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Waking up, I hear fisherman in the distance piercing through the still water of Lake Kivu in their hand-carved wooden boats. In harmony, the fishermen sing a rich song of courage. With spears in hand, they fish Sambaza, the small local delicacy of the region. The sun is just rising, casting its glow across the Western edge of the country as it beams off the glossy body of water. The air is gentle and the energy is refreshing. As a visitor, it feels like magic as I sip on my morning coffee and look out over the lake. It feels other-worldly, but for folks of Rutsiro in Western Rwanda, this is just another day as the abundance of colorful native birds soar through the clear skies.

My first visit to Rutsiro region had been in 2006, twelve years prior to my most recent visit in May of 2018, and 12 years after the infamous genocide of ‘94. The country looked and felt quite different in 2006 than it does today. The beauty of the diverse expressive landscape and the strength of the thoughtful, resilient people remains. However, in 2006, the country was still quite tender and in rebuilding mode after the genocide took nearly a tenth of the population. At the time, leaders across the country had charted out where they wanted to be and how they wanted to get there to foster healing and generate a sustainable economy. There was deep hope and a sense of what needed to be done. One of the key components of Rwanda’s vision to sustainably rejuvenate the economy was through specialty coffee production (before my first visit, I was unaware that Rwanda even grew coffee).

Ejo Heza coffee drying stations

Prior to the mid-2000s, specialty coffee was not being exported from Rwanda. Coffee existed, but it fell out of focus in the late 90s or early 2000s. The mountainous land, rich soil, and high elevations are all prime for coffee growing. So, with some support and studying coffee production in neighboring countries, Rwanda built washing stations throughout the country. They started training individual farmers and began producing coffee that has made its way onto coffee menus all across the world. Today, coffee is the number one export in Rwanda, a country just a tenth the size of the state of Michigan and it is continually recognized as a prominent producer of speciality coffee even as they continue to develop and mature their processes.

On my most recent visit in 2018, I had the chance to visit the Ejo Heza coffee project. For me, Ejo Heza is an expression of what makes Rwanda, Rwanda. It offers creativity, elegance, and expression as it engages with depth and challenges. Ejo Heza translates from Kinyarwanda to “A Beautiful Tomorrow”. It’s an all-women’s coffee group that began in 2010 in partnership with KOPAKAMA Cooperative. Historically in Rwanda, women were responsible for tending the fields and working with the crops, thus making an all-female team growing coffee a natural fit. In addition, the group was developed to bring the community together. Following the genocide, 70% of the population were women, leaving many widowed. Though the Rustiro community has a mix of backgrounds, today ethnic designation has been outlawed and Rwandans are encouraged to identify as Rwandan, discarding ethnic labels. Ejo Heza goes a step further, with the women coming together to work as team members.

The KOPAKAMA Cooperative

During my time visiting the project, I got to meet a few dozen of the farmers. In total, Ejo Heza has 382 members, more than doubling its membership from its inception in 2010. The members each have individual plots next to their homes, partnering together on additional community plots. We visited a community plot where they practice and test out sustainable agricultural techniques. Currently, they are studying different traditional ground covers for the coffee, and they were able to share with me their findings on the most suitable native canopy trees that they grow to offer shade for the coffee. The members of Ejo Heza meet regularly, receiving training in sustainable agricultural practices (from cherry selection to pruning techniques to suggested soil nutrients), with each member delivering their coffee to the centrally-located washing station.

After visiting the community plot, I spent time with the team at KOPAKAMA where the coffee is processed and washed. They have an impressive set-up paired with stunning views, which is actually quite common in the country known as the “Land of a Thousand Hills.” The processing follows the common traditional washed style: cherries are received, then floated, pulped, fermented, stomped, graded & washed, soaked, pre-dried, dried, then stored—all before being sorted for export. Everything was well-organized and specific. Initially, I had been invited on the visit to offer some suggestions and feedback to help improve the quality and, while I always have a couple of ideas, I was left mostly silent and impressed by the process with little to add.

Ejo Heza all-women's collective

Throughout the day I spent some time with the members of Ejo Heza and received a glimpse of what it takes to make an organization like this sing brightly. We shared lunch together, which is an everyday staple at the washing station, and then we visited a few more coffee plots winding up, down, and around a few of the thousand lush, fertile and vibrant hills.

The day ended, similar to how it began: next to Lake Kivu. This time, I was enjoying a Mützig Lager, rather than a coffee, and enjoyed fried Sambaza, that was likely caught that morning. As I enjoyed a beer with my new Rwandan friends, we spent the evening together sharing stories, having a few laughs and talking about much more than simply coffee. The sun set, as beautiful, if not more so, than the way it rose earlier that day. After a few beers, we turned in for the evening.

Farmer holding coffee

The following day started quite similar to the previous. I woke up to the sun rising, and beautiful songs of courage echoing in the background. I cupped coffee with a few of the members at Ejo Heza and traded contact information. Over the weeks that followed I was able to receive and cup quite a few samples from Ejo Heza and share them with the QC team in Grand Rapids.

Aside from a story about strong people working with coffee and community to cultivate a better tomorrow, Ejo Heza produces coffee that is absolutely brilliant.

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