Category Archives: JRC Africa Trip 2008

Update from Uganda: A Guest Post by Rich Katz

Left to Right: Peace Kawomera founder JJ Kekei, Rich Katz, JB Birenge

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.

The Peace Kawomera Warehouse/Office under construction, 2008

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.

The PK Warehouse/Office, 2012

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.

The PK Seedling Project

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.

A Rabbi Dad Kvells!

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It’s Mazel Tov time. This past Shabbat, our family celebrated our son Jonah’s Bar Mitzvah with our family, friends and incredible congregational community. A joyous kvell-o-rama!

As you may remember from earlier blog posts, Jonah attended JRC’s congregational trip to Rwanda/Uganda this past summer. In honor of his Bar Mitzvah, he’s been selling Mirembe Kawomera coffee every week at our congregation and he’s also raising money for our Fair Trade fund to help the Mirembe farmers with their capacity building. If you’d like to share in our naches, buy coffee!

Click below for some remarks from Jonah:

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Oprah Discovers Mirembe Kawomera!

Shortly before we left Uganda we learned that the August issue of Oprah Magazine would feature an article about Mirembe Kawomera coffee! It’s a wonderful, informative piece – so great to see the efforts of the coop spotlighted in such a major way.

Holly Moskowitz writes in the Mirembe blog that the new crop has just been released and sales so far have somewhat slow. Hopefully the Oprah article will help to give the coffee a boost. Forward it to your friends – and encourage them to stock up on the new batch.

(Please pardon me for the shameless posting of the pic above: my son Jonah picking Mirembe coffee on JJ Keki’s farm two weeks ago…)

JRC Says Farewell to Africa

On our final day in Africa, we visited the Nankusi and Namanyonyi primary schools, both of which are supported by the Peace Kawomera’s fair trade social premiums. Both schools are engaged in building projects to create more classrooms and more essential educational resources. In each school we saw overcrowded classes (many cramming in over 100 students) and most classrooms are not even equipped with a chalkboard. Similarly, in both schools these important construction projects are currently stalled out due to lack of funding, materials and workers. At Namanyonyi, we were told that they needed the equivalent of $2,000.00 to finish the project.

We’ve heard these kinds of appeals several times on our trip and they are challenging to the core. On the one hand, in the face of such direct need, it’s all you can do to not take out the money and just donate it on the spot. On the other hand, this would clearly raise more questions than it would solve: why is this school more deserving than the one down the road? What kinds of social tensions would you be exacerbating by privileging one one school over another? How would we ensure that the money would be used in the way we were told? What kind of unhealthy power dynamic are we reinforcing when we throw money around in this way? We’ve discussed these kinds of questions a great deal as a group and in the end we’ve resolved to live with the difficulties and complexities that attend the phenomenon of world poverty, arguably the most intractable issue facing the world today.

One important thing we do take away from these experiences is the resolve to support NGOs on the ground that we know are making a real difference in the lives of real people. We have been transformed by our relationships with organizations like WE-ACTx, the Foundation for the Development of Needy Communities and Peace Kawomera, who are leading the charge to create better futures for the communities they serve.

If we have learned anything on this trip, it is that we much redouble our resolve to support their efforts and to encourage others to do so as well. In a world that is so desperately in need of heroes and role models, these are the ones who truly inspire: people like Dr. Mardge Cohen, Samuel Watalatsu, JJ Keki, and so many, many others who work largely off the PR radar screen, but whose vision and drive are bringing hope and change in the areas of the world that need it most.

We’re coming home now, but our work is really just getting started…

Peace Kawomera in Action

We’ve learned a great deal about how coffee is grown and processed on this trip and one of the most indelible lessons we’ve taken away is how interconnected and interdependent each step is to the next. Unlike the major commercial producers, rural coffee farmers like those of the Peace Kawomera coop must depend upon one another to succeed. In other words (to adapt an oft-repeated axiom) it really does take a community to produce a cup of coffee. As I wrote in my earlier post, we did a bit of harvesting at JJ Keki’s coffee farm this past Sunday. We subsequently learned about the complex journey taken by the coffee berries once there are picked.

The first step – and in some ways the most crucial – is called “pulping.” This refers to the husking of the outer red shell of the coffee berry. For quality purposes, pulping must take place 24 hours or less after the coffee is picked. Like most rural farmers, the members of Peace Kawomera have been pulping their coffee by hand, with a manual turn-crank machine.

The pix below were taken at the farm of a coop member named Mohammed – the harvested berries are poured in the top, the crank is turned, and the inner white beans come out the bottom. The leftover red husks are then taken and mixed with manure to be used as organic fertilizer.

I mentioned in my earlier post that Peace Kawomera has recently been able to obtain a large, motorized machine to serve as the central pulper for the entire coop. Since every individual farmer does not own a own hand pulper, the coop leadership hopes that this acquisition will help the farmers expedite this critical initial process. The new pulper is an impressive and complex piece of machinery and has the capability of pulping 5000 five kilos a day. It runs on diesel fuel and requires water is pumped in from a nearby stream. It coop farmers will begin using the central pulper in August, as the coffee harvest goes into full swing

After pulping, the coffee beans are fermented and dried by the farmers themselves. They are then transported to Gumutindo, the location of a larger coop to which ten other farming coops also belong. This is where the coffee is warehoused and eventually inspected with the defective beans sorted out. The remaining beans are then milled in a huge machine (a process in which the thin inner skin is husked from the beans) before they are sampled for final quality control. The pix below show the various step of this process, from warehousing and milling to sample roasting and tasting.

After lunch we attended a gathering of Peace Kawomera farmers who were attending a tutorial on organic farming by agriculturist John Bosco (pix below). The interplay was fascinating and impressive. The level of commitment of the farmers to their work – as well as their desire to learn and succeed – runs quite deep.

For our final meeting of the day, we met with the board of Peace Kawomera (below). If we learned annything with our soujourn with the coop, it was how deeply these farmers are committed to one another and their community. Coffee farming can only succeed with in a powerful subsystem of relationships and social connections. For the members of Peace Kawomera, their devotion to interfaith cooperation and sustainable development is no less powerful. We are bringing home so many profound lessons as a result of our soujourn in Uganda.

One more post to go. I’ll report on a visit to two primary schools supported by the coop and offer some final thoughts.

Harvesting Peace

As promised, we went to the Abayudayah Jewish community on Shabbat morning for services. It was actually a fairly auspicious time to be visiting: last week their new spiritual leader, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, was formally installed in his home community. Rabbi Gershom has been studying for the past several years at the Conservative movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles and his return to Uganda has been a much-anticipated and long-awaited moment. By all reports, his installation was a major event, attended by many leaders from the American Jewish community as well as throngs of Ugandan Jews.

To judge from our experience, Rabbi Sizomu has clearly settled comfortably into his new role. He presided a lovely service together with other members of the commumity (including JJ Keki, who led us in some rousing Ugandan-style Psalms). Also attending the service was Rabbi Jerome Epstein, Executive VP of United Synagogue, who was there to dedicate new Beit Midrash (House of Learning) that the Conservative movement had funded for them. After the service we shared oneg and lunch with the Abayudayah before heading back to Mbale for some Shabbat R&R. (Sorry no pix of this visit – Shabbas after all…)

On Sunday morning we completed our interfaith “hat trick” by attending church services at the Namanyoni Anglican Church (that’s me below with the head of the church – and Peace Kawomera board member – Stephen Kabala). Just as at the Nankusi mosque on Friday, we were received with welcome and graciousness, especially as they did not have much advance notice of our visit. After the service, they greeted us with the now obligatory speeches, and I had the opportunity to lead the congregation in an impromptu Bible Study of the Jewish weekly portion.

We have been so impressed all week at the deep level of interfaith cooperation and support in Uganda. I made a point of telling our new friends, quite from the heart, that they are true teachers; that we in the United States and the West have not yet learned how to live the way they do here.

After lunch we were back with our good friends at the Peace Kawomera coop, for a better look at their operations. The coop is clearly on the verge of reaching a new level of viability. They are currently building an impressive new warehouse/office facility and thanks to a USAID grant, they have recently acquired a new high-powered pulping machine for use by all of the farmers in the coop (below). Up until this point, farmers have been pulping the beans by hand. (More in this in my next post).

We ended our day by helping JJ with the coffee harvest (top pic). We set out over the hillside, scouring the plants for the red beans, which are just now beginning to emerge (the height of the season will occur this September). It really was a thrill, especially for those of us at JRC, who have been selling and drinking Mirembe Kawomera for years.

In my next post I’ll report on the process by which the harvested beans are pulped, dryed, cleaned, and milled before they set out for the US to be roasted and distributed. It truly takes a community working together to produce a cup or fair trade coffee…

PS: Tomorrow we drive back to Kampala to begin our journey home.

On Coffee and Coexistence

That man in the picture above is JJ Keki – Ugandan farmer, musician, fair trade entrepreneur, local politician and interfaith activist (I’m sure I’m missing several more job descriptions…) JRC has gotten to know JJ well over the years through our our relationship to the Peace Kawomera interfaith fair trade coffee cooperative. JJ (a Ugandan Jew) is a co-founder of the coop along with Elias Hasulube (with JJ below) a Muslim farmer. The coop includes the participation of 705 Ugandan Jewish, Muslim and Christian farmers – and is an unprecedented example of interfaith cooperation in support of fair trade and sustainable development.

On Friday morning our group split up once again: the medical providers volunteered at the FDNC clinic and the rest of us spent our day with the folks from Peace Kawomera. We met first at the coop office (located in the Namayonyi Sub-County) with Elias, who serves as their fair trade and organic certification expert, and their financial secretary Kakaire Hatube. Joining us as well was John Bosco Birenge, and agriculturist who was recently hired by the coop to help the farmers with organic farming skills.

The governance of the coop board is guided by impressively democratic standards. The board has seven members, which must include Muslim, Jewish and Christian reps. The farmers themselves directly elect the board and chairpeople, and the bylaws require that there be an equal number of women, youth and elders represented. Their adherence to organic and shade grown agriculture as well as fair trade/sustainable development values is equally as strong. This is clearly a farming community that cares deeply about the principles by which they work and live. (Below: some JRCers outside the coop office)

After meeting with the coop staff, we took a short ride out to JJ’s home, where he gave us a personal tour of his coffee farm. Coffee growing is a difficult and fragile art form: it takes the plant three full years to grow from planting to harvest and any number of factors can compromise the quality of the beans along the way. Last year, in fact, the coop sustained a net financial loss because of heavy rains (as well as the fluctuation of the American dollar). Agriculturist John Bosco was hired by the coop largely for this reason: to help the farmers with important tips on how to improve their quality and yield.

JJ’s farm is set on the slope of a lush, gorgeous Ugandan hillside The farm includes a variety of crops: along the way we saw the coffee plants nestled among guava, papaya, banana, avocado, casava and much more. JJ commented that this is why he believes coffee promotes peace: because it thrives best when it coexists next to other kinds of plants. (The picture below shows a coffee plant coexisting with a banana tree).

I’ve written extensively about Mirembe on this blog – largely because I have just been so inspired by the example they set for us. I truly believe that the folks at this modest coop in Uganda are, in their way, showing the rest of the world how to live. If you are a coffee drinker, I encourage you to support their efforts – Miremebe Kawomera is roasted, distributed and marketed by Thanksgiving Coffee and for every bag they sell, one dollar goes back to the coop. Moreover, the coop’s fair trade social premiums support their community development efforts (which includes the Nankusi Primary School that we will visit on Monday).

We’re going to return to JJ’s farm on Sunday to pick coffee – but in the meantime, we were able to do our part by donating a new laptop to the coop. Up until now, they have kept their financials on a hand-written ledger. In the pic below you can see JRC members Rich Katz and Beth Lange giving Kakaire and John Bosco a tutorial on Excel spreadsheets. We all hope this will provide a much-needed boost to their office support.

In keeping with the spirit of interfaith coexistence, we visited the nearby Nankusi Mosque for Sabbath services after lunch. We were received by the Muslim community with incredible graciousness; we brought them welcome and blessings from the Jewish community and I offered a brief D’var Torah for the occasion. Afterwards, virtually every member of the community came up to us, shook our hands, and wished us “Salaam Aleikum.” (The pic below shows Hannah Gelder with Elaine and Kelsey Waxman outfitted in their hijabs for the occasion).

We’ll be attending the Abayudayah Ugandan Jewish community for Shabbat morning services on Saturday as well as a local Anglican Christian Church this Sunday. (I like to call this the Interfaith Sabbath Hat Trick…)