director in 2018 was Kevin Nkuzimana. In May of 2018, Dan Shafer of Crop to Cup was in Rwanda on a coffee sourcing trip and found himself in a meeting with Kevin talking about moving our purchasing from Kopakama to a cooperative or farmer group that did not yet have market access to the US specialty market. Kevin’s eyes lit up. He said the volume was small, but it was a personal passion project of his to support this group called Coocamu. He was also very clear that there may need to be some improvements, but if we were willing to grow together, maybe it could work. His belief in this group stemmed mostly from an unwavering faith in a man called Josias. They moved the entire schedule around and decided to spend the next day visiting Coocamu. Dan met Josias the next morning, and after a 3 hour drive west of Kigali to Lake Kivu, Dan was firmly on team Josias. Josias is from Coocamu and used the profit from selling coffee cherries to put himself through school and get a bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Science. He then became a blood transfusion lab manager in Kigali, but always stayed focused on helping his home community. He started knocking on all the doors for Coocamu. The coffee farmers of Coocamu (himself included) needed serious support, especially capital-intensive infrastructure improvements. Whenever an institution offered free professional development, he made sure that he brought a new person from Coocamu so that the whole group benefits, not just him. Even with all this support they were not able to secure the necessary bank loans. So Josias gave a stump speech to the members. He described his fellow members as women and men of many jobs, not just coffee. Fishermen, mine workers (there is extensive coltan and gas mining in the area), and others who have all become disgruntled with how they have been treated in their respective industries. In the speech he sells the idea of coffee being a career that they can take pride in and make money, and 16 of them decided to dip into their savings and put up of the money for infrastructure improvements. I mean…this guy just gets things done. From a story-telling standpoint, the location doesn’t hurt the cause either.
To get to Coocamu you have to take a beautiful boat ride from Gitesi on Lake Kivu,where you’ll find cows on deserted islands that swam there from the mainland for green grass.Fishing rowboats (called echipe) litter the shoreline during the day, as their captains rest up for the evening ritual of lighting the lanterns and signing songs as they row out in search of Isambaza, a small local fish. There are rolling hills flirting with the clouds all around the shoreline, and when the weather clears, you can see Idjwi island in the middle of the lake, or if you have real eagle eyes, the DRC on the other side. It’s no surprise that this is where Rwandans go on holiday. Small hotels are tucked into to many of the coves, while busy ports bustle with goods moving from around the lake. It’s easy to forget this is a coffee trip. Josias walked Dan through how Coocamu works…
The cooperative provides members seedlings, fertilizer, and support. They pay their members in two installments, the first is for the cherry delivery, and the 2nd is a premium payment after it has sold. Due to the remote nature of the washing station, they do hire cherry collectors and pay them a fee for bringing the cherries (by boat or bike) from the 15 km radius around the washing station. The cooperative also re-invests profits into the improvements of the washing station.
While this all sounded nice, when Dan, Josias and Kevin finally reached Coocamu, there were more than a few glaring issues. Realizing that the coffee was most likely not going to be up to C2C’s standards after milling, the day turned into the group coming together for knowledge sharing and problem solving.
No place is ever perfect, but it seemed that Coocamu had a long way to go before making the jump from the certified market (in this case Fairtrade) to the specialty market. Later that year Dan cupped peak-harvest samples from Coocamu just under an 85, and although the coffee had a slightly dry quality, he was shocked to see that THAT good of a coffee had come from that operation. We gave the feedback and looked forward to seeing what the next harvest would bring.
A year later Dan returned with buyers to visit, and the transformation of the Coocamu washing station was staggering. They had fixed everything!
1. Pulper was fixed, calibrated and well maintained
2. New Water Tanks were bought and installed for sufficient washing
3. 20 new drying beds had been built
4. Brand new plastic tarps were being used to keep the rain off (AND new shade nets)
5. They had a parchment moisture reader
6. They had built brand new beautiful bathrooms for staff
7. They had built a brand new storage facility for parchment
8. Signage was everywhere to make workers safe, and all dangerous areas had been covered.
9. Their office was finished.
..and those were just the physical improvements! They had met as a cooperative (now 268 members) and voted in a new and energized staff! It was no longer a skeleton crew, but a well-run washing station.