Dancing for Coffee

05/26/2017 - 3:16 PM

This guest blog comes to us from  Erika Koss, a writer, researcher, and Assistant Dean at Northeastern University in Boston, MA. Erika has spent years studying coffee on the ground with a focus on East Africa, and she hosts a series of talks called “The World in Your Cup” with major players in the specialty coffee industry focused on sustainability for the sector. In July 2016 she journeyed with Fair Trade USA to visit coffee cooperatives in the small East African country of Rwanda. The following is a short reflection on Erika’s experience visiting farmers half a world away.

What’s better than drinking a cup of Fair Trade coffee?

Dancing with the farmer-producers who made it possible!

That’s what happened at the 2017 Global Specialty Coffee Expo in Seattle, when, after several days of conversation, education, and presentations, more than 200 coffee producers from upwards of 14 countries joined Fair Trade USA for a salsa party. Joy abounded as members from every part of coffee’s complex supply chain celebrated the brew that brings us together in a global coffee family.

But the unity goes deeper than the cup, as Fair Trade USA CEO Paul Rice shared, because it’s based upon “our vision for a fair world,” and because, at Fair Trade USA, “we dream of a better world where a business is a help for good, and where the consumer doesn’t consume without thinking, but chooses products consciously.”

And that product of coffee—the first Fair Trade item—has a long history with dancing.

After all, legend has it that the young Ethiopian shepherd boy, Kaldi, only discovered the coffee cherries after he first saw his goats bleating, leaping, and dancing from afar. While it may not have been wise to consume the unknown berries, after he started eating them, how could he hold back from joining his goats’ song and dance?

The salsa dance party reminded me of another time I was dancing for coffee last summer, when Fair Trade USA organized a delegation of coffee professionals to travel to Rwanda to learn about its coffee supply chain first-hand.

Our team of roasters, researchers, and certifiers joined with members of importer Sustainable Harvest-Rwanda and the Relationship Coffee Institute, a non-profit funded by the Bloomberg Philanthropies to visit Nyampinga Women's Coffee Cooperative in Nyaruguru, southern province, Rwanda. We drove from Kigali two-hours south—one hour on concrete roads, one hour inching up a dirt road with numerous sharp turns and bumps to arrive at 1760 meters (5775 feet) altitude.

It was worth every pothole.

For when we arrived, smiles abounded.  Bursts of rainbows exploded against the brown hills. One by one, women wearing colorful headpieces and traditional umushanana dresses, walked toward us, affirming, “you are most welcome.” They then started dancing while singing us a coffee welcome song!

Three years ago, the cooperative began with 64 members; now that number has doubled to include 127. All but three of those are women—a reminder that Rwanda’s “land of a thousand hills” still whispers its past history when the 1994 genocide claimed the lives of more than 800 million, most of them men. To date, more than 80% of Rwanda’s population of 11 million work in agriculture, and 86% of that number comprises women, about 23% who cannot read or write.

The aftermath for some of these women in Nyaruguru endures, as many are widows and mothers who have struggled to provide food and education for their children.  But the Nyampinga Women’s Coffee Cooperative is helping to change that, thanks to the vision of its President, Ms. Asterie Mukangango. She told us about their increased efforts in quality measures such as pruning, mulching, and composting—actions that have increased income through improved coffee yield and quality.

This high quality caught the attention of one roaster on the trip, Alison Chopp (pictured left), and led her to be one of the first U.S. buyers of coffee from the Nyampinga cooperative. One of Alison’s trip highlights (her first time in Rwanda!) was hearing the stories of women like Tasiana Kankuyo, whose life has been transformed because of her participation in the cooperative. 

As the mother of 12 children, ages 15 to 40 (three passed away), Tasiana described the contrast between her life immediately after the genocide, which claimed her husband, and her life now: “I used to be poor, but I am not poor now. I couldn't take all my kids to school.” She didn’t think her coffee trees could earn her money, but now all her school-age children – like all the children of the cooperative – are in school, and Tasiana dreams that they can attend university.

After our team sat in the sun listening to many more testimonies of change, challenge, and progress, it was time for more singing and dancing. The joy over coffee was as palpable as was the passion with which they asked us to keep buying, drinking, and enjoying their coffee.

And while our team rejoiced to hear (and taste) their coffee’s quality – last year it scored high marks (an 87) – our joy was greater when we saw that our choices – whether as green buyers, roasters, cuppers, or writers – do make a difference to the people who work to grow, harvest, and process coffee in Rwanda.

This is one of the many reasons why Fair Trade matters, why Every Purchase Matters, so that small-holder farmers—by joining in cooperatives—can compete on the global market and receive a premium on top of a higher price for quality coffee.

Labor activist Cesar Chavez once said, “The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people.”

In specialty coffee, the Nyampinga Cooperative and the annual Global Expo remind me that we’re a family of people who will keep fighting, keep working, and keep dreaming toward a vision of justice for all.

And we’ll all keep dancing for coffee. 


05/26/2017 - 3:16 PM
05/26/2017 - 11:36 AM