“Your presence here is a vote of confidence in Rwandan coffee,” George Kayonga, head of Rwanda’s National Agricultural Export Development Board (NAEB), told Coffee Research Symposium attendees on March 17. A vote of confidence, in this case, as over 150 representatives from academia, private sector, government, and international organizations assembled in Kigali to discuss a challenge 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 otherwise exceptional East African specialty coffee to exhibit a potato-like taste, which impacts the industry’s revenue potential. Rwanda’s Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources, NAEB, University of Rwanda (UR), and others organized the Symposium to gather a global network of experts to share knowledge on the state of science on this taste defect. Beyond discussing new research, the gathering sought to identify practical solutions to the challenge.
The cost of potato taste to Rwanda’s economy remains in debate, but available numbers present a perilous picture. Matt Smith, head of exporter Rwanda Trading Company, estimates that losses solely due to potato taste—and solely in medium grade coffee—reach at least US$3.9 million annually. Combined with specialty coffee losses, experts estimate this number to be multiple times higher. Rwanda’s government has taken bold steps to combat antestia and mitigate potato taste. At the Symposium, researchers from the Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB) and UR reported on efforts to map the distribution of the antestia bug and potato taste. NAEB—which oversees farmer outreach—described its focus on improving farm-level pest control.
Buttressing these efforts is a global team supporting 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) program. Starting with UR, GKI built a network of partners including Seattle University; Rogers Family Company; CIRAD; University of California, Riverside; and many others aimed at studying and solving this challenge. Representatives from these institutions presented research on antestia bugs, chemical and biological profiles of the potato taste itself, and variables predicting potato taste.