Rwandan Coffee Brand Boost

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

A successful Rwandan company is using coffee shops to promote the nation’s high-quality coffee brands at home and abroad. Started by two Rwandan entrepreneurs three years ago, Bourbon Coffee (http://www.bourboncoffeeusa.com) now has three shops in the country’s capital, Kigali, and a savvily positioned shop in Washington DC.

While Rwandan coffee has built a good international reputation, the country’s more than 500,000 coffee farmers (mostly small-scale) previously depended on the product’s reputation alone. But Bourbon Coffee joins several other initiatives changing this situation and starting to significantly raise the profile of Rwandan coffee and build the Rwanda brand.

The East African nation experienced the horrific genocide of almost 1 million people in 1994. Ever since, the country has been on a journey to reconcile with the damage done during this time and move on to a more prosperous future for all its citizens. A key part of the country’s future success will be its economic prosperity. And historically, coffee has played a critical role in Rwanda’s economy.

The Bourbon Coffee chain of shops (taking its name from the high quality Bourbon coffee varietal (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_coffee_varieties) which accounts for the majority of Rwandan coffee), started with its first shop in Kigali in 2007. Started by Emmanuel Murekezi and Arthur Karuletwa, two Rwandans living in the United States, it is modelled on the popular American brand Starbucks (http://www.starbucks.com). The entrepreneurs admired the coffee culture experience found at Starbucks. Just as Starbucks heavily markets its complete quality control over the coffee experience, their philosophy is to produce great coffee from “crop to cup.”

“There are over 500,000 farmers that own 100 to 200 trees in the back of their yards, so the only way they can come up with a product is to come together in a cooperative sense,” Karuletwa told the Washington Post. It is a learning experience for the Rwandan coffee farmers: they learn to work together, trust each other and be accountable to each other. “Neighbours that once killed each other and communities that once floated in the same bloodbath are now hand in hand producing one of the most amazing products.”

“If done right, it could be the platform to re-brand the country,” continued Karuletwa, a former chief executive and now a shareholder in the company. Coffee can “create awareness that there’s recovery, there’s trade, there’s investment opportunities, there’s tourism. There’s life after death.”

The importance of good design and a strong brand in the success of a business cannot be emphasised enough. That extra effort and thought can take a business from local success to regional and even global success. As consultants KPMG make clear, “For many businesses, the strength of their brands is a key driver of profitability and cash flow.” Yet the majority of small businesses fail to think about their brand values or how design will improve their product or service.

The shops have a very tasteful modern, African design and feel. African sculpture and furniture are surrounded by African artwork. The shop’s logo is an eye-catching orange and there is an overall recognizable brand identity for the entire Bourbon Coffee concept.

The founders see it as an opportunity to educate people about the health benefits of coffee culture and the joys of the lifestyle. They proudly serve only Rwandan coffee and promote the national brands they serve, including Akagera, Kivu Lake, Kizi Rift, Muhazi and Virunga.

Bourbon Coffee, in a clever move, opened the Washington branch in 2009 in a former Starbucks in a neighbourhood packed with aid organizations and NGOs, many of which work with Rwanda on projects.

Karuletwa says Bourbon Coffee’s ambitious vision “is to stand as a symbol of a new era in African economic development, one in which African nations rise to participate directly in the global marketplace.”

“Coffee is a very intimate, emotional product,” he said. “The preparation, the processes and the profiling of coffee is similar to wine.”

The Rwandan branches can be found at the Union Trade Centre (UTC) in Kigali’s city centre, the MTN centre in Nyarutarama and Kigali airport.

The business is funded by Rwandan investors Tristar (http://www.tri-starinvestments.com/index.html).

Another initiative is the Rwandan Farmers Brand (http://www.rwandanfarmers.com). It also hopes to raise the profile of Rwandan coffee and drive more of the profits made into the hands of farmers. It is a joint venture between the foundations of former U.S. President Clinton and philanthropist Sir Tom Hunter. They fund all the brand’s creation and operation in partnership with 8,700 farmers. They have started selling Rwanda Medium Roast Ground in the United Kingdom’s Sainsbury’s supermarkets. Sixteen percent of sales are clear profit and returned to the farmers via their own Trust Fund.

Karuletwa says he doesn’t want Rwandan coffee to be “a pity-driven mission”. It is all about the quality: “The value initiative here is because this coffee tastes great,” he says.

And Bourbon Coffee is looking further afield to grow the brand: “We hope to expand even further,” Murekezi told Monocle magazine. “Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, but also Europe. We think the concept can work there too.”

Resources

  • East African Fine Coffees Association: All the latest news on events and initiatives for East Africa’s coffee producers. Website: http://www.eafca.org/
  • Brandchannel: The world’s only online exchange about branding, packed with resources, debates and contacts to help businesses intelligently build their brand. Website: www.brandchannel.com
  • The red dot logo stands for belonging to the best in design and business. The red dot is an internationally recognized quality label for excellent design that is aimed at all those who would like to improve their business activities with the help of design. Website: http://www.red-dot.de
  • Dutch Design in Development: The Dutch NGO works with producers to develop skills and adapt producers’ products to present and future demands in Europe. By following this approach, Southern producers can reduce the risk of making products nobody wants, or that lack originality in the marketplace and thus won’t sell. Website: http://www.ddid.nl/english/index.html

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