The 17th Rwanda International Trade Fair
This week we headed over to check out the 17th Rwanda International Trade Fair. The trade expo served to showcase industry professionals from all sectors across Africa. Exciting and buzzing with energy, the fair was overflowing with visitors. Bright lights flickered and the smell of meat brochettes and other delicacies filled the air. Music pumped in the background as people weaved in and out of stalls galore. While there were many informational booths, pushing deep into the center of the expo, you could find people selling wares from Rwanda and across Africa. Street performers cleared circles in the crowded walkways, breakdancing and roller-skating to the loud cheers of onlookers.
Walking stall to stall, I was amazed with the sheer amount of information pouring out of each vendor’s tent. Sure the expo was bustling and fun, with eating, shopping and drinking, but it also was an opportunity for anyone to approach any business or government association (Yes, government agencies had booths too!) and ask any question they might have.
In typical Rwandan style, this fun event was peppered with productivity. Infusing a normal expo-esque event with information and learning, people were getting excited by the expanding business opportunity in their country and region. As I stood over a crowd dancing the night away, live performers taking the stage and revving up the crowd, I felt proud to have the opportunity to explore Rwanda and so lucky to learn from the entrepreneurial spirit that drives business in Rwanda. No opportunity is wasted, no stone left unturned, always with a smile and never forgetting to enjoy the party along the way.
This past weekend Kigali celebrated the arts with a musical festival called Kigali Up. Of course, we couldn’t wait to see what the festival scene of East Africa had to offer. I have been to music festivals in the U.S. and was sure that if my experience in Rwanda thus far was any indication, Kigali Up was guaranteed to be an amazing new take on what I have encountered in the past.
The concert consisted of two stages, one for electronic music and one for live music. In the center, there were stations where concertgoers could indulge in a little shopping for local crafts or munch on offerings from Kigali’s most delicious restaurants and cafes. Stalls were churning out burgers, fries, smoothies and tacos, keeping everyone full and happy. For places like the American-owned Mexican-inspired restaurant, Meze Fresh, Kigali Up served as a stage for local businesses to show what they can do and offered them huge exposure to a wide range of costumers, serving not only as a cultural event but also as an enormous business opportunity.
It truly felt like all of Kigali had come out to celebrate and smile together. The crowd was excited and performers were clearly honored to be participating in the festival. There was a little bit for everyone, the music ranging from electro-dance, to hip-hop, to rap, to soul, to jazz, to blues and, of course, traditional African. For me, it was exciting to see that there was an audience for every genre, always a crowd of people eagerly waiting for the next show.
Overall, Kigali Up was a definite success. The sheer existence of an event like Kigali Up showcases the Rwandan attitude towards creativity that makes this place so special. While traditional arts and music are treasured, innovation and foreign influences are embraced, mixing and changing, to create something modern and exciting. It is this amalgamation of cultures, resulting in festivals and cultural events like Kigali Up, that defines Rwanda today and is absolutely part of what makes it such a unique and extraordinary place.
This week I traveled to the Northern district of Musanze to learn more about the farming and agricultural culture in Rwanda. Musanze, noteably the epicenter for potato farming in the region, gains its fame from some very popular hairy residents, the infamous Rwandan Mountain Gorillas. While most tourists dart up to the the volcanoes of Virunga National Park upon their arrival to Musanze, the district is home to approximately 350,069 human inhabitants, most of whom work on their own farms.
One of the most picturesque and beautiful places imaginable, I was always taken aback by the patchwork rolling hills of the region. Dotted with farmers hard at work donning their colorful local garb against the stunning vibrant green natural backdrop, it looks like something out of a fairytale. Every farmer has claim to their own small plot of land, an owner and an operator. The hills have grown to become a representation of their keepers, each elevation covered with all sort of different vegetation. I wondered to myself, how do each one of these farmers manage the sale of their crops to a local market and how on earth do all of these individual producers decide on things like price?
The answer the farmers of Rwanda have found are cooperatives or co-ops. Organizing themselves at the community level, groups of farmers and land keepers have decided to band together, selling their personal crops in group offerings to work towards mutual goals of high returns and fair trading. It is the same model through which farmers sell their green coffee beans to Coffee of Grace, working together and building community ties to assure everyone succeeds. The beauty of cooperatives reaches beyond the sale of produce, coops work with their members to secure financing that helps to assure high quality produce and, in turn, pushes the price the farmer can receive for their crop higher, empowering local farmers to become entrepreneurs deand scholars. Though I love the patchwork the fills the rolling hills of Musanze, it is even more beautiful to see the quilt it creates when sewn together.
While everyone back home was enjoying their stars and stripes, over here in Kigali, we were celebrating a very different independence. July 4th is know as Liberation Day, or Kwibohora, in Rwanda and serves to commemorate the struggle towards liberation from oppression, celebrating the end of the genocide.
In 1994, havoc swept the country for a 100 days where it is estimated that 1 million people were murdered because of their ethnicity. Deep ethnic divides and social and political tensions established under Belgian colonial rule set the stage for the atrocity of genocide. As the international community watched and took no action, 10,000 were murdered every day, 400 every hour, 7 every minute. However, President Kagame stood for his people and led the charge to end the killings.
Liberation Day serves to remember this struggle and lives lost, but has also grown into a celebration to honor the progress that has been made. There is a special effort to recognize acts of reconciliation that have allowed the country to flourish. This year was especially significant, marking the 20th commemoration of the end of the genocide.
To join the celebration, we headed over to Amahora Stadium. Packed to the brim, citizens of Rwanda and guests from abroad gathered to watch a military parade and hear remarks from the Presidents of South Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, and of course, the celebrated President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame. We watched as the military band marched in formation, followed by several army representatives, including a group of disabled soldiers who were injured in the fight to end the genocide. The procession was followed by traditional drumming and dancing as excitement filled the air as President Kagame took the podium.
It is true that Liberation Day serves as a time of reflection, but it also exists to acknowledge the importance of moving forward. In my time in Rwanda, I have noticed this theme time and time again, the value of being thoughtful of the past while not letting it inhibit your ability to be ambitious and dream big. As President Kagame said, “each milestone we reach allows us to do more to confront other challenges and overcome them”.
Welcome to Green Beans and Rwandan Dreams! My name is Kelsey and over the next two months I will be in Rwanda, learning, exploring and sharing my story with Coffee of Grace enthusiasts. Please check in weekly to learn about the culture and people of Rwanda and the process through which we are able to bring the highest quality coffee in the world from the beautiful rolling hills of Rwanda to your home.
To understand just how special Coffee of Grace is, it is paramount to understand the story of Rwanda and its people. In the 20 years since the genocide that decimated the country, the people of Rwanda have found the strength and courage to rebuild and forgive with the gusto and grace that many developed nations lack. Families took in neighbors’ children, refusing to let those orphaned by the war remain homeless and alone. Those who fled returned home, feeling the obligation to their fellow countrymen to contribute to the rebirth of their nation. One of the first things you notice about Rwanda is the sense of community. Everyone is kind and warm. No matter who you are or where you come from, arriving in Rwanda is like being welcomed by a countrywide family.
Last night I shared dinner with a young man named Bryan. Bryan’s family was forced out of Rwanda in the 1950s after violence erupted, leaving them refugees in neighboring Burundi. Raised in Burundi and schooled in South Africa, Bryan has returned to Rwanda to capture the opportunity that now exists in his home country. He spoke eloquently and passionately about his country. He spoke of the responsibility of each and every Rwandan to help their neighbors. Most strikingly, he spoke of how this responsibility was not to give collections at church or money to someone in a small remote village, but instead to restore hope and to encourage those struggling to pick themselves up with the support of their community and to give them the chance to start again. Bryan recently organized for a group of his friends to return to the village where two of his friends were born. Now living in the capital city, Kigali, and successful businessmen, the men began to return to their home village monthly. With no formal organization, they encouraged all of their friends to join as they could and contribute however much financially as they felt comfortable with. The group has since built family homes for five families and have provided foodstuffs and school fees for children. Bryan alone is sponsoring 4 kids’ education this year. He was most proud, however, of the progress people in the village had created themselves. One man, infected with HIV and father to twelve children, was so hopeless when they first arrived that he was unable to get out of bed. A few months later, through hard work and the encouragement and guidance from Bryan and his friends, the man had begun a small store. Each day he rose with purpose, left his house and interacted with his community, something that seemed impossible only a few months before.
So what does the story of Bryan have to do with Coffee of Grace? The answer is simple. By supporting direct trade that provides farmers with above average prices, we have the opportunity to restore hope. We have the opportunity to do what Bryan has done and shift the story of one person from that of fear to ambition. Charity is important and necessary, but to give someone the gift of employment is truly groundbreaking. By giving someone half way across the world business you are giving them purpose. Just like Bryan, we have the power to affect change through a hand up rather than a hand out, and that is truly the beauty of Coffee of Grace.