On The Ground

SMIF Blog Post #2_picture Rwanda Coffee KZ

Rwandan coffee farmers have reason to celebrate

Editor’s note: this post originally appeared on The Stanford Graduate School of Business’ Center for Social Innovation blog on October 5, 2012. This is her second post about her summer in Acumen Fund’s East Africa office. You can read the first post here.

Photo courtesy Nena Sanderson and CSI blog

Last month, as part of Acumen’s work with a coffee social enterprise, I attended the Rwanda Cup of Excellence awards ceremony, the culmination of a two-week contest to identify Rwanda’s best specialty coffee. With an auction for the winning coffees where prices will climb to more than 10 times the average export price, this was a huge event for Rwanda’s smallholder coffee farmers. During the ceremony, one particularly inspiring story unfolded.

A few years ago, I met Alexis, a coffee farmer for whom everything had gone wrong. He had been the beneficiary of a few misguided aid projects which had contributed to a failing coffee processing business and a mountain of debt. When he came to my office at OCIR Café, the Rwandan government agency that oversees the coffee industry, Alexis was running out of hope. As he told me about everything that had gone wrong with his business, he spoke with the greatest sadness about the farmers in his region who depended on him for income and who he felt he was letting down. I was moved by his kindheartedness in the face of so many reasons to be bitter. I was helping OCIR Café launch a turnaround program to help struggling coffee processing companies, and we accepted Alexis into our program. OCIR Café teamed up with TechnoServe, a development NGO, to help him rebuild his business. I left Rwanda a few months later and lost touch with Alexis, but I have wondered about him often.

The Cup of Excellence awards ceremony provided the best possible update. After honoring dozens of runners-up selected from hundreds of entries, the judge announced the grand prize winner, and I was shocked to see Alexis running onto the field. In two years, Alexis had climbed from his near-hopeless situation to running a profitable, debt-free business and producing the best coffee in Rwanda. If that wasn’t exciting enough, the best part for me was learning that, in re-building his business, Alexis has taken care of the farmers he was so concerned about letting down. He shares his profit with them by distributing fertilizer, creating exactly the type of virtuous cycle that Acumen seeks in the social enterprises it supports.

As the crowd of thousands erupted in cheers for Alexis, many people around me expressed familiarity with his story and recounted ways in which they too had given him a leg-up. With the right kind of help from a supportive community, an immense amount of perseverance, and a few long-overdue breaks, Alexis and the farmers in his community have a great deal to celebrate.

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Nena Sanderson is a Summer Portfolio Associate in Acumen Fund’s East Africa Office. She is studying at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

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