Making Connections in the Rwandan Countryside

Yesterday we had the pleasure to visit a coffee washing station for Buf Coffee supported by Root Capital out in the countryside of Rwanda. It was about a 4 hour drive from Kigali (the capital) to the village we visited and it was a pleasure to get out of the city for a day. The rolling verdant hills and fields reminded me of home in Vermont, with a few key differences. Although the main road was nicely paved, almost all of the side roads are made of dirt with washboarding and potholes so significant you really shouldn’t be driving on the roads in anything less than a 4×4 (or a motorbike). Also, there were very few vehicles on the road and almost all of them were commercial vehicles transporting goods, not passenger vehicles with families out for a Saturday drive. Finally, Rwanda is the most populated country in sub-Saharan Africa and it was apparent in the countryside how little land each family has available. Compared to the large, technology-driven farms in Vermont, these farms seemed very small and it was clear how much manual labor is required to produce each grain of rice and bundle of plantains.

When we finally made it to the coffee washing station, it was amazing to see the operation they had set up to purchase coffee from 5,000 farmers and then use a wet mill, fermentation, separation, and dry mill process to turn the freshly picked coffee into parchment coffee and then green coffee. The co-op then exports the green coffee to companies like Intelligentsia and Starbucks and Costco to roast the coffee and distribute internationally. In 2003, the country made a huge effort to do more coffee processing within the country so that they could get more money for their high quality coffee than they could by exporting the coffee fruit without doing any processing. The station we saw was one of the first in the country to do just that. At the end of the visit, we got to speak with the woman who built the station in 2003 and hear about how she single handedly raised 8 kids AND started the business. 7/8 of her children are now working in the coffee business and one of them has even started his own spinoff business. The co-op brings additional jobs to the community and is also responsible for bringing the local spring water to the community to provide closer access to clean water.

Beyond the operation itself, the best part of the day were the connections that we made with the kids in the village and with each other on the drive back. Our two buses caused quite a scene as they turned off the main road and drove on kilometers of very steep, narrow, washed out dirt roads up to the coffee washing station. Kids of all ages waved at us and said hello with big smiles on their faces. We were clearly an unusual sight and they were interested to see who we were and what we were doing there. Near the end of the visit to the co-op, they organized themselves and began singing and dancing for us to show us their community and culture. It was a moment I am sure I will never forget.

On the bus ride back from the village, my day became even more amazing when my bus decided to host The Yarn, which is the Sloan version of The Moth. Although getting up to share a personal story in front of a group can feel intimidating, I was so impressed with my tripmates’ candor, humor, and vulnerability as they shared stories of love, loss, and adventure. We told stories all the way from the village back to Kigali and it was such a special moment to be able to connect with other Sloanies away from the pressures of academics, career searches, and the like. It is such a privilege to be traveling with this amazing group across sub-Saharan Africa and I am looking forward to developing even deeper connections as we move on from Kigali to Dar es Salaam this morning!

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