Wednesday, May 6, 2020

96. Coronavirus and Coffee: Interviews with Ten Coffee Farmers in Rwanda

May 6, 2020
Ejo Heza members harvesting in April 2017
Artisan Coffee Imports builds relationships with coffee farmers by listening to them. Harder than one might think, but it is truly powerful when it happens. Two weeks ago we arranged for a short survey-style interview with ten of the Ejo Heza farmers who produce Artisan's flagship imported coffee. Ejo Heza is a group of female farmers formed in 2011 with the support of their parent cooperative, Kopakama, in the Rutsiro district of Rwanda's Western Province. Over the years, the group has grown from 200 to 400 members. They have two community plots which they cultivate together, and each member also has coffee trees at home.

In nine of the ten interviews, the farmers said that labor was an issue, either paying for it, or finding it, or both. This is the main "finding" related to Coronavirus. To skim the actual farmer comments, see below.

It's important to note the context of these interviews. They were conducted:
Grace Izerwe - Quality Control Intern
  • By phone by Grace Izerwe, Kopakama's Quality Control Intern, who is also a trained researcher, trained coffee cupper, roaster and barista, and holds a B.S. in Rural Development and Agribusiness from the University of Rwanda.
  • During peak season, meaning the height of the harvest, when farmers are likely going to the coffee plots several times a week or daily to harvest cherry. Most likely they are using every able-bodied person in their household to help with the harvest, and hiring 'daily workers'.
Of further note:
  • There tends to be a "going rate" for daily labor in rural areas of Rwanda. Today the average daily rate is 1000 Rwf per day, (around $1.10) for someone to work from about 7am to 5pm.
  • The short survey was gathering feedback on two topics, the new "300 Club" started this year by Kopakama and the impact of Coronavirus on the farmers themselves. Here we will share about the coronavirus impacts and a future blog will discuss the 300 Club.
  • Labor is the most important component of cost of production probably in all coffee producing countries, but even more than some in Rwanda. Labor was estimated to be 75% of total cost of production in a study with data collected in 2015. (Click here for the study by Ruth Ann Church.) Of total labor, harvesting accounts for 36% of costs. 
Take-away: don't be fooled by what may seem like low-cost labor. It is a huge part of the farmer's budget and therefore doubling it, as appears to be the case for Rwanda's farmers, is going to have a likewise dramatic impact.
Ejo Heza farmer checks the quality of a coffee tree.

(Names have been changed to maintain anonymity.)
1. Epiphanie: "The stay home period is preventing us from harvesting as usual.  Since we are respecting the distancing (1m) between workers, I hire less workers than needed." (245 trees; 9 years as a member of Ejo Heza; 4 children.)

2. Floride: "The stay home period is affecting me in ways of hiring more workers because I have to pay workers the same daily salary as if they have worked the whole day." (1800 trees; 2 years as a member of Ejo Heza; 3 children.)

3. Perpetue: "The stay home period is affecting me in harvesting because before I would use 4 workers and now I am using 2 workers because you cannot find those casual laborers to help you. People are staying at home. This means those 2 available workers spend much time in harvesting. Sometimes they do not even finish the harvest of the good cherries before the delivery time set by the buyers." (660 trees; 3 years as a member of Ejo Heza; 0 children.)

4. Clementine: "It is not easy with the distancing instructions of allowing only 2 people harvesting on 1 coffee tree at the same time." (1008 trees; 6 years as a member of Ejo Heza; 3 children.)
Ejo Heza members sort cherry at the washing
station - April 2017

5. Adele: "The challenge is that I can’t afford to protect my workers with masks or hand sanitizers." (670 trees; 9 years as a member of Ejo Heza; 6 children.)

6. Seraphine: "I used to sell banana wines in bars, but now now they are closed. So it is not easy to get money to pay workers for the harvest during this lockdown." (500 trees; 4 years as a member of Ejo Heza; 5 children.)

7. Julienne: "The distancing and use of less workers is affecting me particularly as a site collector. Due to the distancing requirement, I am not allowed to get close to the farmers to work together with them on checking the cherries which they have delivered.  This takes me more time and makes some losses when I am sorting alone with workers while farmers have already gone back home. The other challenge is the sanitary and hygiene requirements. I have to always buy hand sanitizers, soaps and water to make sure everyone arriving at the site is safe from the coronavirus." (1030 trees; 4 years as a member of Ejo Heza; 4 children.)

8. Beatrice: "As many businesses closed, we are not able to invest in harvesting because we lack money to pay workers in this period of lockdown." (315 trees; 4 years as a member of Ejo Heza; 2 children.)

9. Peruth: "This lockdown is challenging me in hiring workers. Many are staying home and the available ones cost much money for harvesting." (1500 trees; 3 years as a member of Ejo Heza; 0 children.)

Those are the comments about the labor challenge. A comment during the interview from our tenth participant references a challenge unrelated to COVID:

10. Dorthee: "It is really hard in this period of rain sometimes. You can’t harvest due to heavy rains and you have to go the following day to pick the specialty coffee." (800 trees; 3 years as a member of Ejo Heza; 2 children.)

To learn more about how Rwanda's coffee sector is faring in during the pandemic, head over to our other blog, Artisan Coffee in N. America, by clicking here.