Bringing Long-Term Solutions to Rwanda’s Coffee Market

Learning and Innovation Network for Knowledge and Solutions (LINK) Rwanda

How might we bring together global experts and resources to tackle a coffee challenge that hurts Rwanda’s smallholder farmers?

Challenge

After emerging from the atrocities of genocide in the early 2000s, the rise of Rwanda’s specialty coffee industry offered hope for economic renewal.  Coffee farming represents opportunity for the country’s hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers who grow it to support their families.  Against this promising backdrop, however, coffee roasters began encountering a mysterious potato odor – called the “potato taste defect” – emanating from Rwandan coffee beans. Experts found themselves with little explanation for the causes of, and remedies to, the potato taste defect, despite the potentially disastrous effects on the industry.  Absent a solution to potato taste defect, coffee farmers feared losing their incomes as buyers threatened to walk away.

Solution

As concern about the defect grew, a team from the University of Rwanda — led by entomologist Dr. Daniel Rukazambuga — decided to act.  But they knew the complex challenge extended beyond their influence as academics.  They needed partnerships with coffee buyers, farmer training experts, policymakers, and possibly technology developers to effect real change.   The University of Rwanda team enlisted GKI to help build a problem-solving network whose membership mirrored the full range of issues represented by the potato taste challenge.

The network was built from the University’s strengths, with GKI taking care not to duplicate resources already in play.  The goal was to add value with each new partner identified.  Thus began a shared journey of network development that now spans research, policy, industry, and civil society actors on four continents.  Importantly, it only took a small amount of seed funding from The Carnegie Corporation of New York to catalyze these joint efforts.

Results / Outcomes

  • Grew a dynamic problem solving network from a small team of entomologists at the University of Rwanda to include over 30 organizations, spanning four continents
  • Published multiple peer reviewed scientific papers by network members; through research built a consensus on the cause of PTD—it is caused by damage from the antestia bug, a common coffee pest
  • Influenced the Rwandan government’s approach such that they acknowledged and, subsequently, took on PTD within the context of government strategy
  • Built Rwanda’s scientific capacity, garnering USAID-support for a multiple Rwandan PhDs to be trained in entomology, including one PhD student now at Michigan State University, as well as supported research participation globally for several undergraduate and graduate students (Seattle University, University of California, Riverside, etc.)
  • Leveraged approximately $2 million USD in additional funding for PTD research
  • Mobilized thousands of resources – farmer training programs, public-private partnerships, scientific lab equipment, and funding – from 15 core network partners
  • Inspired The University of California, Riverside and Seattle University to conduct research on causes and potential solutions to the defect
  • Trained 10,000+ coffee farmers on pest management through partnership with companies like Starbucks Coffee and Rogers Family Company; built strong private sector-community linkages throughout project with University of Rwanda’s leadership
  • Layed the groundwork for a US Agency for International Development-funded partnership with Michigan State University and GKI to expand work on potato taste and coffee productivity across Africa’s Great Lakes region
  • Facilitated convenings, trainings, and meetings that generated momentum and network coherence, as well as boosted capacity of network members to deliver results
  • Delivered a TEDx talk on LINK Rwanda’s success as a model of purpose-driven networks
  • Earned GKI the distinction of “Top 100 Innovations for the Next 100 Years” for the LINK model from The Rockefeller Foundation