On Friday I had quite a different day than what I am used to, which is going to coffee farms. I was lucky enough to go visit the two suppliers of our Rwanda art merchandise that we have in the stores. It was an incredible experience to hear the amazing stories of struggle and now success of many of the master seamstress and weavers. The fabrics produced for our bags was the first time ever full container load of manufactured product in Rwanda to be exported to the United States. Up to now only products like coffee had been exported in full container loads. Once again as it is with coffee farmers, successful business is a result of human spirit.
These past two days have been incredible. On Saturday we visited four coffee farmer co-ops, traveling over the majestic mountains of Rwanda. Now I truly understand why they call it the country of one thousand hills. At the first co-op the farmers were very proud to share the work they have done with us. Our friends, Technoserve gave them the ability to purchase and install a new washing station or wet mill at 1/4 of the cost of the traditional wet mill. The added efficiency and environmental benefits are notable. Over the past year these farmers organized, this enabled them to improve their quality and sell at a better price. Together with Fair Trade executives we also were able to visit a Fair Trade co-op. After a hard year of low crop yields, they also have improved their practices to improve the yield and quality of their coffee.
Sunday was an exhilarating experience. With Howard, we visited a co-op of coffee farmers in a remote area of Rwanda. We sat down and had a meeting with 12 farmers who represented the 1800 farmers of the co-op. We discussed issues that the farmers see as obstacles to their continued progress and talked about what we could do collectively to provide solutions. It was very empowering for all of us, especially the farmers.
Starbucks was the first buyer in the region to reach out to the producer through genuine concern for our livelihood. They were also the first roaster to care about quality – and this inspired us. To be a supplier to Starbucks meant that you had great coffee.
Through working with Starbucks, we came to realize the importance of sound social and environmental business practices. It was almost embarrassing to have someone from abroad tell us that we had taken the wrong path, a path our grandfathers had paved for us. We were cutting corners through the heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers. We were harming our environment and it was time to mend our ways.
Starbucks was also the first company that promoted social projects in our region. The premium we received for our coffee was invested throughout our community in many ways. In addition to the cash incentive given to each producer, we were able to contribute to the local Red Cross Chapter for the acquisition of an ambulance, medical equipment at the local nursing home and donations to the local school. We were able to buy a scientific calculator for each child of every partner of Alturas de San Ramón, S.A.
Our personal relationship with Starbucks is a great source of pride. They really care about us. We see it in every visit from the Starbucks Farmer Support Center. Through their support we are able to work better. If our goal was to just sell coffee we could sell it to anybody, but we have a close-knit relationship that goes beyond a business contract.
I am in the Entebbe, Uganda airport on our first stop of the journey back home. We miss Rwanda already. They were seven intense days that gave Starbucks the best Rwanda has to offer; coffee producers full of pride in what they do yet humble of what they accomplish. Looking not for help but for a valued business partner. I am very privileged to continue to be able to experience the best of human spirit and to live the results of what Starbucks can achieve; one cup, one bean, one connection at a time
We have no false illusions. We have been charged by our leaders and the farmers to work even harder to resolve issues related to financing, reducing cost of production, consistency of high quality sustainable coffee. The good news is this; we have learned a great number of lessons from farmers in other regions that will help us work together to come up with solutions.
This is Peter from the coffee department at Starbucks and I just completed the long journey from Seattle to Kigali, Rwanda. While I’m here, I’ll post a short overview of the day’s activities. We are here with the Fairtrade UK team and are really looking forward to meeting local coffee farmers while we explore the great coffee in Rwanda and officially open our Farmer Support Center. Stay tuned for the updates and hope you enjoy them.
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