Rwanda Origin trip brings together those who grow coffee and those who sell, serve it

Story, photos and video by Joshua Trujillo / Starbucks Newsroom

When it’s quiet enough, I can still hear the sounds. The memory will always stand out to me of being at the Dukunde Kawa Cooperative, a mostly women-run collective which produces high-end coffee. As the women worked, rotating and sifting coffee on the drying tables, they hummed. Cows mooed in the distance as the wind rustled leaves on nearby coffee trees. It was beautiful.

It was my first visit to Africa. Everything was new to me. I want to remember it all: the lush green hills, the rich red soil, the smell of freshly turned earth and the broad smiles of the people I met. I’ve been a journalist for nearly 20 years and have done a lot of traveling and exploring but had never been to Africa.

Last month, I went to Rwanda with a group of Starbucks partners on an Origin Experience, an annual event where Starbucks partners from various parts of the world travel to meet local farmers and others who grow, pick and dry the coffee sold in the stores. It’s designed to help build connection, so that those selling the coffee understand where it came from and can share stories of the people who worked to grow it.

While the Rwanda Origin Experience is about coffee and learning about production, it also works to shatter stereotypes. Before I went, when I told people I was going to Rwanda some would say, “Oh wait, you’re going there?” All they really knew of the place was what happened in 1994.

That was when one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by Hutu extremist in a horrific genocide – that’s mostly what people know about when they think of Rwanda. A lot of the storytelling we see in the U.S. about Africa, which is of course a large continent and very diverse, is conflict-related or social issues-related. Terrible things are often highlighted. But there is so much more there.

On this Rwanda Origin Experience, we were immersed in the beauty and the magic of the place while simultaneously being exposed to some of the history and some of the challenges. We paid a respectful visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre where two Starbucks leaders, Cliff Burrows and Martin Brok, laid wreaths at a mass grave, the final resting place of some 250,000 people who perished.

I was also able to witness something called Umuganda. It’s the last Saturday of the month, where neighbors in every community across the country come together and work on a community service project. It’s part of Rwanda’s reconciliation and is compulsory – even the president comes out and does it. On that day, residents work alongside their neighbors -- both Hutu and Tutsi.

When the service project for that month is done, they sit down to have a meeting. They discuss their community’s challenges and issues. It’s community building and even democracy — they vote on some things — on a small scale. The one I attended had neighbors talking about respecting women, and a drainage issue. In fact, the meetings are often led by women.

Involvement of women in Rwandan civics and government, accompanied by a post-genocide constitutional rule that mandates 30 percent of legislative seats be occupied by women, has led to Rwanda now having the highest global percentage of women in their legislative branch. Today Rwanda’s legislative body is more than 60 percent female.

The land of a thousand hills

In Rwanda, seemingly everywhere you look are hills. It’s actually known as “the land of a thousand hills.” There are constant, rolling, green hills. They look like they have a green quilt draped over them because of the patterns that agriculture and cultivation cut into the dramatic landscape. Coffee farmers going to the mill put their harvest in a bag tied to their bicycles and ride up and down all those hills.

The land’s green lushness is amplified by the rich, red soil. Then it rains, it turns to slippery mud, sometimes covering the roads. One day the buses that were transporting the Starbucks Origin Experience participants got stuck in the mud. People seemed to come out of nowhere to help push the large buses out of the thick Rwandan mud. Everyone was laughing together, pushing and some were even falling down in the mud.

We experienced so much community. We were immersed in culture. We saw traditional dancing, drumming and singing. We visited government officials, had a meeting with the minister of agriculture and spent time with farmers.

When you hold a coffee bean in your hand, it is amazing to think about all the work that has gone into that one bean — and how many people have had a hand in producing it. It’s changed how I think about coffee.

thumbnail for New Starbucks merch collaboration celebrates togetherness and joy in the everyday

New Starbucks merch collaboration celebrates togetherness and joy in the everyday