Women, Coffee & Hope: Fair Trade is Blossoming in the Hills of Rwanda

Fair Trade and the Hinga Kawa Women's Cooperative

04/28/2010 - 9:54 PM

My name is Katie Barrow and I am the PR Manager at Fair Trade USA (you may also know me as the voice behind our Twitter @FairTradeUSA).  I have been working for this amazing, mission-driven organization for almost two years, and in this time I have learned more about international trade, coffee and non-profits than I ever thought possible.  But despite having spent the past year-and-a-half of my life immersed in Fair Trade, I had yet to actually visit a Fair Trade cooperative.  Instead, I relied on the amazing stories from our President & CEO Paul Rice and from my colleagues who had spent time "on the ground."  They told me stories of cooperatives that had used Fair Trade premiums to provide entire communities with access to clean water or electricity for the first time.  And there were stories of medical clinics built, new roads paved and scholarships funded. 

The story that excited me the most was that of the Hinga Kawa Women's Association (part of the Abakunda Kawa cooperative) - a group of women who came together as a community to sell their coffee directly to U.S. buyers. So I decided to take a vacation to visit these women in the far-away hills of Rwanda. My good friend Jenna accompanied me on this non-traditional vacation.  She'd been listening to me talk about Fair Trade for the past year and a half, so it only seemed right! 

I'll spare you the details of our entire journey through East Africa (though the 30-mile walking safari we took through remote mountain villages in Uganda was unforgettable).  Instead, I will just focus on one day - the day we spent with Hinga Kawa.  It was one of the most humbling and joyful days of my life thus far.

At this point, we'd been in Africa for a little over a week.  One thing we were already used to was getting up early so that we could accomplish all of the day's activities before the afternoon rains came. This morning was a little different; it had been raining all morning.  Christine picked us up at our hotel in Kigali in a rugged SUV at 8am sharp, and we began the drive to Gakenke.  What an experience that was!  The road started off paved in Kigali, but soon pavement gave way to a rocky dirt path (hard to call it a road!) that we followed for another two hours, winding through small villages and farms. 

When we arrived at the cooperative, we met Ernest, the manager of Abakunda Kawa.  He proudly showed us the coffee washing station and coffee beans from the last harvest.  And he was equally proud to show off the cooperative's new copy machine, purchased with Fair Trade premiums. The members of Hinga Kawa began to arrive one by one at the cooperative office.  The president of the group introduced herself to me and explained "the rain this morning made the women late."  When you depend on the sun as your alarm clock, an odd rainy morning would cause delays! 

Finally, all of the women had arrived, and they filed into the coffee storehouse for their monthly meeting.  That's when I found out that I was to be a guest speaker! Because of translation issues (Christine translated to Kinyarwanda), I kept my message short.  I told them that my job at TransFair USA is to listen to their stories, document their lives, and share this information with the world.  Americans love their daily cup of coffee, but it is very rare that we stop and think about where it came from: Who grew the beans and what were the unthinkable challenges associated with this seemingly ordinary act? They received this message well.  They thanked me, and then the secretary of the group stood up to share her story on behalf of her colleagues:

"Our lives are not easy," she began. "We wake up very early with the sun, strap our babies to our backs and head to the field where we tend to the coffee.  We then make sure that our older children get to school on time, and we begin searching for food to prepare for lunch.  In addition to gathering food, we must also find wood for a fire.  Because food is scarce and not easy to prepare, lunch is generally the only meal we eat all day.  After lunch, we return to the fields and tend to the coffee until the sunset.  At night we take care of the children, and after they fall asleep we work on applications for scholarships to help pay for their education.  Then we start all over again the next morning." "Many of us are widows or orphans [because of the genocide], and those who are married are still responsible for all of the work at home and in the coffee fields because our husbands spend the days in the villages trying to earn money.  This is why we formed Hinga Kawa; it is a way for us to sell the coffee that we grew.  It allows us to take pride in our work, and it is also a support network.  It is a time for us to come together and talk about our hardships with other women who have experienced the same challenges.  And it is a time for us to sing and dance... and laugh.  For many women, this meeting might be the only time they've smiled all day."

And with that, the women began to clap as they sang a beautiful song.  This song wasn't beautiful because all of their voices were on key, or because it was accompanied by interesting instruments.  It was beautiful because of the way that the women were able to let go of all their worries and just pour all of their energy into the song.  And then they began to dance!  As they danced, the women approached me one by one to hug me and thank me for visiting them.  Tears poured down my face.  I had never experienced anything so sincere and passionate.  I could go on and on about this part of the meeting, but this video I recorded really says it best:

The women even convinced me to dance with them! At that moment, I realized that all of the work I've been doing at TransFair USA for the past year-and-a-half has been for these women:  women who work so hard every day just to feed their families, to grow their coffee sustainably (100% organic) and to simply survive.  Fair Trade has not made them rich.  Not even close.  But it has given them enough additional income to pay for their eldest child to go to school and still have money left over to feed their other children.  With our help and the continued sales of Rwandan Fair Trade Certified coffee, these women will soon be able to pay for all of their children to go to school... through Fair Trade, not aid.

I promised these women that I would share their story with you.  I also promised them that I would help sell more Rwandan Fair Trade Certified coffee - so do them a favor and look for Rwandan Fair Trade coffee that next time you're at the store.  You can see more pictures from my day with Hinga Kawa right here

04/28/2010 - 9:54 PM
04/28/2010 - 9:54 PM