A Trip to Africa: Day 9 -The Final Entry

In January 2014, CEO & Co-Founder Paul Katzeff traveled to Africa to meet with two of our producer cooperatives. In this blog series, Paul shares his experience in Uganda and Rwanda.

Like everything else in life, things change over time. This was a wonderful story of how one man had a vision and changed his community once he was able to act on his idea, which was to unite coffee growers with different religions into a Fair Trade Certified coffee cooperative. He realized that if the farmers were working together they could reap beneficial economic gains and improve the quality of their lives. Laura Wetzler, Program Director of Kalunu was working with the Jewish community in Mbale, and came to aid this vision of the community leader, JJ Keki. That was 11 years ago. Thanksgiving Coffee responded to Ms. Wetzler’s and JJ’s call for help, and we began to purchase their coffee and to sell it via telling the amazing story of this interfaith cooperative.

We told their story, purchased their coffee, and worked with the coop and its “Leadership” to help the story survive, and the Cooperative to flourish. However, over ten years, random and not so random events make things change, and PKC was no exception to this rule of life.

Poor leadership, predatory organizations that wanted to use the story for their own purposes, unethical business practices, and a complete disregard for transparency and record keeping by the Mirembe Kawomera Cooperative Board created a toxic environment for using a Fair Trade model to improve and meet the needs of the coffee farmers of the Mirembe Kawomera Cooperative

Thanksgiving Coffee Company lost its trust in the Cooperative as the leadership declared their intention to become independent from their parent second level cooperative, Gumutindo, the organization that provided them with Organic certification oversight and leadership training, financial pre financing of the coffee harvest. Fair Trade certification, quality control and export services. This departure made the small cooperative rogue outfit out of what was in the beginning, a collaborative effort with adequate oversight of both quality control and financial integrity.

We have always intended to support the farmers through the Cooperative. It is always about the farmers. The Cooperative is a business model that democratically facilitates business policy and the activities of trade. We have ended our relationship with PKC under its current leadership; lack of trust and too much financial risk is the reason. But, we have not abandoned the farmers who were being poorly served by their leadership.

The situation has evolved, changed and morphed into Phase II, a more mature phase with the lessons learned, being applied to build a new primary level cooperative with the same interfaith coffee farmers that once were nominal members of Mirembe Kawomera. The Vice President of the PKC Cooperative and the Organic Coffee Director have broken away from the original PKC and reunited with their parent cooperative, Gumutindo, to begin this year’s purchasing of green coffee from the very same farmers. Thanksgiving Coffee will evolve our role in the supply chain to support the changes that are occurring in the coffee community that was once the Mirembe Kawomera primary cooperative. We have committed to begin purchases for the 2015 crop, and the farmers have already delivered over 600 sacks of dry parchment coffee to the Gumutindo Cooperative for export.

We are in transition to a deeper and more economically valuable situation. It has evolved from what was once a fine interfaith vision with poor leadership at the Cooperative, to what we see as a real positive evolution for the farmers and for interfaith work. We will continue to sell Delicious Peace Coffee from the same inspired farmers, and we will continue to support their coffee production by selling their coffee under a duel banner which I will briefly explain and then leave for more detailed discussion as we learn about and grow into this new evolution over the next decade of interfaith and inter-tribal collaboration.

The decade of work in Mbale Uganda has taught us that the coffee farmers of the Mt. Elgon region, which comprise the PKC members, was composed not just of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but also of the nine indigenous tribes of Uganda. The original idea of PKC highlighted interfaith cooperation among Jews, Christians and Muslims to create peace in the region, and therefore enable economic cooperation for the common good. Now we will begin our efforts to support their tribal communities, and learn about this aspect of the farmers lives, as well.

In sum, we are changing, because things on the ground have changed. We ask for your continued support of this coffee, as it is the fuel that drives our ability to carry on. It took a decade to discover the internal toxicity that one or two charismatic leaders can create with a weak board of directors, and when hubris from self importance leads to decisions that are ill advised and beyond the scope of abilities. This interfaith story of peace and community economic development is still alive.

We see a bright future for telling the story of the value of interfaith and tribal cooperation in the quest for improved living conditions for all.

Nothing remains the same for long, however “Not Just a Cup, But a Just Cup” will stay with us for as long as coffee farmers need a friend to promote a fair deal for their efforts to grow our favorite national drink- coffee.

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Here are links to the first 9 parts of this story:

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