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Supporting Coffee Growers after the genocide in Rwanda

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In Kinyarwanda, Abahuzamugambi means “people united in purpose.” The Abahuzamugambi cooperative, also known as Maraba, is a Fair Trade Certified coffee cooperative located in southern Rwanda's Butare province. Initially established as a trade association in 1999 with just 70 smallholder producers, Maraba now has more than 1,300 registered members. Almost 40 percent of Maraba’s members are women, the large majority of whom are widows from the Rwandan genocide.

Client Profile: Maraba

When genocide broke out in Rwanda in early April 1994, coffee farmers around the small town of Maraba had just begun the harvest. Early pickings were underway, and the coffee cherries were in their final weeks of maturation. 

Three months later the genocide had run its course, and thousands of smallholder farmers returned from refugee camps to find their farms in ruins. War had devastated the country’s agricultural sector, and in the years that followed, producers struggled to rebuild. The majority of farming families had little income and were often unable to afford even basic necessities such as clothing, medicine, or housing.  

In 1999, local residents in the Maraba coffee farming community formed an association to help farmers sell their coffee, and over the next two years, it evolved into the full-fledged Maraba cooperative. Nevertheless, farmers continued to face serious obstacles.

Like most coffee cooperatives, Maraba grappled with liquidity challenges: the main coffee harvest is from April to June, yet most expenses occur between January and April when there is typically very little money remaining from the previous harvest. As a result, “there was not enough money left to pay producers up front for the new harvest,” says Shema Jean de Dieu, an accountant at Maraba. She further explains that the disastrous timing of the 2001 international coffee crisis and the ensuing volatility in prices “made it very difficult to compete with the middlemen.”

Root Capital disbursed its first loan to Maraba in 2005, which enabled the cooperative to pay farmers competitive prices for their coffee. “Without the loan, we simply could not compete in the local market,” says Jean de Dieu.

Since then, business has improved every year. Maraba has continued to receive financing from Root Capital for other projects, like the purchase of a new hulling machine for their dry mill which has improved coffee quality. These improvements allowed farmers to access the high-end specialty coffee market for the first time and generate the highest revenue for smallholder farmers in Rwandan history.

“Even before the genocide, we didn't have a market for the coffee and our coffee wasn't valuable. But now, thanks to the financing the cooperative has been able to get, we have strengthened and unified the production and our coffee is bought at a better price,” says Christian Ruzigama, a Maraba producer.

“Take a look at Maraba today,” says Maraba’s president Rurangwa Juvenal, smiling broadly. “We have our own cars, dry-mill and washing station, and the children are going to school. Now we are all able to cultivate more coffee and earn more money. I am very happy with the way the cooperative has developed. Day by day things are improving.”