In Australia, we have seen a wave of growth for Rwandan coffees, an exciting prospect for coffee roasters and fundamentally stems back to supporting the regrowth of Rwanda. Our partner at origin in Rwanda, Tropic, is a family-owned business which bases itself at the heart of its farmers. Tropic’s mission is to provide complete transparent coffee with ongoing support to local farmers to improve the value and quality of their coffee.
This week, we sat down with Chris at Tropic to explore how the Tropic Coffee business has developed over the last 6 years.
Tell us a bit about Tropic Coffee:
Tropic Coffee is a Rwandan coffee processing and export company. We produce and sell 100% Arabica Bourbon specialty coffee with cupping scores over 87. We are a family-owned business founded in 2015, with farmers and customers at our heart. Working with more than 3,000 small-holder coffee farmers we grow, buy, process and export high quality coffee from across Rwanda – fully washed, honey, natural and anaerobic coffees. We operate in three different regions of Rwanda, each with different altitudes, climate, soil, and rainfall we produce a variety of single origin specialty coffees with unique characteristics which are both rich and complex.
Tell us about your company’s journey and what led your company to where it is now?
Tropic Coffee is the creation of husband-and-wife team, myself and Divine Mutuyimana. While officially established in October 2015, its story began much earlier. Divine was born into a family with a long history in the coffee business and by the time she was 19 she was helping her family’s company in sourcing coffee from cooperatives and famers. She saw a need for better data management, identifying a gap in controlling coffee data from farm to warehouse. In 2013, after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in computer sciences she developed software for stock monitoring. Before meeting Divine, I worked for an UN Agency – IFAD funded project working as an Agro- Climate specialist. Qualified with a Masters degree in Agriculture Meteorology, he laughs, saying I am the “weather man”. His role was working with farmers and other key industry and Government groups, advising on climate change.
In 2014, myself and Divine met. I did not know anything about the coffee business, but Divine was their “fountain of coffee knowledge” sharing her knowledge and experience with me. She saw two very clear priorities for the coffee industry. The first is empowering women to improve livelihoods and ensuring women are active at all parts of the supply chain from seed to selling. Divine explained that women till the soil, plant the seedlings, weed, and harvest the coffee but when it is time to sell the coffee, the men take the coffee to the wash stations and keep the profits. The men are in the later parts of the supply chain, receiving the cash for the crops grown by women. Determined to solve this, Divine embarked on a project to develop wash stations that receive coffee grown by women (and their families), brought to the wash stations by women, and proceeds from the sale of the coffee paid to the women. The aim is to actively incentivise the supply chain to enable women to negotiate within their home structures to receive the income from coffee. By empowering the women to take part along the supply chain, men agreed for women in the household to take coffee to the washing stations. Divine’s project worked – women are now fully embedded along the supply chain. It ignited change, with women receiving direct income and being able to take an active role in household budgets. Divine then took the next step, to support women to securely save money, and to take out savings accounts for payment transactions. This enabled them to pay school fees and other expenses such as emergency health costs. Women and their families are now in a position to plan, budget and save for such expenditure. Based on Divine and my experience, when household money is managed by women, families have greater financial security.
What values does Tropic Coffee hold and follow throughout the company?
We take effort to train the women farmers in best agricultural practices from seedling preparation to planting and harvesting. To ensure they receive premium rewards, we process their cherries separately with a specific women-grown coffee being produced from each of our three coffee washing stations at Gisanga- GANZA (UTZ-certified), KabyiniroUMUBANO (Organic certified) and Cyato GWIZA (in the process of FairTrade certification). Youth is Divine’s second focus. Coffee farmers are an aging population. The young are not interested in farming with their sights set on leaving rural areas. Divine has stepped in, knowing that for a sustainable coffee industry youth need incentives to take on their family coffee fields. She understands youth’s quest for better lives and so she works with them to help them understand that coffee “done well”, with better practices and value add, can be profitable. This involves teaching young people how they can make money and showing them an attractive industry into which they can grow. What I bring to the business is my understanding, knowledge, and experience in the environmental components of coffee production. Vitally, this includes farmers needing to adapt to changing climate – because farming today and in the future will be different from the past. I bring in concepts of environment and sustainability to support improved changes.
Tell us about your team. What makes Tropic Coffee different?
For Tropic Coffee, Divine and I are a formidable team, and both are clear where their respective strengths lie. Divine is the founder; this is clear in my mind. Having clear management structures has supported the smooth growth and operations of Tropic Coffee. Financial decisions are made by the board members, and day to day running of the operations is through hired management. Everything I know about coffee is from Divine. She knows the coffee industry inside out. And my understanding of environmental issues and solutions is the perfect complement to Divine’s expertise.
Do you have any projects you are currently involved in?
Over 45% of our coffee farmers are women. We process their cherries separately with a specific women-grown coffee being produced from each of our three coffee washing stations at UMUBANO, GANZA and GWIZA. The profits from these coffees are applied directly to supporting women and women’s community groups, empowering women in their communities through better health, education, and livelihoods. This is a particular focus for Tropic Coffee, promoting rural women in the coffee sector, which is a dream of our founder, Divine Mutuyimana, a young, entrepreneurial women in Rwanda’s coffee industry. Tropic Coffee pays health insurance for farmers, and we support them in the establishment of coffee plant nurseries. The company also undertakes various community activities such as training on savings and strengthening educational provision in communities. We provide advance payments to farmers before harvest, which are paid back after the harvest. A significant percentage of the company’s profit is allocated to our ‘social fund’, from which community activities are funded. The income from our beautiful coffee, lovingly grown in the majestic Rwandan Highlands, supports all our farmers. It is a core principle of Tropic Coffee that our farmers receive fair prices for their specialty coffee, and this pays school fees for their children, health insurance for their families and day-to-day needs, as well as contributing to savings schemes operated by the farmers’ cooperatives.