Maraba - It doesn't matter to members of the Abahuzamugambi coffee co-operative that there's a glut on the world market. What's more important is the fact that the coffee trees growing in the hills of southern Rwanda mean a better life for 400 survivors of the 1994 genocide in this African nation.

The growers' Maraba Bourbon gourmet coffee has already sold well at hundreds of supermarkets in Britain, transforming Abahuzamugambi members from helpless victims to small-scale entrepreneurs.

Proceeds from their premium arabica coffee have allowed the growers to pay school fees, repair homes damaged during the killings and buy health insurance.

In Kinyarwanda, Rwanda's national language, the group's name means "people working together for a common cause".

At least 500 000 people, mostly minority Tutsis as well as political moderates from the Hutu majority, were killed during the 100-day slaughter orchestrated by the extremist Hutu government.

"In just one year I have seen changes; I managed to send one of my children to secondary school," said 51-year-old Speciosa Mukashema, who owns 600 coffee trees.

Traditionally, arabica coffee was Rwanda's principal export, but quality and output declined drastically after the genocide. The country produced 19 600 tons of coffee last year, about half the pre-1994 output, according to OCIR-Cafe, the government coffee board.

Speciality or gourmet coffee - the niche market that provides real growth for coffee roasters and retailers - depends on high standards of washing and processing arabica beans. But there were no facilities for either task in Butare province, where 62 000 people depend on coffee for their livelihoods.

"No one in Rwanda seemed to know much about fully washed coffee," said Timothy Schilling, head of the United States Agency for International Development's agriculture enhancement project in Rwanda.

OCIR-Cafe, USAid and other donors built the Maraba washing station in 2001 to help farmers increase their income by improving quality.

Last year, the co-operative produced 31 tons of specialty coffee. Britain's Union Coffee Roasters bought 13 tons, while Community Coffee of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, bought the other 18 tons.

Community's Brandon Hartness said the Maraba coffee has already been used in some of the firm's speciality blends. "It received very high marks and we hope to see sustainable, high quality beans in future crops," he said.

Once the washing station was built, co-operative members learned how to deliver only the highest quality coffee cherries, the fruit that contains the beans. And a certification system was created to ensure proper tree-pruning and proper mulching to protect the soil.

"We want to help these guys figure out how they can organise themselves and make up a business plan," Schilling said. "We don't buy cherries from farmers who don't qualify for speciality production. Coffee is all about quality; you take care of it, it will take care of you."

Steve Macatonia, Union Coffee Roasters chief executive, said his company became interested in Maraba after learning that the Fairtrade Organisation - an international group that certifies commodities - had given its approval to the Abahuzamugambi Co-operative Society.

"The Maraba coffee is very special because not only is it delicious, but it presented a commercial business plan. This is the early stages of a sustainable business for Abahuzamugambi and, of course, for Union Coffee Roasters," he said.

"Rwanda has made pioneering strides to export specialty coffee," said Andy Karas, USAid's team leader for food security and economic growth in Rwanda. "This is a major start, it's a home brand and clearly there are more markets that we need to target." - Sapa-AP