Field Diary: Rwanda

It’s a long way from Ohio to Butare. Find out what happened when our resident conservation biologist Deanna Newsom forgot a crucial element needed to use her water monitoring equipment.

Jean-Marie Irakabaho and Deanna Newsom

Jean-Marie Irakabaho and Senior Manager, Research and Science Communication Deanna Newsom measure water quality with a Secchi tube

I line the bottles up in front of me, and cross-check their names against the list of solutions in my protocol. Then I double check. I see conductivity solution, pH buffers and turbidity solution. I’ve even remembered to lug a bottle of distilled water all the way from Ohio to where I am now, the offices of POSADA, a sustainable agriculture consulting company and Rainforest Alliance partner in Butare, Rwanda. But I see now that I’ve forgotten something similar but fundamentally different: de-ionized water.

My heart sinks a little, and I break the news to Jean-Marie Irakabaho, POSADA founder and agroforestry expert who, for the next three years, will be using the water quality monitoring equipment I’ve brought. The Rainforest Alliance and POSADA will be building a wastewater treatment system at the nearby Sovu coffee washing station, which is owned by the Maraba Coffee Grower’s Cooperative. If we can’t calibrate the probe properly—and de-ionized water is essential to doing that—our water quality readings won’t be accurate. Maybe we can run out and buy a bottle of de-ionized water, I think. And then I remember that it’s 8:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and we’re in a town of churchgoers in southern Rwanda. Right now it would be hard to find a cup of coffee, never mind a bottle of de-ionized water.

Jean-Marie holds up a hand, pulls out his cell phone, and flashes a smile that I assume means, “I’ll tell the washing station staff we’ll be delayed by a day.” But within two minutes he’s talking to a friend whose sister works at a pharmacy that sells de-ionized water. Next thing I know, he’s speaking with the pharmacy’s supplier. Forty minutes later, a young man is knocking on the front door of the POSADA office, holding a sealed bottle of de-ionized water.

That was my first hint that Jean-Marie can do anything.

Jean-Marie Irakabaho

By early afternoon, the probe is calibrated and we are driving in Jean-Marie’s SUV up the dusty road to the Sovu coffee washing station. At times we share the road with women carrying water-filled jerry cans and children shepherding tethered goats. Butare soon disappears behind us and the hillsides ahead bear a patchwork of small green squares and rectangles and trapezoids. I recognize coffee, banana, and sweet potato. Jean-Marie identifies the rest: sorghum, cassava and beans.

During the drive up to the washing station we discuss the goals of the project. With funding from the Scherman Foundation, Jean-Marie and his team will be designing and building a series of tanks and ponds that will treat the acidic, organic-material-rich water that is a by-product of coffee wet-processing. This water is usually released, untreated, into nearby streams, where its acidity kills aquatic life and the breakdown of its organic material not only fosters the production of bacteria that are harmful to humans but also starves aquatic fauna of oxygen. In fact, the water quality samples that Jean-Marie will take one month later, during the processing season, will show that downstream of the Sovu coffee washing station, measurements of biological oxygen demand, or BOD—an indicator of pollution through excessive organic matter—are nearly ten times higher than the Rwandan government standard. This in a country where, according to the World Health Organization, 16 percent of rural people get their drinking water directly from streams.

Cecile Mukamurigo, Sovu

On this day, we are at the station to view potential sites for the wastewater treatment system, test the water quality monitoring protocol, and meet with farmers from the Maraba cooperative. This group of 1,300 smallholders, each with a plot of coffee plants under one hectare in size, supplies coffee to the Sovu washing station. Jean-Marie will be meeting with farmers from Maraba in a series of eight multi-day workshops over the next 18 months, teaching the sustainable agriculture practices that, research has shown, increase farm productivity, increase the quality of harvested coffee, and improve downstream water quality.

Sovu coffee washing station

The day is long but fruitful: we test and tweak our protocol and engage in good conversations with the knowledgeable, enthusiastic Sovu staff and some neighboring coffee farmers. We bid them farewell and begin our return journey, criss-crossing through the countryside with the sun bouncing off the SUV mirrors and onto our tired faces. Eventually, we pass a sign on the right side of the road that says “Kitabi Tea Factory,” and I bolt upright in my seat—was this the Kitabi Tea Factory, an estate and tea processing facility that has been certified to the Rainforest Alliance’s agriculture standard since 2011, and whose audit report I had, by chance, just included in a new analysis of tea farm improvements? Jean-Marie confirms that they are indeed one and the same. I notice that the factory gate is locked and the grounds are deserted. “Too bad it’s Sunday afternoon,” I say. “I’d love a tour of the place.”

Jean-Marie smiles and pulls out his cell phone. Within 20 minutes, the factory manager is unlocking the gate and showing us the tea factory’s own wastewater treatment system.

Who is this scientist and trainer who can find de-ionized water on a Sunday morning and arrange a tour of a closed factory within 20 minutes? Whatever the source of his magic, I’m happy to know that this project—which we hope will give Sovu’s downstream communities access to cleaner water—is in his capable hands.

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