In the fall of 1967, 35 year old Dian Fossey of San Francisco founded the Karisoke Research Center in the Virunga mountains of Rwanda.
Dr. Fossey would have turned 86 on January 12, 2018. In honor of her birthday, we are featuring our coffees from Rwanda and the Congo: two single origins that directly benefit the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. Her shoes may be hard to fill, but the DFGFI continues to lead the charge for gorilla conservation in Africa, and education across the globe.
We are excited to begin yet another year in partnership with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, and we look forward to many more to follow.
The pictures below are from the @savinggorillas social media accounts, from the years that Dr. Fossey was living and working among the gorillas in Rwanda.
Thanksgiving Coffee Company Not Just A Cup, But A Just Cup
I was trailing off to sleep, it was a cool summer night in Mendocino. Joan’s voice came into my consciousness and broke my reverie. She was not yet ready to say good night to the day.
“Paul, I was listening to NPR today and there was this story about the poverty and the general plight on the African Continent. I think we need to begin focusing on buying coffee and supporting cooperatives in Africa like we do in Central and South America.”
Of course I agreed, and dozed off to spend some unconscious time thinking about the idea and all the effort it would take to be as bold an activist in Africa as we were then (and now) in Central America. I hoped that when I awoke in the morning my mind would have used the eight or so hours sleeping to clarify. I had no intention of just jumping into more work.
What Joan was asking was not simple but as President of Thanksgiving Coffee she did have a big voice in things such as this. We would have to pick the countries we wanted to work in, we would need to take sixteen hour flights, we would have to find communities we could work with, we would need to buy coffee in container loads to be effective. A container load is 37,500 pounds. We would have to build a demand for these new coffees or we were going to have to buy less of other coffees, which hurts the farmers we are already working with.
That morning at work, an amazing thing happened.
I received a phone call from a professor at Michigan State University. She had recently received a USAID grant to help the Rwandan Coffee industry create a market plan for their reentry into the Specialty Coffee market, specifically aiming at the United States craft coffee trade. Yes, the entire country’s coffee industry!
How serendipitous is that? One moment we are lying in bed thinking, and the next day the answer and the challenge arrives on the phone.
They asked Thanksgiving Coffee to be part of a small group of coffee experts. We would fly to Rwanda in three weeks to help a country only ten years from its genocide in 1994. A genocide that saw 900,000 Rwandans murdered by their fellow countrymen, and their entire coffee infrastructure destroyed in the process. I wanted us to be there to help, but I said to Joan after the phone conversation: “Joan, you started this last night, and your answer and opportunity came this morning so I think it is YOU who will have to fly to Rwanda in three weeks.”
And that was the beginning of our now fourteen year odyssey with the Rwandan coffee farmers.
Trips to Rwanda
On that first trip to Rwanda, I remained in Mendocino. It was a first for us; me staying home and Joan going to do the exploring and experience the adventure.
On her first day in Rwanda, she met with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International Executive Director, who was interested in linking the Rwandan coffee industry with saving the last 400 Mountain Gorillas, something Dian Fossey was murdered for trying to do. Joan saw the opportunity, and said that Thanksgiving Coffee would create a marketing plan for linking Rwandan coffee to Mountain Gorillas. That is how – on DAY ONE of Joan’s first trip to Africa – Gorilla Fund Coffee was born.
When things are supposed to happen, they do.
But usually, not so fast.
Joan went to tour the gorilla habitat, trekking for hours into the Virunga National Forest and was gifted by coming upon a family of Mountain Gorillas, led by a 500 pound Silverback. In her words:
“The rain is soft, the trail slippery and muddy. We’re moving quickly, breathing hard in the thin high-altitude air. Intent young trackers radio one another, ‘We are close.’ Suddenly the Amahoro Gorilla family crosses our path. Wow! What a sight. Two young gorillas grasp the pant legs of a couple in our group before bounding off to join the adults – which included a 500 pound Silverback. I am transfixed and transformed in the presence of these gentle giants. I still can not believe I was there and it really happened.”
My own experience with the gorillas in Rwanda came a year later. I got a chance to hang out with a different family of gorillas. I sat cross-legged, facing the Silverback leader for 45 minutes exchanging grunts every so often but never allowing our eyes to meet. He had a very intriguing aroma about him. Musty, earthy, very Sumatra coffee-like. It was clean and powerful. I would recognize it anywhere. And yes, I did read the novel Ishmael about the Silverback Guru teaching a journalist about life’s questions. I sat with my Silverback thinking he might just know a lot more than me about the meaning of life. He had big Brown eyes.
I took his portrait picture and it adorned our Gorilla Fund Package until 2016 when it was removed in favor of a younger gorilla image.
On my second trip in 2005, I met with the Director of the USAID project and we mapped out a quality improvement plan to make Rwanda coffee the best it could be. We wrote a proposal which was funded the following year. It was a plan to put a tasting laboratory at every coffee cooperative so the farmers could separate their coffees and evaluate each lot individually.
This was a great advance at the time, and it put Rwanda in the running to be one of the most advanced coffee regions in all of Africa. This project gave me the opportunity to travel the countryside and visit many growing regions and finally find the Dukunde Kawa Coffee Cooperative in Mussasa. It is the coffee we have purchased for the past 12 years and has won the reputation of being the best of Rwandan coffee for the past five years in the Cup of Excellence competitions held yearly. We use that coffee to help save the gorillas.
Gorilla Fund Coffee has raised over $100,000 for DFGFI, since we began this program in 2005. Joan and I have attended many DFGFI celebrity fundraisers given in big city venues as honored guests for Thanksgiving Coffee’s work educating coffee lovers about the Mountain Gorillas. At one event I met and had a conversation with Gloria Steinem, at another I spoke with Sigourney Weaver who played Dian Fossey in the movie Gorillas in the Mist.
Now we are partnering with DFGFI to inform the American Coffee drinkers about the plight of the Grauer’s Gorilla who is Critically Endangered in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In my youth, this area was known as “deepest, darkest Africa.” Using the same idea, we went after finding a good coffee from the Congo to represent the Grauer Gorilla, that we would create a dark roast from.
Congo coffee is new to the pantheon of craft coffees. It is a country rife with political instability and crazed rebels who wreak havoc on villages. In 2013, I turned down an invitation to visit the Congo by my long time friend Richard Hyde of Cafe Direct who was working with a group of coffee cooperatives there. He knew I could be a buyer, but I had enough coffee and the Grauer’s Gorillas that make their home in the Congo had not yet come upon the DFGFI’s radar.
Three years later, the DFGFI began to work in the Congo, and I called my friend Richard to find out where I could get the coffee that comes from the mountains where the Grauer’s Gorillas reside.
In the beginning of this journey, we realized that it was the gorillas that could help the Rwandan people. Not many Americans will go out of their way to help the Rwandan people but all Americans want to support the Mountain Gorillas. So we focused on the gorillas to build the value and demand by consumers for this coffee.
We used the Fairtrade model and certification to give money back to the Dukunde Kawo Coffee Cooperative. We created a climate change mitigation program and financed shade tree planting. We even funded a milk cow project to supply each family with whole milk and cheese for family use and for added income. Every sale of the Gorilla Fund coffee benefited not only the gorillas, but also the members of this Rwandan Coffee Cooperative called “Dukunde Kawa”, which means “Great Coffee”. We intend to follow that same model to inform the public of the Endangered Grauer’s Gorilla, and support industry in the Congo.
It isn’t easy to do this kind of work in coffee. Lot’s of collaboration needs to be built into the process. There is always the risk that too much coffee will be purchased and sales will not match up. But we do this work for other reasons. Coffee is the medium, but it is not the message. This is how we work now with the American Birding Association, to save Migratory Song Birds, with Friends of the Earth to save Pollinators, with Defenders of wildlife to save our Wolves and soon, with more partners to save our wild animals.
So join us in our efforts and purchase these coffees and together we will make a difference.
Announcing the Expansionof the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International Partnership.
Lone silverback Mizero
Thanksgiving Coffee Company has just renewed our commitment to help protect the last remaining 880 mountain gorillas, support the people of Rwanda, as well as offer a great coffee.
For more than 10 years Thanksgiving Coffee Co. has supported the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund by raising over $58,000 for their gorilla conservation work, and now, we have just pledged to continue this support with a new contract dedicated to this inspiring partnership.
In 2004, Thanksgiving Coffee began to work with the Dukunde Kawa Coffee Cooperative in Rwanda, and the Fossey Fund, as a way to help strengthen community development in a post genocide country.
Together with the Fossey Fund, we offered support to the Rwandan farmers as they developed sustainable alternatives to logging and poaching, which are two of the largest threats facing mountain gorillas today.
The Fossey Fund has almost 50 years of gorilla protection and conservation history in Rwanda. They are committed to promoting continued research on the gorillas and their threatened ecosystems and to providing education about their relevance to the world. We are honored to work with them and greatly look forward to this continued work. Learn more
“The Fossey Fund believes in protecting gorillas and their habitat by creating better choices for people and supporting the development of a sustainable economy in Rwanda.” Tara Stoinski, Ph.D.-Fossey Fund President/CEO and Chief Scientific Officer
A sustainable economy is essential to the success of this program. We want the next generation to thrive. It has only been 21 years since the fabric of the Rwandan society was torn apart by civil war. The destruction of infrastructure and the severe depopulation of the country crippled the economy. One way that we have been able to offer help to the people of Rwanda is with our ongoing support of the Dukunde Kawa Cooperative.
This Cooperative was formed in 2003 with help from the Rwandan government and the USAID-funded PEARL Project (Partnership to Enhance Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages). Since then, Thanksgiving Coffee has worked with Dukunde Kawa on a variety of social, economic, and environmental projects aimed at improving the quality of the farmers’ coffee and strengthening the Cooperative, and the benefits it offers to its members. Thanksgiving gives a $.20 per pound Fair Trade premium directly to the Coop for development of community benefit projects, with no strings attached. Read more here
The Dukunde Kawa Cooperative is where the Gorilla Fund Coffee comes from, and they produce one of the most elegant coffees in the world. The cooperatives coffee has won the Rwanda Cup of Excellence 6 years running.) This community of farmers, collectively known as Musasa, has an average of 1 acre each. Their average yield per farm is 500 pounds of coffee, and the average family size per farm is 9 people. Each one of these two thousand small farms produces coffee, and that coffee is the economic lifeblood for their community.
With the purchase of this coffee from The Coop, Thanksgiving is able to help the farmers feed their families, offer shelter from harsh elements, and give them a livelihood that grows year after year. With every package of Gorilla Fund Coffee that is purchased online, Thanksgiving Coffee donates to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International to help their vital work. If you would like to help the mountain gorillas, help the people of Rwanda, and drink delicious coffee, you can, right here.
“When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate on the preservation of the future.”
Draped like a patchwork quilt over a steep winding ridge, the two thousand farms of the Dukunde Kawa Cooperative stretch over 10 kilometers of meandering hilltops and slopes. Each small farm is home to a family, and on their small plots, often an acre or less in size, the family produces beans, potatoes, plantains, and the economic lifeblood of their community, coffee. This community of farmers—collectively known as Musasa after the area’s main town—produces one of the most elegant coffees in the world.
We have worked closely with Dukunde Kawa since 2004 on a variety of social, economic, and environmental projects aimed at improving the quality of the farmers’ coffee and strengthening the cooperative and the benefits it offers to its members.
In 2015, we submitted this fine coffee to the team at CoffeeReview.com. They gave our 100% Rwanda single origin coffee a respectable score of 92 points:
“Immaculately sweet; lyrical. Peach, honey, lavender and honeysuckle, fresh-cut cedar in aroma and cup. Sweet, high-toned acidity; lightly syrupy mouthfeel. Peach, honey and flowers carry into a crisply sweet finish.” – rating by CoffeeReview.com
Sweet, with notes of dark chocolate, juicy hints of orange and plum.
At Thanksgiving Coffee Company, we’re always talking about how to connect our coffee community. We strive to create a space for dialogue between coffee drinkers and coffee farmers – space that allows for gratitude, appreciation and knowledge about coffee to be shared. With social media and increased global connectivity, it’s becoming much easier than it used to be to do that. For instance, check out this new feature on our website:
Traveling to your coffee’s country of origin and meeting your coffee farmer in person is the richest way to connect, but that’s not an option for most people. We’re hoping this new feature on our website will enable you to deepen your relationship with your coffee.
Some of the farmers and cooperatives we partner with are Facebook users, and can respond directly to your messages! In other cases, we’ll gather and send your messages to the farmers and cooperatives we work with so they can see your appreciation.
A majority of the 1,810 family farmers of the Dukunde Kawa Cooperative have never driven a car. They mostly live without electricity and consume food that is grown within 100 miles. They farm small plots of land without the use of tractors or other motorized machinery. While these farmers bear little responsibility for the causes of climate change, they are among those who will be most impacted by its consequences.
In January, Thanksgiving Coffee Company partnered with the non-profit organization Bikes to Rwanda to raise funds to help bring hundreds of “coffee bikes” to the cooperative that produces our Rwandan coffee. With overwhelming support from our customers, both here in Mendocino and across the country, we raised over $2,500 to construct a bike shop for the Dukunde Kawa Cooperative in less than two weeks! A sincere thank you to all who supported this project.
“A journey to Africa has been a far away dream; seeing the mountain gorillas quite unimaginable. Both opportunities presented themselves and moved me profoundly. Using coffee from Rwanda to raise funds for mountain gorilla preservation and to improve the quality of life for the people of Rwanda has become my highest priority.”
— Joan Katzeff, President, Thanksgiving Coffee Company
Joan Katzeff first visited Rwanda in 2003 as a guest of the United States Aid for International Development (USAID). There, along with a handful of coffee industry partners, Thanksgiving Coffee Company began a close partnership with the emerging Rwandan cooperative movement and the revival of Rwanda’s coffee industry. During that visit, Joan met with the Rwandan office of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGI) and forged a close connection with this remarkable organization that works to protect the last remaining mountain gorillas.
“The cooperative is important for us because I have three children in secondary school—they are orphans from the genocide. We are farmers, and coffee is the crop that we use to raise the money for school tuition.”
— Augustine Rebagisha, Dukunde Kawa
Stretching across a meandering chain of ridges and hills near the town of Musasa, in northern Rwanda, the 2,000+ members of the Dukunde Kawa Cooperative represent a new beginning for Rwanda and its hopes for the future.
Working on plots of land so small that farmers often reference their farm size by the number of trees rather than the number of acres, a community recovering from the scars of a recent genocide is laying the foundation for peace and a prosperous future.
We’re honored that our work in Rwanda is being recognized by the Specialty Coffee Association of America with the 2012 Sustainability Award. We’re also excited about the power of this story, and creating projects like it with every single farm and cooperative we call a partner. The future of specialty coffee hangs in the balance; climate change poses very real and serious threats. We also have the ability, through our relationship-based trading model, to invest, collaborate, support, and ultimately, protect the future of coffee for us and for the farmers who grow it.