Back in Uganda, after a year. Everything is intense. It’s hot. The earth is red. The roads are dusty. The farmers gather around me and welcome me to my other homeâ€¦
There are moments when I feel like the luckiest person on earth. After days traveling, long bumpy bus rides, excitement, worry, discomfortâ€¦suddenly I’m here!
Peace Kawomera is now working on its fifth year. The cooperative has grown tremendously, and as is the case with many fair trade organizations, they are focusing on their core business, while rising to the challenges facing their members and the community at large. It’s an amazing thing to see. Here, perched on the side of Mt. Elgon, in a place long-neglected by the Ugandan government and exploited by giant multnational corporations, farmers have built a strong, dynamic, and responsive organization that’s membership run, and membership owned. With leadership from JJ Keki, and support from the co-op’s GM Kakaire Hatibu the cooperative now counts over 1,000 farmers as members. This year they produced three containers of great coffee, triple their first year. And they are on pace for 5 next year—moving towards a business built to scale, sure to yield profits, and dividends to its members. They’ve also recently completed their first international business in vanilla, selling over 22 metric tons of green beans to be cured and sold to a buyer in the US at prices well above the local market. It’s what we’ve been working on since the beginning: development of coffee, growth of a strong business, diversification of incomes and business activities. If I started to count the conversations, work sessions, meetings, and arguments we’ve all been a part ofâ€¦
While in Uganda I had a chance to taste this year’s crop—a thrill. Central to everything we do is the development of quality. And here it is, taking a giant step forward. The cooperative instituted strict penalties for defective coffee. Each lot was carefully screened by buyers, and farmers who brought in bad beans were sent home to sort out and improve their production. I was thrilled to be able to offer a 25 cent/lb increase for the co-op’s coffee based on the tasting scores!
And as is the case with true community-led development, a group’s sense of time grows and evolves. From taking care of today’s urgent challenges, to planning for next year’s business, to developing long-term strategies to confront the challenges that will face your children. It’s like the horizon becomes clearer and clearer with each successful year.
As is the case with farmers everywhere, climate change threatens to destroy ecosystems and farmers’ ability to farm. The cooperative has already mapped out their strategy: reforestation, watershed protection, topsoil conservation, and diversification of incomes. But they are not content to hold on to what they’ve got. High on a ridge above the Aisa Tekho zone, Nathan Watendena shows me the land he and his neighbors intend to bring back to life. â€œIt was forest when we were children,â€ Nathan remembers, â€œwe cut down the trees for wood. Now we know that those trees protect us, and we are going to bring them back.â€
Thanks to you all who support our work, and sustain these remarkable farmers building peace and sustaining the earth. Enjoy their great coffee, and the knowledge that this is your story too.
Nathan Watendena points to hillsides that may one day be covered in forest again.
Nathan and Peace Kawomera's head agronomist John Bosco survey deforested land.
Back with my old friend Somaili Bissaso, one of PK's first members.
While I was in Uganda, I conducted nearly two dozen interviews with farmers from the Peace Kawomera Cooperative. It was fascinating to hear their stories, and I am pleased to share their joys, struggles, challenges, and hopes with you. The questions I asked pertained to issues of human rights, fair trade, and faith based relations in an interfaith coffee cooperative context.
Please â€œMeet the Farmersâ€ of Peace Kawomera.
I sincerely thank the farmers for providing a pathway and allowing us to enter their world. I invited them to share with me so I could in turn share with you. Please take a few minutes to meet the incredible human beings who grow the Delicious Peace coffee you hopefully drink every morning.
Abdu Karim * Abudu Kadambi * Alamaza Mabende
Dan Kasakya * Danieli Magonya * Erishama Lunjaya
Hadija Naibisi * Hadija Wankusi * Hajira Nakandi
Jalia Nakenzi * Kadija Lackahi * Khainza Jane
Mbirago Muhammud * Natega Charles * Rashidt Muzinzibali
Sinina Namudosi * Sofia Nandudu * Wadundu Davdi
Wafuba Taibu * Wilson Kyebo * Yolam Were
JJ Keki * Athalia Deborah * Fende Aziz,
Nakidodo Alisati * Nehemia Hasakya * Wotti Elisa
In peace and human relations,
They call this place the land of a thousand hills. Depending on who is counting, that might be an understatement. And in a country this small, it’s a striking geographic signature. In the north of Rwanda, high atop a meandering series of ridges, our partners the Dukunde Kawa Cooperative link over 2,000 small farms and families. Five years into their existence, Dukunde Kawa is actually one of the oldest cooperatives in the country, an early part of a national movement of economic recovery and reconciliation after the horrors of the 1994 genocide. They’ve climbed a long way, but as with any path in Rwanda, there are always more hills to climb.
The Cooperative, like others in Rwanda, is struggling to cross the threshold from a small incubating business, to a growing and self-sustaining enterprise. And this within the context of global financial crisis and an early history of overambitious sales expectations. In their early years, The Cooperative produced only one container (37,500 lbs) of coffee annually. A handful of neighboring cooperatives produced about the same. And thanks to strong support from the Rwandan government and USAID-funded PEARL Project (now SPREAD), the quality was fantastic from the beginning. Buyers flocked, and prices soared. But now, as the small group of forward-moving coffee companies who were the first buyers either move on (or like us, stay committed as ever to a good volume at high prices—but not keeping up with growth in production) there is a shortage of new buyers for the additional volume. The result is a downward drive in prices, and a high-stakes season as cooperatives try to regroup and restructure to make a profit at larger volumes but at a more moderate average price.
I came here first and foremost to select the best of this year’s harvest. But also to advise the cooperative on this challenging situation, and help, as I can, to connect them with the additional buyers they now need.
I’m happy to report that I’ve got a container of the best of this year’s coffee shipping from Mombassa next month, which should arrive in our warehouse by May. The lots I selected came from growing regions at the highest elevations, which the cooperative recently separated out from the bulk of their production. This year’s coffee is grown at a minimum elevation of 2,200 meters. Some of it is grown as high as 2,600 meters. If that’s just numbers to you, let me tell you this: these are some of the highest-grown coffees in the world. In fact, if it were not for the consistent equatorial sun and heat (Dukunde Kawa is about .1 degrees south), coffee couldn’t grow here at all. Like wine and apples, altitude stresses the plants, and produces sweeter, more intense flavors. Fruit matures more slowly, and later. Beans are harder. The complexity of the acidity is greater. I’m looking forward to sharing this year’s coffee!
I spent few days with the Coop’s GM Abraham Twilingiyamana and his board of directors, discussing their challenges, especially the need for a restructuring of their marketing and operations plan, and a long-term growth strategy. We still need to find a few more buyers for their coffee, but I’m confident that with the exceptional quality of all of their production, we can find the right partners to join in this effort.
We then turned to the other long-term challenges: facing the challenges of climate change head on, understanding its impacts, and preparing to adapt to them. We spent a day surveying the landscape, mapping ecologically strong and diverse areas, deforested and eroding land, and the underlying watersheds that connect the two with the towns below. As you can see from these pictures, the land is steep and intensely farmed, making it vulnerable to flooding and erosion during heavy rains. It’s also impossible to irrigate, so unless the water table is stable, roots are going to have a hard time finding any moisture. Already, farmers say, they are losing topsoils and seeing yields of food crops decline.
The good news is that the solution is simple: trees. Well, not that simple. Detailed surveys need to conducted, strategies mapped out, and pilot projects launched, but the cooperative is clear about their strategy: reforest the ridge tops, establish water breaks on the slopes, and use their coffee farms to rebuild diverse agro-ecosystems composed of coffee, and a variety of shade and food producing trees and crops. I’m looking forward to developing this project with them, and to sharing more as our work unfolds.
Underscoring the point, a heavy downpour greeted me after a dusty 4 hour bus-ride back to Kigali. It’s supposed to be the dry season. But weather is changing and everyone knows it. As we face the may challenges of producing coffee, sustaining farmers and the earth, I think of the resilience of these amazing people and ask myself what’s to doubt, given everything they’ve built out of the ashes of their past?
Greetings from Kigali, Rwanda, home to this year’s East African Fine Coffee Association’s annual meeting and conference. EAFCA is a trade association of 8 producing countries, but their annual gathering is much more than a chance to vote on some motions and coordinate marketing. It’s a gathering of industry players ranging from big to small, banks, development organizations, and government agencies. Everyone converges to make deals, make plans, and hopefully, develop mutually beneficial partnerships.
I’m here along with our friends from TransfairUSA, and a host of private and public sector partners to spend some time with our three East African coffee suppliers: the Dukunde Kawa Cooperative, from Rwanda, Peace Kawomera, from Uganda, and the Sidama Farmers Cooperative Union, from Ethiopia.
And after a long day of presentations, meetings, and negotiations, I’m happy to report that while we are small fish in a big sea, we’re strong, and our partnerships are dynamic, deeply rooted, and capable of adapting to new challenges and going after new opportunities. I can’t help but feel a familiar sense of happy marginalization—while big multinational traders talk about volume, efficiencies, and risk management, we talk about quality improvements, social benefits, and environmental sustainability. The analogy might be a little clumsy, but its kind of like going shopping at the farmers market where you meet the farmer, and maybe get a little dirt along with the sweetest carrot of the season, versus going to Wal-Mart and getting these strange pre-cut and wittled-down carrot sticks from a few continents away. Actually, that’s a pretty good analogy.
I’m happy to report that the fair trade cooperatives are stronger than ever. They’re seeing increased interest in their coffee, and with production volumes down this year, have seen good prices and have pretty much cleared their books of coffee from the 2008/2009 season. They still face a lot of challenges, especially around their needs for affordable finance which is a perennial challenge made more difficult by the global economic crisis and banking freeze-up.
I’m also happy to share that we’re making good progress on building an alliance of private and public-sector partners around a new pilot project that’s going to map out strategies available to cooperatives as they look to reduce the impact of climate change and enhance the adaptability of their farm systems. We’re looking to start that project here in Rwanda this year, and scale it out to Uganda in the next three years. After that, if all goes well, we’ll have a working model we can take to Ethiopia, and to our Central American partners.
I’ll be here for the next two days attending the conference, then traveling to Musasa in the north of Rwanda to spend a few days with the farmers at Dukunde Kawa. After that it’s on to Uganda for a week, so stay tuned for more news and reflections on the current state and future of our work here with family farmers in East Africa.
As you can see from the picture below, something strange arrived in our warehouse earlier this week. Its funny shape is only a hint at the uniqueness inside: this is Yemeni coffee, one of the oldest, rarest and most distinctive coffees in the world.
Every year we search high and low for the best bag or two of the year’s harvest from Yemen and then combine it with our favorite Ethiopian to create our signature â€œRed Sea Blendâ€. These are two of the most exotic coffees in the world, some might say they’re even a little bit weird. They taste like someone spilled the berry jam, or maybe the root beer into your cup. It could have even been a black licorice stick. The coffee is thick with flavor. It’s savory, sometimes even salty. Where some coffees are light and sparkly, these are heavyâ€¦I guess what I’m getting at is that these are seriously good coffees, not to be confused with another or found guilty of false impersonation. You might want to try some for yourself.
So, if you’re in for a wild ride into the land of great coffee, grab a bag, and hold on tight. There’s only a little bit of this coffee available, so it’s going to be around until March 15 or so unless it sells out first.
It’s great to be here…
After a few months of conversation and a few months of development, I’m thrilled to introduce our new blog and welcome you to join us for news, offers, stories, and conversation. Basically, if it has to do with coffee, with sustainability, with farmers, or even song birds, it’s going to be a topic of conversation on our blog. This is our chance to share the day-to-day musings of the people here at Thanksgiving Coffee. Here’s a quick intro to the cast of characters you might expect to hear from soon:
Paul Katzeff. Co-founder. Coffee maverick. Once referenced by a reputable source as the Michael Moore of the coffee industry. Most likely to post long and passionate soliloquies on the subtle details of coffee and life. Most likely to answer a short question with a novel.
Ben Corey-Moran. Green Coffee Buyer. Reluctant and passionate coffee dork. Also likely to wax poetic and perhaps long-windedly on the subtleties of coffee and our relationships with farmers. Most likely to try to work a surfing analogy or two into a post.
Holly Moskowitz. Mirembe Kawomera “Delicious Peace” Project Manager. Loves coffee but would rather eat freshly roasted beans than drink espresso. Most likely to share stories from our the farmers of the Peace Kawomera Cooperative in Uganda.
Appreciation and gratitude are just two words that come to mind when I recall the farmersâ€™ reaction when I told them Thanksgiving Coffee Co. would facilitate a health education workshop focusing on HIV/AIDS, diabetes, and high blood pressure. I made this announcement during my first week with the Cooperative, and scheduled the workshop for 2 weeks later. For two weeks, the workshop was the talk of the town.
I started the workshop with a simple introduction: We want you to be healthy so you feel good about living life. Medications can be expensive, so letâ€™s try to prevent illness. You have shown the world how much you love your coffee trees through the quality of your harvest. You take care of them and protect them. Why? Because they will provide for your future. But what about your own future? You should take care of yourself in the same way you take care of your trees. You should grow strong, be healthy, and live a quality life. If you are healthy, you can continue to spread the message of peace in the world and produce beautiful coffee.
Dr. Liz Feldman, a physician who specializes in Adolescent Medicine and Family Practice from Chicago led the session and Johnbosco of Peace Kawomera translated. I give major props to Johnbosco for improvising when necessary, or at least when he thought relevant. Once, Liz was talking about the ABCs of â€œsafe sex:â€ Abstinence, Be Faithful, and Condoms. When Johnbosco was done translating, he started a small striptease. Liz and I looked at each other, for all of her clothes were on. When he finished unbuttoning and rebuttoning his shirt we asked what just happened. He explained that in order to be safe and squared away, people have to act like buttons and holes. One button per hole, and always the same button in the corresponding hole. If you try to button your shirt and put a button in the wrong hole, it just doesnâ€™t work out the way itâ€™s supposed to: he demonstrated â€“ again. Johnbosco was on to something. This lesson became the â€œOne Button One Holeâ€ Campaign. It was hilarious, and brilliant. I hope this episode wasnâ€™t lost in translation.
The farmers asked wonderful questions and everyone left with a better understanding of HIV/AIDS, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
As part of the follow-up to the workshop, the local AIDS support group returned to the Cooperative and offered HIV testing and counseling. The turn up was fair, considering it was the first time the Cooperative offered this service. People between the ages of 17 and 60 took advantage of the testing. More married women attended than men, and more young women than their male counterparts. Diabetes testing also took place on the same day.
The workshop was incredible. Iâ€™m grateful for Dr. Liz and Johnbosco, and for all the farmers who took the time to learn about caring for their future.
To a happy and healthy 09!
Dr. Liz and Johnbosco teaching/translating at the healthcare workshop for farmers of Peace Kawomera
Hello to everyone reading,
I apologize for letting so much time lapse since my last post. Iâ€™ve been struggling to find the right words to describe Uganda and my experiences. The people who inspire through and despite constant daily hardships, the land which Churchill dubbed the Pearl of Africa, and an ever-strong attitude of hope for the moment and for a better future have left me speechless.
For those who believe a picture is worth a thousand words, please feel free to visit my online photo albums My words may not do Uganda justice, but some photos come close.
The first project I worked while in Uganda was conducting interviews with farmers of Peace Kawomera. Most of the questions had to do with life before the co-op was formed vs. life as it is now. I asked questions about Fair Trade, human rights and interfaith issues, and hopes for the future. All the interviews will be posted in our Meet the Farmers section of our website, but for now, here are a few responses:
What was life like before Peace Kawomera? Life was not moving well because we were poor. But Peace Kawomera came and life has changed from a life of poverty to a life that is OK.
What does the Peace Kawomera Cooperative mean to you and your family? We love it so much because of the quality they require. The price is also very good. People who work with Peace Kawomera are like wives; they are always faithful. They donâ€™t cheat us. The Cooperative is always there for us when we need her.
What does Fair Trade mean to you?
I can pay school fees and help my body. You canâ€™t pay fees if you are starving. Being homeless doesnâ€™t help either, so Fair Trade helps a great bit.
Fairly traded products are not the majority of products that are sold in the US. Do you think Americans would stop buying UNFAIRLY traded products if they knew more about Fair Trade? Fair Trade increases quality and aroma of coffee. If people bought Fair Trade coffee they would receive higher quality. Given the mission of Peace Kawomera Cooperative of interfaith, people should buy more to build peace in the country and world.
What was interfaith life like before Peace Kawomera formed? Before there was much segregation, but now we are in unity with one another.
How would many farmers be living now had they not been exposed to the benefits of Fair Trade? Peace Kawomera keeps people informed. There are many trainings through Peace Kawomera. Before Peace Kawomera, the agenda was solely coffee. Now they have expanded to mosquito/malaria prevention, advice on nets, diabetes education and HIV/AIDS workshops and testing.
How have the relationships among people of different faiths changed since forming the cooperative? Before there was a friendship, now it is like a brotherhood and sisterhood of relating to each other.
More to come…
Lest you think that we forgot about the inauguration of Barack Obama, the incredible groundswell of community-based organizing his campaign inspired, or the hope that peace may be back in style…
It’s our pleasure to introduce you to the President’s Blend: Coffee For Change
Available in limited quantities in honor of Barack Obama’s inauguration on January 20th as the 44th President of the United States of America.
Here is another quick update.
On January 2nd I rode a motorcycle out to the Cooperative and started my first set of interviews. The farmers are very interested in our work and especially eager to share their stories. I visited the villages of Nkoma and Namanyoni. It was extremely hot walking from one farmerâ€™s house to the next, but it was worth it.
I am collecting note cards with information from students across the Mbale region. In addition to the cards, I am taking photos of the students. The cards will be sent to Oprahâ€™s Ambassadorâ€™s Program in Miami, Florida, as a way to give their students a glimpse into the lives of Ugandan students. Word has spread throughout the area of this project and everywhere I go students and parents are asking for cards. While some students have enough education to write something about themselves, other are simply drawing pictures.
On January 3rd, there was a funeral of the local community health mobilize. Because it was the Jewish Sabbath, the Jewish community did not help dig the grave for this Catholic man, but at the burial which took place in his back yard, hundreds of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim community members came to show their respect. The sung psalms were solemn in nature. Under a jasmine tree, his children and grandchildren, were sobbing in distress. Their cries carried over the mixed crowd wearing islamic head coverings, kippot, and no head coverings. Their shrills were of udder despair. He was a young man in his 40â€™s and his work united people of all faiths through health care.
Yesterday I went to Mass at a church in the remote village of Nabikayi. I recorded the service and will post the file when I return home. Then, in the afternoon, I conducted another set of interviews with some more farmers. I met the Imam of the mosque I will be at for prayers on Friday, and several other members of the local Muslim community.
For the next 4 days I will be interviewing farmers in different villages. The Field Officer, John Bosco, is taking me around acting as my translator and inside hookup. He is extremely knowledgeable and helpful. He is also inspired to help me share the stories of â€œhisâ€ farmers. It is his responsibly to serve all 11 villages which grow Mirembe Kawomera Delicious Peace coffee and vanilla. John teaches them about organic farming and manages all the details of the field.
Unfortunately, the internet isnâ€™t fast enough here for me to upload a block of my photosâ€¦ so that will have to wait until I return.
Until next time,
Love from Uganda.