I attended a very inspirational event earlier this year in Rwanda called Let’s Talk Coffee held by Sustainable Harvest Importers outside of the capital city Kigali. Sustainable Harvest holds a larger annual LTC conference in Latin America where they bring together all the players in their coffee supply chain from roaster to small coffee farmer with millers, exporters, and non-profits in between. LTC Rwanda was one of the few smaller regional gatherings they hold in the more far-flung origins in Africa. The focus at this first event in Rwanda was on empowering women through stronger supply chain partnerships and it brought together the likes of Bloomberg Philanthropies, Women for Women International, along with Sustainable Harvest’s non-profit arm called the Relationship Coffee Institute and the Rwandan government. Sustainable Harvest has been selected by Bloomberg Philanthropies to bring its innovative economic relationship model of development to low-income rural women in Rwanda. The goal of the project has very specific parameters set to be completed over a three-year period and is focused on training to improve skills and systems around farming. The training sessions cover agronomic and processing practices to ensure quality coffee, but also instruct on mushroom and honey production as additional food supply and income diversity.
The two-day LTC event included speakers from the aforementioned organizations, plus coffee roasters of various sizes and some other NGO’s like Fair Trade USA and Little Sun, a group that makes solar-powered lamps for people living in areas without electricity around the world. The hundred plus female coffee farmers that attended all received one of these little happy sunshine lamps to test in their homes. Often their children don’t have adequate light to read and study with in the evenings. The women also participated in a rotation of training exercises that broke up the panel discussions and added some tangible and practical take-away experiences for these very perceptive and enthusiastic students.
The gathering was held at the WFWI’s newly opened Women’s Opportunity Center in Kayonza District. The campus will provide training courses around financial literacy, business mentoring, agri-business support, and it will provide financial services and support to cooperatives. It will also provide social development courses around health and nutrition, early childhood development, in addition to letting men in on the fun with male-focused leadership and engagement classes. Walking around the richly textured red brick campus I noticed some fine looking vegetable gardens whose crops will be used for healthy cooking demonstrations and in the on-site restaurant to prepare nutritious meals for trainees and visitors.
This regional LTC reaffirmed for me what I have noticed for years of sourcing from both genders of farmers around the world, that the proclivity of women as the care-givers in their families translates to the attention given to the coffee on their farms and in the end the result is often better tasting coffee. Of course this requires that both women and men have the same level of knowledge around farming techniques and this event surely is a smart step forward for Rwanda to ensure that this intellectual equality is in place. As a side note, the universal mama gene was on fine display as well during the gathering due to one very special guest and presenter from Colombia, the gregarious Aurora Izquierdo, a leader in the indigenous Arhuaco community from the coffee region of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Her generosity of spirit matched those of the Rwandan women and their combined gleefulness infected us all in the many spontaneous bouts of song and dance that filled the random electricity outages that halted the presentations. My first hand observation of these two very different cultures brought together by the universal challenges of all women was very encouraging to me.
Based on the enthusiasm of the Rwandan farmers attending the event I think it had a big impact on them as well. For most of them this was the first opportunity they’d ever had to taste the coffee they grow. This might seem amazing, but is often still the case in rural areas where the mainstay beverage is tea and coffee is the cash crop. I sat in on the coffee tasting sessions that were part of the educational rotation and it was priceless to see the looks on faces with that first sip. There were expressions of surprise -and sometimes disgust- at the strong flavors, and then giggling at the funny looks of the other women, and then smiles of pride after reassurance that this is what buyers like me seek out to buy from them. Good fun all around at LTC Rwanda. – Christy
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