Rwanda Collaboration Colloquium: Network Convenes in Rwanda to Solve Potato Taste Challenge

“Your presence here is a vote of confidence in Rwandan coffee,” George Kayonga, head of Rwanda’s National Agricultural Export Development Board (NAEB), told Coffee Research Symposium attendees on March 17. A vote of confidence, in this case, as over 150 representatives from academia, private sector, government, and international organizations assembled in Kigali to discuss a challenge threatening to reduce confidence in Rwanda’s high quality coffee. The potato taste defect—thought to be caused by an insect pest called the “antestia bug”—causes otherwise exceptional East African specialty coffee to exhibit a potato-like taste, which impacts the industry’s revenue potential. Rwanda’s Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources, NAEB, University of Rwanda (UR), and others organized the Symposium to gather a global network of experts to share knowledge on the state of science on this taste defect. Beyond discussing new research, the gathering sought to identify practical solutions to the challenge. The cost of potato taste to Rwanda’s economy remains in debate, but available numbers present a perilous picture. Matt Smith, head of exporter Rwanda Trading Company, estimates that losses solely due to potato taste—and solely in medium grade coffee—reach at least US$3.9 million annually. Combined with specialty coffee losses, experts estimate this number to be multiple times higher. Rwanda’s government has taken bold steps to combat antestia and mitigate potato taste. At the Symposium, researchers from the Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB) and UR reported on efforts to map the distribution of the antestia bug and potato taste. NAEB—which oversees farmer outreach—described its focus on improving farm-level pest control. Buttressing these efforts is a global team supporting research on the cause of, and treatments for, potato taste. Since 2012, US non-profit the Global Knowledge Initiative (GKI) has built a potato taste research network through its LINK (Learning and Innovation Network for Knowledge and Solutions) program. Starting with UR, GKI built a network of partners including Seattle University; Rogers Family Company; CIRAD; University of California, Riverside; and many others aimed at studying and solving this […]

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Featured Collaborator: Dr. Thomas Miller, University of California, Riverside Entomologist

Meet Thomas Miller, GKI featured collaborator. Dr. Thomas Miller is a professor at the University of California, Riverside’s Department of Entomology.  Aside from being an eminent leader of the international entomological community, Miller is an important member of the team working on LINK: Rwanda’s “antestia-potato taste” specialty coffee challenge.  In partnership with Dr. Susan Jackels at Seattle University who focuses on the chemistry of “potato taste,” a team at Rogers Family Company in California and in Rwanda that sources affected coffee beans and provides support across the network, and Dr. Daniel Rukzambuga at the National University of Rwanda who works to develop national capacity to protect against coffee pests, Dr. Miller focuses on the biology of the microorganisms on the surface of green coffee beans.  Dr. Miller also hosts a website dedicated to the coffee challenge.  GKI’s Colin Huerter spoke with Dr. Miller in June 2013. Rwanda is a long ways off  – how did you get involved with the project? I met Nina Fedoroff, co-chair of GKI’s Advisory Board, when I became an AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) Fellow in 2011.  She had seen some of my research and recommended that I join the team.  Even though I had not worked on coffee before, the project immediately grabbed my attention – it seems that no matter who you explain it to, everyone is fascinated.  The international aspect drew me in, but at the same time there is a local connection because it also involves California buyers and roasters [such as Rogers Family Company]. The most compelling part is the obvious need for a solution.  Although coffee is a crucial export in Africa’s Great Lakes region, researchers have not yet been able to propose a practical application to reduce the potato taste defect.  With Rwanda losing a substantial proportion of its crop each year to the defect, eliminating it would have a significant impact.  Solving potato taste defect is a difficult task, but that’s why I like […]

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Meet our two new interns: Srujana Penumetcha & Colin Huerter

We our happy to welcome our two newest interns, Srujana Penumetcha and Colin Huerter. Both will be joining us as international program interns, and both are about to begin the second year of their Master of Public Policy degrees at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. We will put their bios on the GKI website soon, but in the meantime we thought we would ask them a few questions about themselves as a means of introducing them. They are both smart, well-read, and are appropriately enthusiastic about coffee. Srujana Penumetcha: 1. What motivated you to get involved in international development? “I first became interested in international development through my work with Amnesty International as an undergraduate. Having learned about various human rights issues and development challenges, I found myself searching for ways to make a more direct impact. My interest in international relations and eagerness to learn more about economic development and poverty alleviation led me to focus my senior independent study on conditional cash transfer programs in India. This helped pave the way for my involvement in international development.” 2. What has been your favorite graduate school class thus far (in your first year), and why? “My favorite class in graduate school so far has been Development and Foreign Assistance, which was taught by Professor Steven Radelet. It was a comprehensive study of the role of foreign assistance in economic development and provided a foundation to think critically about the complex and inherent problems of the aid industry. The class was highly engaging and gave me an opportunity to learn more about the current debates on foreign assistance and aid reforms.” 3. What is the best development/policy related book or article that you have read recently, and what did you like about it? “One of the best development policy related books I recently read is The Bottom Billion by Paul Collier. It offers important insights and analysis of the underlying causes of poverty and focuses on the often overlooked group of small […]

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Featured Collaborator: Dr. Susan Jackels, Seattle University

Meet Susan Jackels, our featured collaborator. One of the most fulfilling parts of solving development challenges through collaboration is having the opportunity to work with researchers who are pushing the boundaries of their particular scientific niches.  For nearly a year, the Global Knowledge Initiative has had the privilege of working with Dr. Susan Jackels, a Chemist at Seattle University. From Chemistry to Coffee Susan dedicates much of her time to expanding knowledge on improved coffee growing and processing techniques for farmers in developing countries.  Despite her busy schedule as a professor, Susan travels back and forth between Seattle and Nicaragua, working with Nicaraguan coffee farmers and using coffee chemistry research to identify best practices.  Susan began researching coffee following an international coffee crisis in 2001—the commodity price of coffee dropped and small-scale farmers struggled to maintain their livelihoods.  Initially, she knew little about coffee’s chemistry (though she admits that she is a “coffee fanatic”), but she offered to partner with a Nicaraguan chemist to research Nicaraguan farmers’ coffee fermentation processes.  Since then, she has become an expert on coffee chemistry, collaborating with farmers, chemists, and the private sector to improve coffee quality. Creating Change in Rwanda through Research and Personal Relationships Susan greatly values the personal connections she builds through her work.  When approaching farmers for possible collaboration she first finds common social ground by meeting families and becoming comfortable in the community.  She involves students in every step of her research, giving them as much practical experience as possible, and collaborates with her husband, Dr. Charles Jackels, a Professor Emeritus of Physical Sciences and Computing and Software Systems (joint appointment) at University of Washington, Bothell, who helps by running statistical and computational tests.  Susan’s natural talents in inter-cultural communication and collaboration combined with her background in science render her an ideal partner for GKI. Susan’s expertise in coffee chemistry allows her to play a key role in the LINK (Learning and Innovation Network for Knowledge and Solutions): Rwanda program […]

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