Building a Global Network to Address Systemic Challenges in Rwanda’s Coffee Sector

The specialty coffee industry represented an economic opportunity for the hundreds of thousands of Rwandan smallholder farmers who grow it to support their families. Until coffee roasters began encountering a mysterious potato odor emanating from the coffee beans. As concern about the defect grew, a team from the University of Rwanda 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.

With the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, we designed and scaled the Learning and Innovation Network for Knowledge (LINK), an open-sourced innovation program, to build purpose-driven networks amongst key actors in Eastern and Southern Africa working on challenges related to agriculture, climate change, and the environment. We mobilized a strategy to build LINK in Rwanda to address the challenges threatening the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in the specialty coffee sector.

Through LINK Rwanda, researchers, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and innovators spanning 30 institutions and 4 continents, came together with us to form insights using a suite of diagnostic tools and approaches to assess the system and identify high-potential opportunities for collaboration and action. Since its initial convening, the network has published multiple peer-reviewed scientific papers, built a consensus on the cause of the odor, influenced the Rwandan government’s strategy, helped build Rwanda’s scientific capacity, and mobilized thousands of resources – farmer training programs, public-private partnerships, scientific lab equipment, and funding.