Visiting Uganda

As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, our work, and fair trade in general is about relationships. When it boils down to it, relationships are what hold this model together and what make it so powerful. Relationships shape this complicated and layered global economic exchange and mold it in the image of community, transform the blind, exploitative, and unsustainable relationships of times past and heal them.

So it’s a great joy to see those relationships deepening, like I have over the past week. Far away, in the east of Uganda, a delegation from the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation of Evanston (Illinois) is visiting the Peace Kawomera Cooperative.

Our friend Rabbi Brant Rosen has been keeping an account on his blog, Shalom Rav.

Here’s an excerpt:

I’ve written extensively about Mirembe on this blog – largely because I have just been so inspired by the example they set for us. I truly believe that the folks at this modest coop in Uganda are, in their way, showing the rest of the world how to live.

(Brant’s posted a few more times on JRC’s visit to the cooperative, and also on their experience in Rwanda where they are involved with a number of truly inspiring projects…so please take a minute to read backwards and forwards from the link above!)

Also, another member of the JRC delegation, Hannah Gelder, is keeping a blog where she wrote about her experience with Peace Kawomera. Check it out here.

Thanks to our friends at JRC who have made this project such an important part of their community. You’d be hard pressed to find a cup of coffee at their synagogue that’s not fair trade from the farmers of the Peace Kawomera, or make it through a community event without running into someone (probably with the last name Waxman!) hawking packages for people to take home.

And if this sounds exciting, amazing, and fun…why don’t you get your community involved?

Yours in Peace,

Ben

microfinance empowers dreams

Dear Customers,

Meet Mr. Tondo Eliazali, coffee farmers, and participant in the Peace Kawomera Cooperative’s matched savings program.
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(Mr. Tondo, with Elias Hasulube in the background)

“By saving I can prepare for what comes in life. I would like to develop my home—our househould—with first cattle, then goats, and so many things which can benefit the family. My main reason for investing in cattle is for fertilizer for my coffee shamba (farm).”

Visit our Community Development section for more information on the Cooperative’s innovative microfinance program, focused on savings and investment.

This is what fair trade looks like

Fair Trade mandates that 5 cents of every pound should be dedicated by the producing cooperative to community development. Today I visited Nankusi Elementary school, the local public school, where the cooperative recently provided funds for renovation of the building, and supplements to government-funded staff salaries. It’s absolutely incredible to see that the Cooperative is moving beyond serving only its members, and into a strong social and philanthropic organization in it community—but what’s even more incredible is the connection between the two: the students who attend this school are the children of the members of Peace Kawomera. Peace Kawomera helps to support the school, but it’s the income farmers make from their coffee sales that enables them to pay for their school fees, uniforms, and books. So, this picture of Nankusi Elementary School class P5 (fifth grade), is a picture of fair trade at work in a farming community. This, I think, is what fair trade looks like.

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vanilla

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. Coming soon, from the 705 farmers of the Peace Kawomera Cooperative, beautiful organic vanilla.

Today we visited four of Peace Kawomera’s three-dozen vanilla farmers, and developed a strategic plan to prepare and export the Cooperative’s first vanilla harvest. Ten years ago vanilla was the only thing going for some of these farmers. Coffee prices had plummeted, and vanilla prices jumped following the destruction of Madagascar’s crop in 2000-2001. But four years ago, vanilla prices dropped, and then dropped some more, and they haven’t recovered since. There are a number of reasons, one being that many food companies now use synthetic vanilla, and the other, of course, is that just like coffee, farmers often times receive only a fraction of the price that’s actually paid on the world market. This is where fair trade comes in, and creates an opening for farmers to capture the value of their crops.

We’ll be importing 250 lbs of cured vanilla beans, which should arrive by August ’08. While the cooperative is still working out the costing for this piece of their business, it looks like the farmers will receive nearly what they made a decade ago—good news indeed, as they look to diversify their business, and build off the gains they’ve made from coffee.

See below for a few photos of Charles Nagimesi, one of the Cooperative’s vanilla farmers, as he pollinates the vanilla orchid flower, one-by-one.

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working out the details

Sometimes they say, relationships break down because of the little things. Today was a chance to work some of those details out, and get back on track with the real work of building a viable fair trade movement in eastern Uganda.

Peace Kawomera is part of a union of cooperatives called Gumutindo. Together, these cooperatives (now numbering 10) export their coffee together, and our able to realize the economic advantages of scale through increased volumes. Without the Gumutindo union, it’s unlikely that Peace Kawomera could be viable—the cost per pound to mill, pack, certify, and export would negate any gains made from higher prices. So it’s a marriage of convenience, in a way, or at least of mutual interest.

Some serious issues have been nagging at this relationship, and our meeting today was a chance to put it all out on the table. Together, JJ, Kakaire (Peace Kawomera’s Secretary Manager) and Gumutindo’s Managing Director Willington Wamayeye did a little bit of group therapy. Misunderstandings which had been festering for months were aired, frustrations addressed, and, after two hours, we had agreed on solutions to the challenges facing our work together.

For us, this is really the heart of our work: relationships. But more specifically, it’s these relationships, which are not always easy, or effortless, but powerful because they are built on shared need and mutual interest. Our business is unique because we create partnerships that are reciprocal: we need the farmers, as they need us. The farmers need Gumutindo, as Gumutindo needs them. Together, we create a business model built to be balanced, effective, and mutually beneficial.

This two hour meeting alone was worth all the leg cramps and airplane meals it took to get here. There is no way to have the kind of conversation we had today when you’re not face to face. So, this is why we visit our partners, and work together. And what’s perhaps most exciting, is that as with all relationships, what doesn’t break you makes you stronger. I left today’s meeting feeling like we had not only resolved some issues from the past, but stepped forward with more strength.

Party for Peace

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Party for Peace

Sunday afternoon, after church services, the Cooperative decided to throw a party. They’d been talking about how excited they were to share their music with us (for those of you who don’t know, there are grammy-nominated musicians in their ranks) and this was their chance to show off.

And show off they did. See the pictures below for a glimpse of the festivities, which lasted for over three hours, and featured 6 different groups from the Cooperative. Not to be outdone by each other, each group brought the full accompaniment of singers, dancers, drummers, and the occasional surprise guest dancer—all to the delight of the 300 or so people crammed into the Namanyonyi Synagogue, across from the Cooperative’s office.

I couldn’t help but think that this was the perfect symbol of the Cooperative’s efforts. Each group was composed of a cross-section of the farmer’s communities, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, making beautiful music together, and finding harmony with each other.
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Greetings from Mbale!

Dear Friends,

Greetings from Mbale, eastern Uganda, home of the Peace Kawomera Cooperative…and my new home for the next week!

After three days of travel, my colleague Sarah Bodnar and I arrived (finally!). Our flight from San Francisco, to Washington DC, to Rome, to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was a real marathon. Then, after a night in Addis, we made a quick two hour connection to Entebbe, Uganda, which was followed by an 8-hour cab and bus ride out to Mbale. By the time we arrived, we were a little worse for the wear, but I have to say, there is something about the warmth and enthusiasm of these farmers that energizes even the most road-weary soul.

These past few days have been filled with meetings with the Cooperative’s Board of Directors, visits to farmer’s shambas (farms), and visits to the community’s mosque and synagogue. Tomorrow morning we head off for the local church.

Much has come together since my last visit in the summer of 2006. One of the big issues facing the cooperative at that time was a lack of management and experienced staff. Little did I know that Mohammed Kakaire Hatibu, who I met then, would be soon to graduate with a degree in business management, and then quickly become the Cooperative’s Secretary Manager. Kakaire’s contribution has been incredible; with his dedication and skills, he’s managed to organize the Cooperative’s operations, keep their books, coordinate their farmer-relations programs, and generally, keep the proverbial boat afloat. I’m proud to know that our profit-sharing program has provided the funds for Kakaire’s staff, and it’s really you all, buyers of this coffee, who should be proud that your support has enabled this important step forward.

We’ve been joined by Curt Fissel and Ellen Friedland, from JemGlo Productions. Curt and Ellen are the dynamic husband and wife team behind the documentary film, and they are here on their third and last visit to the cooperative, capturing the story of our work with the farmers on the ground, and the coffee’s origin.

So far they’ve tagged along for our series of workshops yesterday, where I shared the story of our interfaith outreach, and created a map for the farmers, showing each of the 86 congregations who now buy their coffee; following this presentation, we spent two hours listening to the farmers as they shared their thoughts on the challenges facing the cooperative–everything from lack of access to sufficient pre-harvest credit, to their desire to increase the amounts of organic fertilizer they are able to supply for their coffee trees; and we finished the day with a three hour session looking at the cost structure of their business, and ing different strategies for growth as they would create varying degrees of profitability. If this sounds like a full day, it was. But our conversations flow easily from one topic to the other, and the hallmark of our work, I think, is the nature of the relationship, which like all good relationships, allows us to listen, share, hear, and be heard, and through it all, celebrate the richness of life. By the end of the day we’d confronted difficult issues (how can a small cooperative stay profitable in market ted by giant multinationals), celebrated significant accomplishments (we now have 86 churches, synagogues, and mosques supporting our project), outlined plans for the future (the Cooperative’s first warehouse, and central processing center), and celebrated the beauty of this interfaith collaboration (we visited the local mosque for Friday prayers, and attended evening services at the Abayudaya’s synagogue).

I’ll be writing another post soon, with updates from this trip, so please check back soon…and, because I’m here, I’d love to be able to ask the farmers a question or two on your behalf–just post your questions on this entry, and I’ll respond with answers from the farmers.

Until then, weebale nno (thank you) for your support and partnership. Together, we are doing something incredible on the slopes of this beautiful mountain, in eastern Uganda.

Yours in Peace,

Ben

Co-op Launches “Grow Through Savings Program”

What do you do when your cooperative increases prices by four times? You start a micro-finance project, of course. And not just any micro-finance project: a program that creates the infrastructure for farmers to save money, and incentives them to put aside small amounts of money every other month, for years and years.

The following was written by Wafidi Ahmed, Project Coordinator:

IDA stands for Individual Development Accounts and the general idea is that you encourage people to save by matching the deposit. The ultimate goal is to save enough so we can build wealth through the acquisition of assets, such as land, farming equipment, and education. We decided to start the programme after talking with Ken Schultz, a lawyer and social worker in the United States, and Ben Corey-Moran of Thanksgiving Coffee, who supported the idea of a program that could teach financial literacy to the members and help them use their income to create wealth. For all of us, it seemed to be a perfect fit.

The Grow Through Savings Program, at this time, has 15 participants, who have opened savings accounts with Crane Bank located in Mbale, Uganda. The Bank offers a 14 percent interest rate on accounts per annum. The Bank also has agreed to hold financial literacy seminars for the participants. We had our first seminar on July 2, 2007, which was filmed by two people, who are doing a documentary on the Cooperative.

Every other month a participant is required to deposit $5 in his or her account every other month. Each $5 deposit is matched at a 1:1 rate. We opened accounts in fall of 2006 and we have had a 100 percent rate of success so far. The participants are very excited about the program and see how their money can grow through this program.

The purpose of the account is for the participants to acquire assets to help them expand the production of coffee and other cash crops or to put enough money away to help their children attend secondary education, which is not free in Uganda. Both assets are critical to build a better, more secure future. The program is also designed to provide us financial literacy so we can make better decisions with our money.

The participants include Muslims, Christians, and Jews. We require that at least 50 percent of the participants are women. We are very eager to expand educational opportunities for women because many women here are forced to leave school at a very young age to help out at home. This is a core goal of the IDA program. For us, education is a very important asset.

In order to grow, the “Grow Through Savings Program” needs additional revenue streams to supply the matching funds. Donations are being channeled through US-based Kulanu.org, and should be sent by check to:

Harriet Bograd, Treasurer
Kulanu, Inc
165 West End Ave, 3R
New York, NY 10023

***Please write “Uganda IDA program” in the comments field online or the memo field of the check.

A message from JJ Keki

I’m now speaking to my people, who read this blog. For those people who took care of me here, who received me here, that I have had a wonderful time here. Talking to people who are very welcoming, and who are responding positively. I only request that those friends who we met from interfaith, fair trade, and others, to remain friends, to be bound to what we reached out with, so that it becomes a reality, our dream of bringing peace in the world. That you would now become good ambassaders for promoting peace in the world. That is it.

We have sown the seeds, and I request that these seeds be multiplied by you who have received them, so that they can be spread to every corner of the world. This is what we are seeking.

The relationship between us has been very good, and I only pray that this relationship goes forward, from strength to strength. So that our seeds grow ever more fertile, so that we have, like our coffee, healthy, productive, and beautiful blossoming, so that we yield many sweet fruits for our children.

Thank you, I would invite everbody, all of my friends to come and witness, and not only to witness, but by visiting to encourage our cooperation and our efforts. Goodbye. Be well,

Yours,

J J

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The chairman waves goodbye. San Francisco International Airport, March 14, 2007.

Views: The Cooperative

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The office is small, set on the left side of a building that houses four small store fronts. It’s Namonyoni town’s mini mall. Inside the office is a large wooden desk which serves as a work space, and then as a table when it’s pulled to the center of the room. Inside the office chalk figures on stucco walls advertise last year’s coffee prices, and politely request: No Smoking Please.

The Cooperative gathers slowly. A meeting begins not at a set time, but when everyone has arrived. At first the board of directors mill about in front, greeting each other, talking and joking. The meeting begins inside, with a formality that articulates a break from the everyday. This is business, and it’s serious: the assembled members have been placed with the responsibility of managing a cooperative of 570 farmers — friends, neighbors, children, and family.

They discuss the two-year old cooperative and recent requests from members in the community. Many people want to join, and the cooperative wants to include everyone. But will they be able to manage the growth in business?

Farmers are anticipating a good harvest. Will the cooperative be ready to buy and store all the coffee? Some farmers are worried that they will spend the extra time and effort to produce high quality beans, and then the cooperative won’t be able to pay them.

Many members grow vanilla alongside their coffee. Can the cooperative look into finding a better market for the members’ vanilla beans? Many farmers are worried that they have all their hopes in coffee alone — what would happen if the harvest failed or the market collapsed?

Recently a delegation of students from US-based United Students for Fair Trade came to visit the cooperative. Many farmers were happy with this visit, and were honored that the students visited their churches, mosques, and synagogues. They want to encourage such visits; perhaps through these visits the world will learn of their work to unite for peace.

The meeting ends with a lunch of boiled plantains, beans, and greens. Plans are made for upcoming trainings on coffee picking and a workshop to remind farmers of processing standards in preparation for the coming harvest. As lunch ends everyone mills about, slowly dispersing to return to their homes: delegates, organizers, businessmen and women, building something together.

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