Eighty Starbucks partners (employees) from Europe, the Middle East and Africa visited Rwanda in May, as part of the 2023 Origin Experience. The goal? To immerse in the story of coffee on the farms where it’s grown.
Similar Origin Experiences occurred earlier this year in Costa Rica, for North American partners, and Indonesia, for those in Asia Pacific. In total, 929 partners company-wide participated in Origin Experience in 2023. Since the program started in 2010, 3,344 partners have visited Origin.
The partners in Rwanda represented a variety of roles and perspectives within the company, from baristas to manufacturing to operations leaders, in both company-owned and licensed markets. They met farmers, agronomists, exporters and buyers; planted coffee seedlings and harvested coffee cherries; and saw how coffee is grown and processed.
See what they experienced, through this photo essay, and hear from partners about what they’re taking away.
Learning about coffee
The lessons begin at Dukundakawa, a farming cooperative where partners learn about the different stages of the coffee plant: how a seed sprouts into a “little soldier” and then a “butterfly” before it’s planted in the ground to become a tree that will bear fruit in 2-3 years.
They harvest cherries from trees that Origin Experience partners planted in 2019.
Later that day, at Abakundakawa, a different cooperative, they see how the coffee is washed, processed and graded in the traditional manner – pushed by paddles along narrow canals – and dried on long, raised beds that stripe the lush green hillsides of Rwanda, a country nicknamed “the land of a thousand hills.” The coffee grown in Rwanda is used in Starbucks blends worldwide – Siren’s Blend, Green Apron Blend and Cold Brew Blend – as well as in high-end Starbucks Reserve selections like Rwanda Sholi and Rwanda Hingakawa.
The importance of a cow
Smallholder, subsistence farmers in Rwanda don’t have enough money for all the fertilizer they need, and often, the only way to get it is by having a cow. Cows make manure, which provides the raw material for compost, which helps coffee farmers improve their production. In the village of Musasa, Origin participants meet Faustin, a farmer who Starbucks gifted with a cow 10 years ago. Since then, he’s increased his yield – from 1.5 kilograms of coffee per tree to 4 kilograms per tree – and he’s used the extra income to pay for his children’s schooling, make improvements to his house and reinvest in his farm.
In communities like Faustin’s, tradition means gifting the first-born female calf to a neighbor in a public ceremony, and partners witness one such heartfelt exchange between families. “If I give you a cow, by default, you’re my friend forever,” says Arsene Mustafali Bin Uwihoreye, an agronomist at the Rwanda Starbucks Farmer Support Center who works with farmers in Musasa to improve yields. “It unites people.”
From there to here
The next morning, partners visit RWACOF, the largest exporter of coffee in Rwanda and Starbucks biggest coffee supplier in the country. After the coffee is processed on the farms and the cooperatives, it’s brought here by truck to the RWACOF dry mill and warehouse to be hulled and sorted – both by hand and a buzzing assembly line of machines. The quality is re-inspected in a lab, where test batches are roasted and screened for taste and issues like Potato Taste Defect. Then it’s all bagged for delivery on container ships.
Partners also visit the Starbucks Rwanda Farmer Support Center to learn how the team helps coffee producers throughout east Africa grow and deliver the best product.
And finally, they meet with representatives from Rwanda’s National Agricultural Export Development Board for a formal presentation about the coffee industry.
History and culture
Throughout the experience, Origin participants learn about how the coffee industry helped Rwanda recover from a violent past. They spend one afternoon in contemplation at the Rwanda Genocide Memorial in Kigali, the capital city, that commemorates the1994 Genocide against the Tutsi when Hutu extremists killed an estimated 1 million people. The memorial sits atop mass graves where an estimated 250,000 people are buried. Many participants come out shaken. Later, they hear the testimonies of the Women of Ineza, the victims of sexual violence during the genocide, who formed a support group and sewing cooperative. For all the sad moments, there are uplifting ones as well. Each cooperative greets Origin participants with welcome dances and singing. One night, a dance troop delights the participants back at the hotel with a beautiful celebratory performance.
A day of service
On the final day, Origin participants visit a small village in the Musenyi sector for a community service project with The Starbucks Foundation and one of the nonprofits it supports, Ripple Effect. The day’s work options – building a cow shed, planting vegetable gardens, plastering the exterior walls of houses, building bricks or constructing rainwater tanks – will help five women in this coffee-growing community, including four widows. The atmosphere is festive. Pop music blares from speakers on a big central field. Dozens of people from the community join the muddy, sweaty work. And afterwards, everyone dances in a big circle. Laurent Munyankusi, country director for Ripple Effect, tells the Starbucks participants, “For you to come here to Rwanda, it’s a big blessing. The only way to address the problems of this world is through partnership.”
Postcards from Rwanda
Joanna Pantechi, store manager, Cyprus (Marinopoulos)
I'm a Starbucks partner now, almost 19 years. This experience has just been very emotional and life changing for me. Over the years I‘ve trained so many partners and I‘ve read a lot of what we've actually seen here. To be able to live it and see it in reality has been overwhelming and so different to seeing something in a book, to see a coffee cherry on a tree and to get to touch it.
As a manager, we‘re always looking at the cost of running a store and the profitability, and I think what I‘ll take back, it‘s so much more than that now. It‘s the value of the coffee, the hard work that's gone in before it‘s reached us, and how important it is for the communities and the countries that supply it, and how important it is to ensure that we give a quality product out to a customer.
Mattia Intorre, packaging machine operator, Starbucks Reserve Roastery, Milan Italy
It‘s really important to cherish the product, and make sure the effort and the sweat that goes into coffee comes through in the final product as a delicious cup. I want to bring back that every effort matters, that every coffee matters. It‘s valuable because there are dozens and dozens of people behind the coffee, and that's the reason why you should do your best to present it and serve it and give it the value it deserves.
Hiba Kalanzi, learning specialist, Jordan (Alshaya)
Every partner needs to know about how coffee is processed, how much time it takes, and how hard these farmers work, and how many women farmers are working. This is a very, very important message we have to deliver back at home.
Naez Bhuiyan, marketing manager, Starbucks UK
I’ve been a partner for nine years. I joined as a part-time barista. The last few days, as I reflect back, it‘s been really about community and coffee. Those two things really stood out for me, how an absolute broken community can come together over coffee, and really go through their healing process to come out the other end and become so strong and so inspiring. That is so infectious. And this is what I‘m going to take back with me, and see what I can channel back, and give back to the partners in the UK.