The following post was written by JRC member and current trip participant Rich Katz, who also participated in JRC’s Uganda/Rwanda delegation four years ago. Before joining us in Rwanda on our current trip, he returned to Uganda to visit many of the people and NGO’s with whom we’ve been partnering. Below, he offers thoughts on his experience visiting our good friends at the Peace Kawomera interfaith coffee cooperative.
Visiting East Africa for the first time with JRC in 2008 was a remarkable experience. We made many new friends and we were able to work with and support several grass-roots organizations in Rwanda that provide direct service to alleviate conditions of poverty, HIV-AIDS, and the plight of widows and orphans in a country scarred by genocide. We also visited eastern Uganda to learn more about how the Peace Kawomera Cooperative Society is working to improve the lives of coffee farmers in the region. I returned there for a week before flying to Rwanda. The changes I witnessed were astonishing.
Four years ago, the co-op numbered about 500 farmers who were producing and shipping one container of high quality Arabica coffee to the Thanksgiving Coffee Company in Fort Bragg, CA, where it was roasted, packaged and distributed. They had just received a significant grant from USAID to purchase and install a central “washing station”, which is used by the co-op’s farmers to remove the outer pulp of the ripe coffee “cherry”. The money was also used to begin the construction of a warehouse & office building on the same site (below). Importantly , agronomist Johnbosco “JB” Birenge had been hired to train the farmers in more productive methods of growing coffee.
Today, I’m happy to report that the PK membership has grown to nearly 3,000 farmers, and they now ship four containers of organic, fair-trade certified coffee to Thanksgiving Coffee. The warehouse/office building (below) is functioning—although the office space is not quite finished—and the farmers have expanded their crops to include vanilla, cocoa and cardamom. The staff now includes a credit union manager, an entomologist and a seed development specialist.
However, not all is as rosy as it appears. The co-op is facing some unanticipated problems that require innovative solutions. First, the region is experiencing dramatic climate change that has pushed the harvest forward into July rather than late August, forcing changes in their other farming activities. Also, many farmers are increasing the land planted in cash crops by cutting down the shade trees necessary to grow good coffee and using them for firewood, charcoal and to fire bricks. Fortunately, JB, who is now PK’s managing director, was successful in securing a grant from the Stichting Progreso Foundation, a Netherlands-based organization that supports small holder producer organizations. The money is being used to purchase and raise seedlings (see below) that will be distributed to farmers for reforesting their land. In combination, the climate change and the loss of trees have meant that the annual rains are washing away the topsoil at an alarming rate.
On the bright side, PK has obtained a letter of agreement with Natural Flavors (Newark, NJ) to buy all of their vanilla and cardamon once the growing and drying processes have been perfected. A second USAID grant application has been submitted to purchase a washing station large enough to handle the increased volume of coffee that is being brought in by the farmers. Among other things, the grant will also be used to establish a small “cupping laboratory” in the office building so that farmers can actually taste the coffee that they grow and learn how their farming practices affect the quality; increase the number of women-led producer organizations in PK from 15 to 20; hire six field facilitators, who will visit the famers more frequently for purposes of training and problem-solving; and establish a nursery to test different variety of coffee trees for quality and yield, resistance to pests, etc.
All in all, the future looks bright for our friends at Peace Kawomera. Incomes are steadily rising, women are being given greater independence and authority, democratic institutions are being strengthened, products are expanding, and the quality of their coffee is outstanding. If you live in the Chicago area, head over to JRC and buy a bag of delicious Mirembe Kawomera coffee. You can also support their efforts by buying their coffee at the Thanksgiving Coffee online store.