We were able to connect with Jean Bosco Seminega and Longin Muhizi of C. Dormans Rwanda in the Foxhole and talk all things Rwanda, Covid, and the 2020 and 2021 harvest and shipping seasons. Host and Red Fox founder Aleco Chigounis has known both Jean Bosco and Longin for over a decade, well before Red Fox was formed and before the 2 of them joined Dormans. He is joined by co-host and co-founder and director of business operations Julia Fariss, who among many other things has managed our Rwanda operations since the beginning. Both Jean Bosco and Longin bring with them incredible histories and insight on Rwanda coffee production past and present.
Aleco Chigounis: Hello everyone, welcome back to the Foxhole. We have another special episode today. I am joined by my co-host Julia Faris. Julia has been helping me run the business since day one as our director of business operations but also as our coffee buyer in Rwanda. We also have 2 very special guests from Rwanda, from C. Dormans in Rwanda, Jean Bosco Seminega and Longin Muhizi. Welcome to the show, both of you! It’s great to have you here.
Jean Bosco: Thank you Aleco. We are happy to be here with you tonight.
Aleco Chigounis: I’m very happy to see you both. It’s been far too long. Both of these fine gentlemen here are our representatives of C. Dormans Rwanda, particularly the Kanzu washing station which is the one and only coffee that Red Fox procures from Rwanda. It’s one of my all-time favorite coffees and possibly our most popular coffee of all. Most of our clients, top to bottom, are buying Kanzu in some capacity because it really is a jewel of Nyamasheke.
Quick background: Nyamasheke is the growing region where Kanzu’s coffee comes from on South Central Lake Kivu. It’s high up in the mountains around 2000 meters and has really green, lush, forested mountainside. Kanzu was built in the mid-aughts by Alphonce Kayijuka, who eventually sold the washing station to C. Dormans. I’ve been involved with Kanzu since 2007 when the Cup Of Excellence did a precursor event in Rwanda called The Golden Cup. Kanzu took third place, and at the time I was at Stumptown and split that lot with Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia coffee. I really fell in love with the profile and started to buy the coffee year after year from there. With that out of the way, I’d like to turn this over to Julia and we’ll get started with the interview and hear from these two guys. Enough from me!
Julia Fariss: Thanks, Aleco. Jean Bosco and Longin—if you would introduce yourself and start by telling us a little bit about your coffee career?
Jean Bosco: Thank you, Julia. My name is Jean Bosco Seminega and I’m the country
manager for C. Dormans Rwanda. I joined C. Dormans Rwanda in 2015 but I’ve been in coffee for the last 20 years. I started as a consultant, became a coffee business owner, then later I joined C. Dormans in 2015 as a country manager.
Longin Muhizi: My name is Longin Muhizi, I have 13 years’ experience in the coffee industry here in Rwanda. I started my coffee career in 2007 in a USA project called Spread, where we were helping producers initiate and develop cooperatives, get financing, and connect with overseas buyers. After Spread I continued working with a number of cooperatives as a quality controller and cooperative development officer. In 2010, I joined Technoserve, which was a project funded by the Bill and the Melinda Gates Foundation in order to provide a solution for poverty. After Technoserve, I joined C. Dormans Rwanda in 2012 as operation manager and logistics coordinator, where I work now.
Aleco Chigounis: Great history Longin. That’s where I first met you, working for the Spread project. Really amazing project, for any of the listeners who aren’t fully aware. There was actually a project prior to Spread called Pearl, which morphed into Spread after different financing came in through USAID. It was a recovery project for the coffee sector post-genocide, and really boosted the ability to produce and differentiate specialty coffee in the international marketplace. Coffee producers’ prices have risen exponentially since the advent of that project.
Jean Bosco: That was actually in the earlier 2000s, when the Pearl project started. There was another project supporting private companies called ADR that I was a consultant on for 4 years. I remember, we met in 2010, I don’t know if you remember.
Aleco Chigounis: I remember—you were working with Alphonce directly.
Jean Bosco: Yes, I showed you some coffees from Kanzu. So much time has passed since then!
Aleco Chigounis: Now we’re veterans in the coffee industry.
Jean Bosco: I’m thinking about retiring someday.
Aleco Chigounis: I’m not. I can’t even fathom yet but maybe, maybe.
Jean Bosco: Some people never retire from coffee, you know? It’s very hard to leave the coffee industry.
Aleco Chigounis: I’ve seen people try to leave before and they always come back. It bounces back into you and doesn’t let you go.
Julia Fariss: Jean Bosco, can you tell us a little more about C. Dorman’s history in Rwanda, when Dormans bought Kanzu, and what other washing stations Dormans operates now in the country?
Jean Bosco: C. Dormans Rwanda started operations in Rwanda in 2012. We started leasing washing stations, 5 washing stations in the western province. We were leasing at that time and in 2013 we started buying washing stations that we had been leasing. Our operations were concentrated in the western province, mainly in Nyamasheke district where we really feel that the best coffee from Rwanda is coming from.
Since 2015 we continued buying washing stations and now, we own 9 washing stations. Aside from what we own, we also sometimes work with some small outside washing stations owned by small local companies where we pre-finance and help market that coffee. We currently have around 6,000 farmers registered that are linked to those different washing stations where we provide some services from farming to training, support, certification process, and more.
Julia Fariss: Longin, could you tell us a little about what makes Nyamasheke a special growing region for coffee and a little bit about Kanzu washing station?
Longin Muhizi: As Dormans Rwanda, we have chosen to be present in Nyamasheke district alone, because of the quality of coffee in that particular area. Bordering Congo in the west, it has a range of altitudes from 1495 all the way up to 2200 and above. It also has the natural forest called Nyungwe, with rainfall in that particular area ranging between 1300 to 1400 millimeters per year. The soil is volcanic as well. The quality coming from those factors was what pushed Dormans to buy the Kanzu washing station in the Nyamasheke area.
As Jean Bosco mentioned, we bought and started operating in Kanzu in 2012. Kanzu washing station is located at 1836 meters above sea level with great access to the hills covered with coffee and excellent agricultural practices. It is highly visible. Kanzu is able to produce 4 to 6 containers of exportable grade high quality. Because of the quality produced in that particular region, we always face competition from other trading companies. Our advantage depends on our relationships with farmers, so we build really strong partnerships, which makes Kanzu the best washing station to work with. To date, Kanzu is working with 535 farmers and those farmers are also registered under certification programs like Rainforest Alliance and trained in best practices to help them continue producing the best possible coffee. If you look at Kanzu’s last season, we were able to produce 4 containers of exportable grade coffee, and because of competition for cherry the price was very high.
Aleco Chigounis: I’m very curious about the competition there and how it works. I’m sure it’s a battle for the coffee as it is every year. That is such a special area. You told us a little bit about how the harvest shook out in terms of competition and volume. How did you see it quality-wise compared to years past?
Jean Bosco: Kanzu has special quality all the time, so we always deal with competition. That means we always have to pay the highest price, and we know the quality is worth it. We thank you for the price you have been paying us so that we can pay a good price to the farmers we work with in Kanzu. We also keep close track of small lots of coffee for quality control because we know, when we focus on quality we need to really, on a daily basis, track the coffee we are getting. We are very grateful for the support to manage the quality down to a lot by lot scale for our top clients.
Aleco Chigounis: I have to say I regret not buying more coffee this year. The coffee was so good. We were as buyers, maybe you’ve seen this from other buyers as well, a little timid with the Covid-19 situation. Unsure of how things would shake out economically here in North America with our own clients and how they would be living through this situation, but in retrospect we should have bought another container. Next year we’ll be back strong with the full volumes again. When do you see the next harvest starting and how do you think it will shake out in terms of volume and quality?
Jean Bosco: In Kanzu, because of the higher altitude, we’ll see the next season start a bit late compared to others. Around the end of February, early March. This year, we’ll still be getting cherries into July, which is great. The late maturation gives time for concentration and the quality gets better over the course of the harvest. We expect a good crop, because the rain is what we want to see so far. We applied fertilizer already, and we’re expecting at least the same volume or more than what we bought in 2020. We’ll definitely have the volume you want, especially since you make such fast decisions.
Aleco Chigounis: Thank you. That’s the mantra for us, to make quick decisions and move quickly. Be a strong partner.
Jean Bosco: That quick decision helps us so much.
Julia Fariss: And I wanted to say, regarding quality, all our work this year was done from our lab in Berkeley. No one was traveling and it’s always such a pleasure to cup those Kanzu offers, they’re so good. This year, they were just the highlight of cupping for me personally. I haven’t been cupping as much because I’m mostly working from home, so it’s just such a beautiful coffee and this year was definitely no exception.
Aleco Chigounis: So beautiful. It also seems like, and correct me if I’m wrong, that the potato issue obviously still exists but it’s much better controlled than it used to be. To give a very brief synopsis on what potato defect is to anyone who might not know, a specific kind of insect bores into the beans, leaving bacteria that create a raw potato flavor in the coffee. Really interesting, and unfortunately undesirable—it’s a problem that has hurt Rwandan coffee producers, which is why folks like Jean Bosco and Longin have taken great measures to try to eliminate it as much as possible. Thinking about the Kanzu coffees and the amount of times we’ve kept them this year across the different lots that we’re buying, we have a very low incidence of finding potato cups. Is there a special program or a special way that you approach the quality control of that now at Dorman?
Jean Bosco: There’s a lot of strict control and tracking of small lots. We cup every small bunch of coffee on a regular basis and whatever we get any potato taste, we keep it aside, we recup until we get all lots potato-free. We do a lot of hand-picking and we have very good cuppers at our office. We have 2 Q graders now and we work hard really on getting the best quality we can. Especially for regular buyers and committed buyers. The potato taste is still there we can’t say a hundred percent, you know? It’s very hard to control these potato tastes, but we try to track as much as we can to get the potato-free reloads.
Aleco Chigounis: I think you’ve done a very good job, thank you for that.
Longin Muhizi: Also going back to the farms’ practices, a lot has been done. We have a program designed for farmers. We deliver training on good agricultural practices and with those practices, you see there is really an improvement on how farmers are treating their coffee crops. That’s had an impact on reducing the potato. Pruning is really very important. The bugs that cause potato taste like to hide in coffee farms where the foliage is bushy, but when you clear the farm and carefully apply fertilizer, some pesticides when possible, and be consistent at pruning, the severity of the potato is really reduced.
At the washing station where we sort the cherries, we also make sure that anything that has been bitten by any insect is removed during flotation. When you put coffee or in water, cherries that have been damaged by insects float and can be removed. Then, after coffee is pulped, we also do sorting in the pre-drying area. We call that phase skin drying, where we pre-dry the skin of coffee so that when you put the coffee under natural sun it cannot be cracked by the sun, allowing other issues to arise. During skin drying you can also easily pick out any defective coffee beans. Just to highlight that we do a lot of controls at every stage to be sure that the coffee we are going to produce is of quality desired by the client.
Aleco Chigounis: It’s great to hear about all the steps you’re taking.
Julia Fariss: Could you two tell us a little about what the year has been like in Rwanda, what the impacts of Covid 19 have been both on operations for Dorman, for farmers, and also just on a human level?
Jean Bosco: 2020 has been very hard for everyone worldwide, and Rwanda was no exception. We had our first positive case on February 14th, and from then on positive cases kept increasing and Rwanda took major serious measures, starting in early March. We went into complete lockdown. By the time we started harvesting, the whole country was on lockdown. Farmers and the agricultural sector were allowed to continue operations, but with little movement allowed. Everything slowed down, it was very hard for us to keep the same level and speed of work in the field.
For example, in order to leave Kigali we needed a special authorization to leave. Fortunately we have washing station supervision at the regional level—our washing station managers were living at the washing station during harvest. We managed to get there ourselves during the harvest, but it was not easy to get in and out.
Otherwise, Rwanda took serious measures. Now it’s mandatory to wear masks everywhere. Anyone in Rwanda leaving their home needs to wear a mask; social distancing is controlled as is testing. We, Rwanda, started testing in March because we were not prepared. The pandemic came as a surprise to everyone but over time Rwanda got more equipment to do testing. Now we have 5500 positive cases tested since that time with more than 90% recovered, fortunately and around 50 deaths. In June, the country started reopening slowly. Now schools are back.
The country is slowly recovering, but we are still under serious control. We need to keep social distancing, some pubs are still closed, hotels are opening and all travelers need to get tested. Whoever enters Rwanda needs to be quarantined for 24 hours and tested. We took serious measures, and we are lucky now we can say it’s a bit under control, when you compare with the other countries.
During the farming season, the risk was a bit high for us to keep financing, sending money to the field when we couldn’t go there on a regular basis, but we managed to anyway. We were lucky to have a good team and then we managed to get production and pay farmers and in the end it went well.
One of the biggest negative impacts is still with us: the cost of living is becoming very high. Rwanda is a country that imports a lot of things including food and imports prices are very high due to transport issues at the borders. It’s really not easy; there’s a very negative impact on everyone including our farmers. Their cost of living is rising, and buying anything they need is more expensive.
Julia Fariss: Yeah, in the US right now having a really big surge of cases and, it’s been a hard year here too. I’m glad that the measures in Rwanda have been successful at controlling Covid and that schools are back. Are you able to travel to the field now? Do you still need to get special authorization?
Jean Bosco: Now we can travel in the field. The western province was under lockdown for a longer period than the rest of the country because it’s at the border of DRC, but now it’s reopened so we can travel within the country without any problem for the moment. Only people going out of the country need to be tested first and when they come back.
Julia Fariss: How do you see things looking forward to the upcoming season? What are the plans in place for next year for coping with any more Covid-related obstacles?
Jean Bosco: We have hope that the vaccine will help and that Rwanda would probably be included in the first countries to get the vaccine. The pandemic was taken very seriously here in Rwanda because our country relies on tourism and has a service-based economy. So, that’s why in Rwanda this problem was taken seriously from the beginning. Now we have hope because worldwide if the pandemic can get under control with the help of vaccination then things will be much better next year.
On the farming level we are as ready as possible. We have applied fertilizer, but it wasn’t ideal. We used to have fertilizer from expert contributions and the government gave us additional support. Now the government wasn’t able to get that support so we probably won’t have enough, and this this year will be already reduced to what we have, but whatever we had was already applied on time. The rainfall has been good, so we hope that the production will be good. Farmers are in a hard situation, but we are in touch with the farmers, we are trying to work with them. Some of them are looking for some small loan for their production, and we try to help them to access some finance to pay their family expenses.
We’re also struggling with training. With social distancing measures in place, we can’t gather people for trainings. It’s a bitter challenge but we hope to be able to do training as we can in respect of the committed measures.
Longon Muhizi: To add to that, we are working to increase the involvement of women in coffee farming, so we’re planning for when things get back to normal. We’re planning to create 4 groups of women in Kanzu, where we will be able to train them on different topics aside from coffee practices like basic business skills and financial literacy, so that in the off season they can have some activities that can generate income to support the household. After the training we help them to develop their business ideas, and also spread them to the other women surrounding the Kanzu region.
We also plan to maintain certification which is good for farmers and helps them get higher premiums. And, we’re planning to contribute to production by raising seedlings which will be given to farmers for free—our plan is to distribute in 40,000 new seedlings in 2021 which will help us assure that in 3-4 years the productivity won’t drop off. That is also an assurance to Red Fox, that any volume they will have in the future as the company is growing, we will be able to supply.
Aleco Chigounis: That’s great news! Which varieties are you giving them as seedlings?
Longin Muhazi: There’s a new released variety called Rap C15; it was tested by Randall Clutch and released in 2015. It’s resistant to coffee bean disease and the quality and productivity are good.
Julia Fariss: It’s such a pleasure to see you and to hear how the year has gone for you. We so appreciate working with you and all the work that you do. We love that coffee from Kanzu and the work that Dormans does so, thank you so much for being with us.
Aleco Chigounis: Thank you both. It’s great to see both of you. Two of my oldest friends in
Longin Muhizi: Thank you, thank you, Aleco.
Jean Bosco: It was a pleasure meeting you here. It has been a long time since we’ve seen each other. We hope you guys will continue buying Kanzu and it will be really a pleasure to work with you.
Aleco Chigounis: We’ll always be there—as long as Kanzu is producing coffee, we will be there.