Rwanda – Getting Back to Coffeelands

Everything seems different with “coffee travel” these days. Maybe that’s good though …

Work has changed and approaches to work have changed. I realize people in many job roles are asking themselves “Why? “Why do I do what I do, why is this needed, what drives this particular task, what purpose does it serve, is there a different way to do this?” 

Traveling to visit our coffee sources feels this way too. For me, the assumptions behind this kind of self-assigned task has always felt a bit uncertain. But I realize that’s me… I pretty much always am wanting to understand why, and in the case of coffee sourcing, what is the narrative that drives it. 

(We have an audio version of this article , or read on… )

On this trip to Rwanda, and my previous one this year to Guatemala, things felt strange. I felt a bit like I was cast in a role, acting in some way that felt both familiar from the past, but alienating too. Coffee is a global product. It makes sense that someone needs to verify quality when quality is the main driver of a sale. If someone contracted to build a high end appliance in China, they would definitely want to travel to meet the engineers, and check fabrication quality in person. So yeah, in a nuts-and-bolts way it makes sense.

Mushonyi station, Rutsiro District
Like all the stations, hand sorting of coffee cherry is an important step, and the first one taken when coffee enters the station.

But coffee is, somewhat regrettably, about stories too. There is always a narrative connected to it, marketing. Where is this coffee from, who grew it, what are the conditions it’s grown under, what explains its quality? Marketing is not a word I feel very comfortable with, but it would be disingenuous to say there wasn’t value added to coffee by the narrative that accompanies it.

What I have decided though is that the narrative should be truthful, and it should matter. It should not be bull shit. It’s not as easy as it sounds though, because some things that are “true” about coffee happen to be the easiest for consumers to digest, so what I see in the coffee trade is those particular details gain outsized importance because…. they sell coffee. 

Examples? Coffee varieties. The plant variety matters, it is true. But how much? The altitude. Yes, that matters as well, but it’s not like there is a single “good” altitude to grow coffee at … and higher isn’t aways better. 

Why are plant variety and altitude so prevalent in coffee marketing (including ours) ? One reason is because they relate to other posh products, such as wine for example. But another reason I see is that they appeal to a consumer-friendly idea of intrinsic qualities, material difference.

And while true, those material differences are interesting not only because of where they draw focus to … but also what they draw focus away from. They draw focus away from human labor. 

If someone did ask me what the single most important factor is in coffee that results in quality (nobody ever does though), my answer would be this; manual labor.

Without the manual work to farm coffee, to harvest it, process it in the wet mill, hand-select it on the drying beds, bulk it up to haul to the warehouse, and dry-mill it for export, there would be no quality. It would be bulk, undifferentiated commodity. 

You can farm Gesha at 1950 MASL and without labor, skilled and trained labor, you would have a bulk commodity product … I mean, between the wood and dirt flavors you might get a hint of fruit, as you expectorated your first sip. 

I have thought about this aspirational relationship coffee marketing has to the world of wine. I don’t get it. The talk about “coffee quality” has included a lot of consumer-focused buzzwords that help distinguish a particular micro-lot as being “really special.” We see labels that have fanciful names, or a particular farm / estate. It’s a bit like wine labeling. We see coffee bags that mention the coffee variety, such as Heirloom Typica or Gesha. That too is a bit like wine, right? And we see a big increase in terms for special processing, like Anaerobic Fermentation, or Carbonic Maceration, or Black Honey. I see that on wine labels too. In others words, terms and descriptors that make sense to consumers because they parallel a way another product is sold, in this case an aspirational attachment to a “classy” item like wine, seem to find a place in coffee marketing quite easily. 

Coffee in the past, cheap and plentiful, made in the office pot-after-pot, certainly doesn’t seem like a very elite beverage. But if you press grapes to make grape juice or table vinegar, but could also grow different varieties to produce wine, seems like that’s a better financial proposition. Turning coffee from just being grape juice into being wine is certainly an upgrade as well, no? Yeah, a flawed analogy but it has some weight to it…

Really, none of this is what I think about traveling in Rwanda. It’s the stuff I think about on the way back home. The way coffee is marketed seems so strange, completely foreign to things that really matter in actually producing coffee. The marketing expresses something “added on”, what coffee is as a global product, meanings that form an overlay, wrapping the raw material in something like a metaphysical package. It’s about promise and desire, not of the producer but the consumer, and coffee is just an empty vessel to load up with this significance. 

It’s good to stop there (even if there is much more to say, but I know few want to have a conversation about commodity fetishism and coffee as I do).

Another reason to stop is that the labor that goes into producing quality coffee is real, and it is obscured by both the marketing, and even by the well-meaning images of coffee pickers etc meant to represent it. Those idealized images have their own fetish in a way, whether they show a laborer holding out their hands filled with coffee cherry to signify willing work and abundance, or show hardship that stokes implicit guilt or pity by consumers in the global north. Either form narratives that have little to do with the lived experience of a coffee laborer or their economic situation.

As anyone who takes travel photos knows, the picture taking part is easy. The real work is in looking at what you have, editing, cropping, keywording, captioning. That work is where the narrative is built, the good picture vs the bad one, the significant vs insignificant. Even in this basic editorial judgment, images become organized into communicable experiences that often fall into established narrative lines.

These narratives can be straight-forward, simplistic or sometimes fairly problematic, such as romantic notions of “the exotic”. Perspective matters a lot and when traveling without a level of self-awareness, things can get weird. For example, a traveller that pares down their photos to include only “exotic” content, things that seem “strange and uncommon” may not consider that for every local in their photo frame, it is very common. A place may seem “far-away” to this tourist, but to those “others” in your images, you are just another person in their backyard.

Yeah, it you feel something is awesome and unusual, snap that photo! I know I do. At the same time, recognize how that “unusual” quality is being generated: For me some of those factors might include a. my ability to have a vacation from work (or work that’s like a vacation!), b. my ability to buy an airline ticket and fly across the world,, c. my technical and financial advantage to own camera gear, d. my ability focus a camera on one “strange” thing and omit everything else around it, e. the magnitude of history, of Western culture that creates fanciful ideas about “other people” to create desire for consumption while mystifying the exploitation of labor that produces the product … oh it could go on and on…

One response I have is, I suppose, to just to a bad job in forming a narrative: Include the photos that don’t fit, that doesn’t promote the storyline, expand the frame.

I realize I don’t do a great job at this (I’m bad at being bad?) but in a way, just having multiple photo-interests does complicate the plot. For example, if a tourist took photos only of “scenic” parts of town on the beaten trail from a guide book …not much there. If they added local dogs, people doing daily work, the elderly meeting in the park …well, there’s some layers there. Add in photos of trash piles, some shady deal on a side street, a mysteriously-placed shoe, and the tattoo on the neck of the taxi driver … now we’re talking! I’m trying to joke here … but the idea behind it is that “disordered representations” can be a tiny bit liberating.

And an expanded frame through which to represent these “far away places” also elevates the role of the audience. It assumes they are intelligent, and might find for themselves what is interesting and what isn’t within a set of images. These are small things, but applied to something like marketing of coffee, it’s possible to see how more diverse imagery from outside the usual frame could, at a minimum, complicate the usual storylines by which products are sold.

Thanks for reading these random thoughts. Now for some random pictures. You can click on them to see larger size in a lightbox, if you want to. Thanks – Tom

7 Responses

  1. Thought provoking and informative – thanks for posting this! The point about commodity fetishism obscuring labor (and frankly maybe even doing a little light laundering of exploitation) also made me wonder about alienation. A lot of difficult, under-valued work being done by people who (usually?) aren’t themselves consumers of the product, and a long way from where the capital is accruing. I appreciate you making a case for the primacy of the connection between coffee quality and labor, and I’ll try not to be distracted from this amid the marketing!

    1. Thanks for your comment Ben. Yeah great point and it’s interesting to think of alienated labor with a global product like coffee. I guess in terms of alienated labor in the coffee business, and my mind jumps to baristas and roasters who can’t afford the coffee they serve, or working in a neighborhood you can’t pay rents in … Those people have the option available to participate in the consumption of the end product but they aren’t of the class who can afford it easily. With people who work as day labor at a coffee mill, they really can’t participate in the purchase, so it’s hard to see them as directly disenfranchised, but I guess it happens if what they earn sorting coffee can’t translate into food or clothing at a local market in Rwanda. I could also see it being different if they worked with something that could be locally consumed more readily, like they grew beans or corn (2 things I see a lot around coffee stations in Rwanda. As you say its a long way from where capital accrues, from rural Rwanda to the value additions (real or perceived!) made before final consumption!

  2. Great essay! Just randomly came across this today, but I run a small farm and we talk about very similar themes that you described above.

    1. Thank you! – If you see this reply, would like to know what kind of small farm you run?

  3. Hello again, it is a produce farm. Wide variety of vegetables for direct to market customers but mainly greens, shoots, edible flowers, for wholesale. Sheep as well.

    Very centered around human labor. And also selling to a very specific high end market. You can check us out on Instagram @foxholefarmer.

    Thanks for doing what you do. We’ve enjoyed everything we’ve had from sweet Maria’s, including the education!

  4. Thank you, Tom. I found this a thought-provoking post, as I do all of your “long reads”. Your “expanded frame” photo essay indeed elevated this reader and gave a deeper context to the weekly coffee roasting. As for your comment “I know few want to have a conversation about commodity fetishism and coffee as I do.”, I do!

    1. Thanks much for your comment Beatrice. I am really appreciative for any one who reads these longer articles. It’s nice to know someone cares enough to keep reading!

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