BeanScene Magazine

African Unique Safaris and Tours reveals the real Rwanda

From the August 2017 issue.
African Unique Safaris and Tours reveals the real Rwanda

African Unique Safaris and Tours is helping Rwanda prosper with tours that highlight the country’s best assets – coffee farming, gorilla trekking, cultural identity and the ultimate safari experience.

Five years ago, Michael Savage arrived at Rwanda’s Kigali International Airport with an open mind and a bucket list to tick off. He always wanted to see the rare mountain gorillas of Rwanda and made his way to the landlocked East African country to fulfil his dream.

Michael was unsure what condition he’d find the mountainous country in, considering it was still recovering from the tragic effects of the genocide in 1994, in which almost one million Rwandans were killed in the space of 100 days.

Michael flew into Kigali on a modern Rwandair flight and touched down in a contemporary airport. A good first impression. He hopped into a taxi with a courteous local driver, and discovered where the positions of power now lie.

“Whenever I visit a developing country, I like to build rapport with the local taxi drivers by dishing out on the corrupt local police. To my surprise, the taxi driver said, ‘if any of the police tried to extort a taxi driver here they would be reported immediately and lose their job, same for any corrupt local government authorities,’” Michael says.

As the driver took Michael to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, the final resting place of more than 250,000 victims of the genocide against the Tutsi, Michael noticed the good condition of the main roads – a sign of aid money well spent.

“Like most Australians, I arrived in Rwanda not knowing much, but I soon discovered a country totally different to anything I’d expected. The [locals] honour and remember the genocide victims and tell the story very transparently through their memorials, but the country’s reconciliation process and united spirit has seen it move on very successfully.  They only refer to themselves as Rwandans now, there are no tribal affiliations both by law and in practise.”

When Michael arrived at his travel lodge, he spotted a three-group coffee machine out of the corner of his eye. It stood next to a detailed coffee menu, but it became apparent that none of the staff knew how to make coffee.

“I asked the General Manager [Victor Ngabirano] if I could teach the staff a few coffee skills. I could see their enthusiasm was there. They had access to beautiful coffee right from their doorstep, they just didn’t have the skills to continue that quality in the cup,” Michael says.

A former executive, over the past 20 years Michael has worked in retail, hospitality and coffee brands in Australia and overseas, and was trained how to make coffee 12 years ago thanks to now Australian Specialty Coffee Association President Brent Williams. “Brent was the National Coffee Trainer in the company I worked in at the time. His knowledge, passion and high standards have stuck with me all these years,” Michael says. 

For the next two mornings, Michael revised his skills and shared it with the staff. During that time he got to know the lodge General Manager Victor, who also ran a safari and tour company.
“We realised we shared a lot of values and objectives. My conversation with Victor planted the seed for a great idea. I was looking for new and exciting opportunities in this inspirational country. I had the idea to unite Rwanda’s tourism industry with something I was equally passionate about – coffee,” Michael says.

With Kigali’s thriving coffee farms, Michael says it made sense to back an investment that creates value by leaving its customers excited months and years after they return home. Tourism sustainably helps local families find financial self-dependence. To set the wheels in motion, Michael became business partners with Victor. They rebranded the tour company as African Unique Safaris and Tours and have established more than 50 different itineraries specialising in Rwanda, Uganda, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania and sub-Saharan Africa.

Two unique tours launched this year specifically for BeanScene readers and coffee lovers include the 11-Day Rwanda Coffee Immersion, Gorillas and Culture Safari, and 11-day Rwanda/Congo Coffee Immersion, Gorillas, Volcano Hike and Safari. Michael says these are the first tours of their kind in Rwanda and Congo that go beyond one-day coffee tours.

“Whether you’re a barista, café owner, roaster, trader or enthusiast, these one-of-a-kind all-inclusive tours will immerse you into eight different crop-to-cup experiences – and provide inspiring cultural and tourism activities,” he says.

Depending on the itinerary chosen, guests can see the rare mountain gorillas of Rwanda or Congo, climb the live volcano on Mt. Nyirangongo in Congo and view its lava lake from the crater’s edge, take a safari at Akagera National Park, see chimpanzees in the wild, and experience the rich Rwandan culture and its people, all hosted by a local coffee expert.

According to news reports, Rwanda’s impetus to rebuild its economy since the genocide has been driven by three main sources: the export of tea and coffee, foreign aid and the tourism trade, which Bloomberg says is the nation’s biggest foreign-exchange earner, contributing about 11 per cent to its $8 billion economy.

One of the largest drawcards is its mountain gorilla population, of which there is an estimated 380 of the 880 left on the planet roaming the Virunga and Volcanoes mountain range. Last year the government issued 22,219 permits to visit the endangered apes. Guests on the safaris will have the same privilege, trekking between two to four hours into the Volcanoes National Park to spend a precious hour with the rare mountain gorillas in their natural habitat.

“Seeing the mountain gorillas up close in the wild is one of the most special, natural animal encounters in the world. It’s just breathtaking,” Michael says.

Since 2000, the cost per head in foreign aid to Rwanda has increased to almost £68 (about $115) a person annually, The Guardian reports. As such, Michael says aid investment is being dispersed to grassroots projects to help improve the standard of living in local communities, which includes the development of Rwanda’s café scene and support of coffee producing communities.

To see the development first hand, the tours stop at Kigali’s must-visit café and wholesale brand Question Coffee and Café, where guests can get their first sip of the taste characteristics unique to Rwanda thanks to the farm’s high altitude, high rainfall and rich volcanic soil. Michael says the influence of coffee chains can’t be denied, but what lies beneath is a growing specialty coffee scene, thanks to its local supply chain.

This article features in the August 2017 edition of BeanScene Magazine.

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