Risk, Responsibility, and Potatoes? A Rwandan Coffee Story

rwanda coffee
Photo: The Norman Bolaug Institute for International Agriculture

There’s a lot more specialty coffee coming out of Rwanda these days, and there’s a lot to love about Rwandan coffee. 25% of Rwanda’s agricultural exports consist of coffee, and in recent years, the country has made substantial investments in specialty coffee infrastructure. As a result, numerous 90+ coffees are now coming out of the growing African nation, and the future is extremely bright.

However, Rwandan coffee is under threat from a strange issue: the potato-taste defect. Causing an odor of freshly-peeled potatoes to emanate from the beans, the defect is often undetectable visually or by smell until the coffee is brewed. Many specialty roasters are excited about high-quality Rwandan coffees, but potato-taste defect presents a hard-to-manage obstacle to embracing them fully.

How potato-taste defect occurs is imperfectly understood to date. This defect emerges from the interaction of a particular species of East African stinkbug, bacteria, and possibly mold. Until it is fully understood, it can’t be eradicated or even planned for.

In addition to efforts by World Coffee Research to fund research on this issue, there is a group of dedicated people who have formed around this problem and are taking action. The Rwandan government and international partners held a Coffee Research Symposium in March of this year about this issue, which brought 150 stakeholders together.

What emerged from this summit was a further collaboration: US nonprofit the Global Knowledge Initiative, together with the Alliance for Coffee Excellence and some of its members, created the Potato Taste Challenge Prize: a competitive grant to support research into innovative technologies to prevent, detect, or cure potato-taste defect. The first winner, Joseph Bigirimana, is currently piloting a pest management system designed to eradicate the root of the problem.

This is just another example of the coffee community rallying with a cooperative approach to taking responsibility for a problem. Because Rwandan producers, their roaster collaborators, and everyone throughout the coffee chain deserve the right to enjoy their superb specialty coffees with confidence.