So I just met with the presidents of the 13 coffee cooperatives in a large meeting. They represent roughly 30,000 small-holder coffee farmers (small-holder means that they each own about 200 trees). It was a yearly meeting they have before the next coffee season, where they review issues during the last coffee season and prepare and strategize for the upcoming season. A major topic that we hit on that brought out passionate opinions was the issue of the transportation of coffee cherries within the coffee cooperatives themselves.
To those who have not read earlier things I or other have written, or if you want to recap, I will explain roughly explain how these coffee cooperatives run in the coffee season. There is a washing station hubed in the middle of thousands of small-holder coffee farmers. Some farmers live 5 or even 10 kilometers away from the washing stations and they need to get their picked coffee from their little farm to the washing station (where they process the coffee) as soon as possible, within hours preferably. Now imagine thousands of people trying to do this at once, walk if they can, ride their bikes if they can along these muddy steep roads in the middle of the rainy season. The cooperative only can afford a few trucks to assist these farmers. These trucks can cost upwards of $1,900 USD a month, and they come out of the farmer’s pockets. And these trucks go to certain locations where farmers drop-off their cherries and the truck picks them up to bring to the washing station. At these pick-up points in the hills surrounding the washing stations the washing station managers weigh the individual amounts of the picked cherries, and give the farmers a note for credit to redeem later. They have to get the cherries on the trucks into the washing station before dark because at night they are more vulnerable to the cherries being robbed off the trucks and sold to competing private coffee companies. They are also in such a rush to get these cherries to the washing station that they are not able to sort and asses the quality of the coffee cherries that they are throwing into the trucks, thus assuring a lower value of coffee. In addition, every hour that passes of the coffee cherries not being processed the worse their quality becomes.
So when the bicycle came up in the discussion it was the solution to their problem. The president of Musasa Coffee Cooperative, probably the most successful coffee cooperative in Rwanda, said that in the 2006 season the produced 5 containers of specialty coffee. 4 containers were completed with the trucks, the last container was collected only by bicycles. No trucks were involved and all the coffee was brought directly to the washing station on bikes. They didn’t experience the logistical nightmare that they had before on the trucks, no coffee was stolen and the quality had risen. The cooperative management hired local young guys in the cooperative that had bicycles to makes these runs, and the cost of renting these men with the bikes was far cheaper than hiring a truck to gather the amount for this container. This container was the cheapest and made the most profit for the cooperative. I am in the process of retrieving this information at the moment. But this little story is key; if they promote that to other cooperatives the bikes will soar with evidence to keep it up.
I have never seen such a passionate desire to have these bicycles before this meeting. All cooperative chairmen were anxious to have their next coffee season use these bikes. We have a large demand to be met, and it will be great when it does.
Monday, January 22, 2007
So, I thought that there was going to be a few people attending this meeting. Turns out that about 70 showed. They standing on the side of this hill down from where the cooperative headquarters are, spread out like people in an amphitheater, and I was the one going to be the one down in the front, putting on the show.
Nervous from the numbers I made my way to the stage with my friend and translator, Jean Claude, and the cooperative manager, Juvenile. We then launched into the program, why the bike was coming to coffee farmers, how it would work within the cooperative, and of course we talked about the price. Slowly people gravitated off the hill and huddled around the bicycle, blocking the view from the higher onlookers. But I guess those were the ones who were really interested.
I then met the farmer who was going to use the bicycle for a month. He was a small businessman who transports goods to the market on his standard Rwandan old fashioned bicycle. Now with the new Ubike he can compare performances, and we can begin to understand the benefits of the Ubike in relation to the standard bikes. I will follow up with him in two weeks and then in a month.