The government has unveiled initiatives aimed at combating the potato taste defect in the country's coffee, which is threatening to reduce confidence in Rwanda's high quality coffee.
The potato taste defect - thought to be caused by an insect pest called the "antestia bug" - causes Rwanda's specialty coffee to exhibit a potato-like taste, which impacts the industry's revenue potential, according to the National Agricultural Export Development Board (NAEB) and experts.
George Kayonga, the NAEB director general, said government has already released funds to help eradicate the bug and combat the defect.
"We want to address this problem at the grassroots level to be able to get the best results. Otherwise, we are aware of the economic implications the potato taste defect has on the country's coffee exports. The campaigns that we have started among farmers and other stakeholders along the supply chain will hopefully bear fruits in the shortest time possible," Kayongo said.
Coffee accounts for about 17 per cent of the country's total exports.
The antestia bug destroys up to 38 per cent of coffee, apart from the damage caused by potato taste defect, the direct effect of potato taste on the coffee market demands practical solutions, according to scientists.
The government drive to eradicate the bug is part of the efforts that also involve global initiatives to fight the challenge that could have a crippling effort on the industry if it is not eradicated as soon as possible. For instance, last month 150 representatives from academia, private sector, government, and international organisations met in Kigali to discuss a possible solution.
Rwanda's Ministry of Agriculture, NAEB and the University of Rwanda organised the symposium to gather a global network of experts to share knowledge on the state of science on this taste defect, and identify practical solutions to the challenge.
According to experts, the cost of potato taste defect on Rwanda's economy is estimated at $3.9m (about Rwf2.7b) annually.
This cost could multiply if investments in research along the value chain are not intensified, sector experts say.
Dr Celestin Gatarayiha, the head of coffee production division at NAEB, called for more collaborate among stakeholders beyond sharing research.
"We have already formed national collaboration research and extension groups consisting of people along the value chain in order to augment the efforts geared at improving the quality of coffee and especially the fight against this new challenge," Gatarayiha said.
Dr. Dick Walyaro, a coffee breeding expert at Rwanda Agricultural Board, said they have doubled support to coffee farmers to ensure pests, especially antestia bugs are eradicated. He added that the board is also promoting integrated pest management practices, and proper handling during coffee harvesting seasons to uproot the disease.
While speaking at the symposium, Susie Spindler, the head of the Alliance for Coffee Excellence, a global alliance of coffee lovers dedicated to advancing excellence in coffee, underlined the need for practical solutions to the problem. She announced a Challenge Prize of up to $20,000 to fund up to three pilot projects aimed at testing techniques or technologies to detect or mitigate the potato taste defect.
Strong private sector support for the Challenge Prize, she said, evidenced its commitment to Rwandan coffee. David Mills, the chief executive officer of UK-based firm, WeatherSafe, said new satellite technology could help farmers and stakeholders along the value chain detect and mitigate potato taste at early stage.
Rwanda earned $50m from coffee exports in the first 11 months of 2013. The National Agricultural Export Development Board recently revised the indicative farm gate price from Rw142 to Rwf200 per kilogramme.
NAEB efforts are buttressed by a global team that supports research on the cause of, and treatments for, potato taste.
Since 2012, US non-profit the Global Knowledge Initiative (GKI) has built a potato taste research network through its LINK (Learning and Innovation Network for Knowledge and Solutions) programme. Starting with University of Rwanda, GKI built a network of partners including Seattle University; Rogers Family Company; CIRAD; University of California and Riverside with the aim of studying and solving the potato taste challenge, GKI said in a statement over the weekend. Representatives from these institutions presented research on antestia bugs, chemical and biological profiles of the potato taste itself, and variables predicting potato taste at the symposium, it added.