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Rwandan coffee pushes for distinction

Roasted coffee beans

TEXT OF STORY

Steve Chiotakis: If you're like me, you need your morning coffee to wake up -- especially at these hours. But the Central African country of Rwanda is getting an economic jolt. It's trying to conquer one piece of the coffee market by producing specialty beans. Anna Boiko-Weyrauch reports.


Anna Boiko-Weyrauch: A lot of Rwanda's economic future depends on what happens right here on a tiny island in the middle of Lake Kivu. Walking around, your feet sink into the hay under acres of coffee trees. Their beans grow at high elevations in volcanic soil, making them fragrant and sweet.

Last year, coffee like this made Rwanda $47 million U.S. It's the country's most lucrative export. But in the scheme of things, Rwanda is just a tiny part of the global market.

Alex Kanyankole is the director of the Rwandan coffee board. He says growing specialty coffee is the only way they can get ahead.

Alex Kanyankole: We only stand an advantage if we produce high-quality coffee that can be admired because of its distinct quality.

In the past, farmers were encouraged to produce a large volume of coffee. Then the price plunged in the late 80's. Peasants were left with a lot of coffee trees, but nothing to eat.

This time around they're trying to avoid that. The government wants their beans to be the Gucci or Chanel of the coffee world. But to do that, they need this guy: the coffee cupper. The official taste-tester. He slurps up the coffee and spits it out. Then he rates it on things like acidity and sweetness.

If they're deemed worthy, these beans are sold to stores across Europe and the U.S. But some of the profits filter back to Rwanda's local communities.

Emmanuel Rwakagera is president of the COOPAC coffee cooperative. He says coffee proceeds have helped his farmers.

Emmanuel Rwakagera (voice of interpreter): Our organization was able to build the first school here in 2005. The next year, we built another just a little ways down from the factory.

Sales of luxury goods are down everywhere, but the Rwandan coffee board isn't worried. They say people will keep drinking coffee, even high-end brands, during a global recession.

In Gisenyi, Rwanda, I'm Anna Boiko-Weyrauch for Marketplace.

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