For one week earlier this summer, Sustainable Harvest® Rwanda (SH-R) engaged more than 1,200 women smallholder coffee farmers and their families in a series of community events called Let’s Talk Coffee® in the Community. The tagline extolled participants to “Grow It, Drink It, Sell It.”
This event is part of a program started in 2013 when Bloomberg Philanthropies joined Sustainable Harvest® Inc. to develop the Relationship Coffee Institute. This institute formed a local NGO in Rwanda called Sustainable Harvest® Rwanda. To date, 4,001 rural women have been trained in coffee agronomy through this partnership.
At each of the six events, approximately 200 farmers, their spouses, and other interested community members and government officials met together on coffee plots for a hands-on introduction to Sustainable Harvest® Rwanda’s training program. They collectively learned to grow coffee better through a pruning demonstration that allowed everyone to participate. Then they had an opportunity to taste coffee and talk about coffee as a business.
Most coffee farmers in Rwanda have never tasted coffee, even though they have grown and harvested it for decades. Achieving the finished product requires many steps using machinery for de-pulping, milling, roasting, and grinding, and farmers are not likely to have access to those machines. Rwandans typically enjoy tea, which they consume with an abundance of milk and sugar. On this day they tasted black coffee for the first time, and while some found it bitter, many asked for a second helping, and several wanted to buy some to drink at home. However, SH-R agronomists overheard Rwandans’ concerns about coffee’s effects, with one farmer commenting: “We are hearing people saying that if someone drinks coffee [he or she] doesn't sleep. Let's taste and see in the evening ..."
As the farmers drank their coffee, sitting in shade of coffee trees, the staff of SH-R and the government officials engaged in a dialogue with the farmers. Farmers heard from the local district as well as staff from the National Agriculture Export Development Board on the importance of growing coffee to Rwanda’s economy. The officials told the group that coffee should be treated as an economic enterprise, not simply another crop. At one of the events farmers were joined by international coffee buyers in search of high-quality coffee, reinforcing for them the idea that coffee is a business.
SH-R then introduced an innovative new program called Sustainable Harvest Premium Sharing Rewards™ to the community. This program seeks to reward those farmers enrolled in SH-R’s program who implement agricultural best practices learned through trainings. Farmers can earn points for purchasing health insurance and maintaining a kitchen garden, both high priorities of the Rwandan government. Other ways to earn points include achieving certain quality levels and joining cooperatives. After a year, they can redeem their accrued points for assets such as farm implements, solar lamps, or cell phones. The rewards are funded from the sales of coffee to roasters and consumers. This way, farmers have an incentive to produce high-quality coffee in a consistent manner, and for their good work and loyalty they are rewarded by roasters who benefit from the secure supply of quality coffee.
Farmers welcomed this new idea, and the cooperative leader of the eastern district, Kayonza, expounded on the advantages by explaining to her members that not only will they earn more rewards by meeting the targets, but it will change their daily lives in terms of economic benefits.
Let’s Talk Coffee® in the Community united farmers with their community and showed them the world of opportunity that coffee can bring. It was a successful first event, and we look forward to continuing this momentum with future installments.