The Road to Professional Cupping Labs

Far too many smallholder farmers in Rwanda have never tasted the coffee they grow. They only have visual cues to identify quality and defects, and lack the training and tools to communicate taste notes to buyers. As a result, they’re unable to maximize the value of the fruits of their labor. 

In 2013, Bloomberg Philanthropies and Sustainable Harvest® partnered to create the Relationship Coffee Institute (RCI), a nonprofit that seeks to professionalize coffee farming, providing women with the knowledge and skills required to compete and thrive in the global market. 

Since its launch, RCI has enrolled nearly 28,000 women coffee farmers, making it the largest gender-based coffee training program in the world. Through the program, women farmers learn best practices from seed to cup. Initially, RCI began teaching farmers to roast and taste their coffee at rural washing stations, using readily available inputs such as cast-iron skillets for roasting and a mortar and pestle for grinding. These tools have helped farmers obtain more immediate feedback on coffee flavor and quality, but unfortunately, these scrappy innovations are inadequate in comparison to professional cupping labs that can create transformational change for smallholders and their families. 

Cupping labs do more than provide a means to taste coffee; they are a key step in professionalizing coffee production and improving flavor and quality in the process. At Sustainable Harvest®, we’ve seen this transformation first-hand. Equipped with the proper tools for cupping, farmers have been able to participate in Q Grader training courses led by our team and effectively put professional cupping skills into practice at their cooperatives. This has improved their ability to identify areas for improvement in production and elevated their standing in the marketplace, as they have been able to effectively communicate quality to buyers through the industry standard Q Coffee grading system developed by the Coffee Quality Institute. 

With the goal of bringing this model of change to farmers in Rwanda, Sustainable Harvest® has convened a group of like-minded actors to build out more professional cupping capacity for cooperatives across Rwanda that are currently part of RCI’s program. 

Bloomberg Philanthropies has provided generous support for RCI to secure cupping tables and essential supplies for what will eventually be professional-grade labs. 

Another boost of support has come from Behmor Inc. in the form of 30 sample roasters. Joe Behm, founder of Behmor Inc., sees the sample roasters as a meaningful opportunity that can provide education, and lead to new opportunities for coffee farmers. “One thing that’s sorely lacking in [coffee-producing] countries is opportunity,” Behm says. “These men and women don’t want a handout, they want knowledge imparted.” 

Behm originally developed the small sample roaster for coffee enthusiasts but came to discover he’d actually stumbled on a valuable tool that could make a huge difference in the lives of coffee farmers. “It’s taken on a life of its own,” Behm says. “[I realized] that little coffee roaster I came up with in 1999 actually had a benefit to the farmers. They could taste their own coffee. They could have an economical sample roaster.” 

Over the next three years, the impact of the project will also grow with support from Strauss Coffee’s “More Than A Cup” program, which will fund RCI-led cupping trainings in Rwanda. The More Than A Cup program comprises eight projects around the world that aim to improve the livelihoods of women coffee growers through investment in infrastructure and trainings. 

Inspired by the generosity of our partners, our team at Sustainable Harvest® has reinvested all profits earned from 2017 Rwandan coffees sales—over $26,000—to support this critical effort. 

Together, Sustainable Harvest®’s customers, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Behmor Inc., and Strauss Coffee have given significant momentum to the initiative; however, it will take additional support from the industry to sponsor professional-grade grinding and tasting equipment to execute RCI’s vision of fully outfitted cupping labs. Your support can make all the difference. We hope you’ll join us:!

Suggested Reading