Children singing, playing, laughing, burdened by reality, hopeful for chance, thirsty for knowledge, yearning to be heard and understood. Meet the Youth of Peace Kawomera.
The second project I completed in Uganda was a note card project for the O Ambassadors program. For about a year, I have been corresponding with Nadja Atkinson, an Oprah Ambassador from Miami, Florida. Before I left, she and I spoke about ways to open her students’ eyes to life in Uganda, inspire, and motivate them to take action.
Nadja has been a wonderful supporter of the Peace Kawomera Cooperative, and when I told our friends in Uganda that our goal was to bridge the gap between cultures, provide Ugandan youth with the opportunity tell their story, and hopefully connect with Oprah, the farmers and their children were very excited to participate.
The only instructions I gave to the youth were to write their name, age, village, and â€œsomething about meâ€ on a note card I provided. Then I collected the cards and took a photo of the student with their card. Those who were too young to write drew pictures. Everyone was eager to share a part of him or herself. Students asked if they could take cards home for their siblings and neighbors, and promised to bring them back as if it were a life and death matter. To them, their stories and opportunity to be heard were.
I’m proud to share some of their photos and cards with you. Please, Meet the Youth of Peace Kawomera.
In addition to providing Nadja’s students and you with a glimpse into Ugandan life, our ultimate goal is to have Oprah read the cards and see the photos. Maybe with time, the villages of Peace Kawomera can become affiliated with Oprah’s education network. Most of the cards say something about the desire to learn and the struggles faced by students to pay fees. As we all know, education is the window to the world.
Fair Trade pays above market price for the harvest. This extra money is usually used by families to pay for school fees, uniforms, and materials. Many children who were unable to attend school in the past are now able to thanks to Fair Trade prices. However, the average family in Uganda supports 8 children. While the system helps a great deal, there isn’t always enough to go around.
In the Meet the Farmers section of our site, you can read stories from farmers on how fair trade has provided extra money and with that money how many families are now able to send some of their children to school.
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.
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.