Building a Global Network to Address Systemic Challenges in Rwanda’s Coffee Sector
After emerging from the atrocities of genocide in the early 2000s, the rise of Rwanda’s specialty coffee industry offered hope for economic renewal for the hundreds of thousands of Rwandan smallholder farmers who grow it to support their families. That is 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), a dynamic problem-solving network of key actors in Eastern and Southern Africa working on challenges related to agriculture, climate change, and the environment.
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 (the antestia bug, a common coffee pest!), 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 – from 15 core network partners.