KIGALI (Reuters) - U.S. coffee retail giant Starbucks will start selling a high grade variety of fairtrade-certified Rwandan coffee in Britain and Ireland next year, the company said over the weekend.
Starbucks said the move was part of an initiative to buy fairtrade beans across East Africa, aimed at improving the lives of farmers by encouraging more efficient coffee-growing practices and by promoting social development.
"I'm very proud to be able to announce that effective February in the UK, we will have a specific variety of the highest quality coffee possible from Rwanda that is Fairtrade certified," Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz told Reuters.
Starbucks has pledged to have all coffee sold in its 700 British and Irish outlets Fairtrade-certified, making it the largest purchaser of such coffee in the world.
Coffee represents Rwanda's biggest foreign-exchange export earner in an economy which has been rebuilt following the 1994 genocide of 800,000 people.
As Starbucks prepares to open a farmers' support centre in Kigali, Schultz said his company's own coffee-producing standards, in collaboration with Fairtrade practices, will improve crop yields and award farmers fairer prices.
"We want to integrate those practices in a way that will both benefit the farmer, benefit the consumer...," Schultz said.
The new agronomy office in Kigali is modelled on a farmer support centre in Costa Rica which improved yields 15-20 percent per hectare and cut the use of pesticides by 80 percent.
During a trip to a washing station high on the rolling hills outside Kigali, farmers told Schultz they had been 'robbed' by middlemen and suppliers in the past.
Standing in front of racks of drying beans, Schultz said East Africa was an emerging market in an industry whose consumers have remained loyal to Fairtrade branded products, despite the global economic downturn.
"It's clear to us that east Africa represents a unique opportunity for high quality coffee," he said.
Sales of Fairtrade products grew 43 percent in Britain last year, said Harriet Lamb, Executive Director of the Fairtrade Foundation in the UK.
Rwanda's temperate tropical climate, high elevation and volcanic soils offer some of the best growing conditions in the world.
Schultz told farmers he would initiate multi-year contracts to help cooperatives concentrate on producing quality beans.
"I think we also have an opportunity and a responsibility to give them forward contracts that will ensure that they know next year and the year after that, Starbucks has a need for high quality coffee," Schultz said.