Editor’s note: Blas often travels to other countries to visit farmers who supply Fulcrum with single origin beans. The following is one of the stories from our search for great coffee.
The Welcoming Song
The welcoming song covered emerald fields filled with ripe bourbon coffee.
As Blas and company piled out of a white Toyota van, a dozen villagers formed a circle around four Rwandan dancers who moved in rhythmic grace through a series of steps and gesture, with their brightly patterned clothing flashing in the dusky light. A villager in a white dress shirt beat a drum in time with long flat sticks that looked like a ladle, his lilting voice traveling out over the evening.
From the vantage point on the hill where the dancers clapped and sang, Blas and his fellow travelers saw Lake Kivu. The lake is the region’s defining feature: a source of food, the regulator of weather, a means of transportation. It looked like a mirror. It was hard to tell where the green hills ended and the islands of Lake Kivu began.
“When I stepped out of the van, my brain got caught up in some type of ecstasy, because the view of the lake was so surreal,” says Blas. “The lake is at least 1,400 meters above sea level, so you know every single coffee that’s coming from there is high-altitude grade coffee.”
The song ended and the villagers welcomed Blas and his fellow coffee industry specialists to the village of Rubengera, a municipality in the Rutsiro District. At the village’s entrance there was a large sign that read, “Let’s keep our workplace clean it’s our home. Dear worker or visitor, please deposit your trash in dust bin nearby.”
‘When I stepped out of the van, my brain got caught up in some type of ecstasy, because the view of the lake was so surreal,’ says Blas.
What makes a society admirable? Whether it’s the natural beauty of the locale, a high level of organization and equity, or the presence of art, the cooperative farms of Kopakama undoubtedly comprise a beautiful society in all regards.
A place filled with song is a place where good work is done.
A Beautiful Tomorrow
Kopakama members are used to visitors. The ritualized welcoming dances are not uncommon; they are a natural outflow and expression of local culture. Music and dance are an integral part of Rwandan ceremonies, social gatherings and storytelling.
The village of Rubengera has been the site of ongoing work with Twin, a Non-Governmental Organization. Twin helps to strengthen the coffee supply chain by promoting quality, gender equality, sustainable agriculture, and certifications.
These certifications are no small thing. Fair trade and organic coffees can fetch much higher prices, money that can then go back into developing and improving infrastructure for coffee production.
Significantly, Kopakama has formed within itself a collective of women farmers. They call themselves Ejo Heza, a Kinyawanda phrase that means “a beautiful tomorrow.” That gives you an idea of where the people of Kopakama are coming from: one eye to the quality of today’s product, one eye to what’s coming for generations down the line.
While in Rwanda, Blas worked alongside with Twin’s Coffee Marketer for East Africa, Mollie Moisan. Together they went out of the village to a hillside plot of land. This area overlooked the patchwork fields of the Kopakama Cooperative. The plot of land was to become a farm. There was a group of about thirty villagers there, preparing the dry rocky soil for planting. There were workers up and down the hillside, moving rocks and swinging adzes and hoes into the dirt, digging holes as other villagers brought them coffee plant seedlings. Mollie and Blas joined in the work under the hot sun.
‘The whole town was there,’ says Blas. ‘The whole community got together to plant these trees. That’s the sense of cooperatives.’
The work was hot and dusty. A field this size would take a farmer about two years to cultivate. With a few dozen cooperative members it would take about a week. “The whole town was there,” says Blas. “The whole community got together to plant these trees. That’s the sense of cooperatives.”
One day Blas very well might roast the coffee seeds from the trees he helped to plant on the hillside that day, completing the full circle of coffee supply chain.
At Fulcrum we want to go to where it all starts, to get a feel for the lay of the land and hear the songs that surround the coffee.
A Dream for the Future
When starting a farm, the hardest part is moving the rocks and planting the trees. It’s an intensive investment of labor, done with a hope and a dream for the future. Today Twin, Fulcrum (with the help of Atlas Coffee Importers), and the farmers of the Kopakama Collective are working side by side to create their own version of Ejo Heza—a beautiful tomorrow—on the shores of Lake Kivu.
For the future of coffee to be sustainable, it is important that we encourage more young people to be interested in coffee farming.
One of the best ways to do this is to continue to create jobs for the next generation. Young women of Rubengera are finding employment in the fields of coffee, women like Grace Masengesho.
“I’m a field officer at Kopakama,” says Grace, a 26-year-old field officer. “This year, we have been supplying all of our lead farmers with shade seedlings. For the future of coffee to be sustainable, it is important that we encourage more young people to be interested in coffee farming. I’m proud that Kopakama has employment opportunities for young people like me to be involved in the coffee value chain.”