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Agriculture project helps SPREAD prosperity among Rwandan farmers

A project with the appropriate acronym SPREAD has played a major role in helping spread wealth among Rwandan farmers, project officials said.

The Sustaining Partnerships to Enhance Rural Enterprise and Agribusiness Development project is helping tens of thousands of Rwandan farmers increase their income and improve their quality of life, said Dr. Linda Cleboski, Africa program development coordinator at the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M University.

"We've done this by helping Rwanda's farmers, agricultural cooperatives and agribusiness interests develop, process, package and market their high-value agricultural products, such as coffee, cassava and chili peppers," she said.

The project, which began in 2006, is a five-year effort funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and led by the Borlaug Institute.

"SPREAD is a continuation of Texas A&M's long-term commitment to help build sustainable agriculture and develop beneficial agribusiness opportunities in Rwanda," said Dr. Tim Schilling, the project's director, who moved from the U.S. to Rwanda's Butare region in 2001.

Early efforts included working with Rwanda's coffee growers to help them meet specialty coffee market specifications like those demanded by Starbucks, Green Mountain and other high-end coffee companies, Schilling said.

"We worked with coffee cooperatives, industry groups and other organizations to establish and improve coffee washing stations, professionalize coffee processing and enhance product quality," he said.

The approach proved so successful that this year Rwanda was invited to host the first Cup of Excellence event ever held in Africa, he said.

"This world-class competition showed such a striking contrast to where Rwanda's coffee industry was less than a decade ago," Schilling noted. "Before 2001, Rwandan coffee quality was so poor that many farmers were digging up coffee trees to plant other crops. But today, Rwanda ranks among the top specialty coffee-producing countries in the world."

While income from Rwandan coffee exports was almost zero in 2000, the country's coffee development authority, OCIR-Café, estimates exports will exceed $50 million this year and $100 million by 2012.

More than 40 international buyers and roasters currently buy coffees produced with help from the SPREAD project, including Community Coffee, Thousand Hills Coffee, Counter Culture Coffee, Howell Select Coffees, Union Coffee Roasters (London), Intelligentsia Coffee, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and Starbucks.

"The fact that Rwanda's President Kagame and other high-ranking government officials came to the Cup of Excellence award ceremony showed the importance of the coffee sector as a driver for Rwanda's economy," said Susie Spindler, Cup of Excellence director. "It also gave the coffee farmers well-deserved attention and recognition for their efforts."

Schilling said 19 of the 24 groups submitting winning coffees at the Cup of Excellence received quality control and technical assistance from the SPREAD project, including the Multi-sector Investment Group, whose top-rated coffee fetched $18 per pound at a post-competition Internet auction.

"We're also continuing to help Rwanda improve its coffee quality and value through the project's Coffee Quality Research program in which we cooperate with the agriculture faculty of the National University of Rwanda," Schilling said.

Dr. Magnifique Nzaramba, a Rwandan research assistant currently working with Texas A&M's department of horticultural sciences, has been helping with coffee quality research.

"Last year we did research on how to reduce processing costs by comparing pulping machinery and investigating factors like water use and labor and energy costs," Nzaramba said. "We also researched the effects of fermentation on the different taste qualities of the coffees."

Nzaramaba said 2009 research would include investigating the effects of delivery time and packaging on coffee quality. "Through this research, we hope to help the Rwandan coffee industry find more efficient and affordable ways to produce a quality product," he said.

Schilling said the project is also helping with the production, processing, packaging and marketing of products made from cassava, including a product known regionally as bonfufu.

"Bonfufu is a flour made from cassava that is marketed as a high-value ethnic food in France and sold through their National Grocery Chain, AUCHAN, providing another source of income for Rwandan farmers," he said.

Schilling added that more than 2,000 of Rwanda's small-acreage farmers would benefit from project activities assisting them with the production of chili peppers.

"We're providing business advice and technical assistance on chili agronomy and processing, as well as providing technical business-related support," he said.

The project is also expected to help increase the income of thousands of pyrethrum flower producers in northern Rwanda by as much as 25 percent through a new partnership being forged with the S.C. Johnson Co.

"This program and associated activities have been extremely important to helping the Rwandan people," Cleboski said. "We're looking forward to building on past successes and beginning new activities to help more Rwandan farmers."

2/2/09
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Date: 1/22/09



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