The Challenges Group
Jul 26 · 8 min read

A year after he joined the Challenges Rwanda team to head up our Rwandan Coffee project, Neil Walker reflects on his time in a country of beauty, optimism and contrast.

Image: Laura Mulkerne

Rwanda is a breath-taking country. Its rolling verdant hills show off a colour that’s greener than green. Stunning views stretch out across lush valleys of rice paddies and maize fields, their surrounds rising upwards into coffee and tea plantations, before fading into nothing as they stretch up into the misty altitudes. It’s no exaggeration: the Le Pays des Mille Collines (French for Land of a Thousand Hills) is more astounding than words can convey.

Travelling through this tiny land is a constant climb or descent, though you can’t go far before meeting someone. Rwanda is a tiny land — dwarfed by its regional neighbours — and heavily populated.

Image: Laura Mulkerne

Walking into a washing station, where this morning’s cup of coffee came from, the hubbub of activity hits you. The women chatting, laughing, singing as they deftly pick through the washed green beans. The growl of the depulper, one of very few mechanised aspects of the coffee production process. The rumble of car engines as buyers and partners come and go in their travel weary Land-Rovers.

From manager and accountant to seasonal worker, the coffee co-operatives works with a single purpose and ambition, something that has always felt distinctively Rwandan to me.

Early this year, I remember being taken up into a plantation that overlooked the magnificent Lake Kivu, a world away from the pristine tech-friendly capital, Kigali.

I was introduced to a middle-aged lady carrying a large cloth sack and wearing a determined, sure-footed look as she weaved through the trees and undergrowth. A farmer (and widow) for decades, she told us she’d once had 10 coffee trees. Twenty years later she had more than 200. She owned them all, she proudly stated, before continuing her purposeful meandering through the forest, disappearing into the dark green foliage.

Taking over programme management of a multi-year £1.3m project across eight sites stretching across western and southern Rwanda, I only had a small inkling of what I would soon be completely immersed in. The coffee supply and value chain, from cherry to cup, the strong, cohesive Rwandan community, and how all of this could inform Challenges’ work in capacity building and economic strengthening.

Image: Laura Mulkerne

By July 2018, the project had started, but wasn’t yet out of first gear. Those already working on the project — business trainers and community facilitators — had conducted the baseline assessment of the eight coffee cooperatives taking part. Challenges Rwanda’s business trainers had begun to design and adapt our accredited Chartered Management Institute training to fit the requirements of the cooperative management team, the principal recipients of the content, which ranged from financial management to leadership best practise. For our trainees, even the introductory aspects of our CMI business coursework was the first time they had received training of this type. It was also an education for me and the team, as was every round of training since!

Over the past year, our business trainers have learned, adapted and utilised every bit of the local environment, beneficiary feedback and personal and organisational knowledge to create a series of impactful and long-term training programmes that all of us at Challenges are truly proud of. Indeed, such is our team’s expertise in this field that two of our trainers — Liza Imbonabake and Jonas Munsabire — travelled to Lilongwe to pass on their skills and knowledge to Challenges Malawi trainers.

A less easily defined or direct aspect of the Challenges engagement was working with the communities to overcome the obstacles that impede economic growth. You may wonder, as I first did, what that even means? How do you identify and address those issues. And then how to engage robust monitoring and evaluation to see whether you’ve made a positive contribution?

Image: Laura Mulkerne

The first thing we did was to go back to the communities themselves, and ask them what they perceived their ‘issues’ to be; and what they thought the solutions could be. It seems an obvious step but for many within the international development ecosystem this approach is deemed radical!

Personally, I believe participatory development should be the driver of all development programmes, and that it’s pure arrogance to assume we know the problems of those in rural communities better than they do. And it’s arrogance, too, to assume we have all the answers.

All of us in The Challenges Group pride ourselves on our ability to adapt and learn to create human-centred design solutions to systemic issues. Our specialty is being able to understand the on-the-ground detail while being able to see the bigger picture. This focus on the communities is at the heart of Challenges’ ethos and expertise.

When I look back at the last year in this particular output of the project, it is in this aspect I feel the most pride in the project. By demonstrating humility and behaving respectfully, and by always working with the beneficiary in mind, we have begun a process of genuine impact and meaningful change. For example, from August 2018 to January of this year, we delivered a series of workshops to groups of young people in Huye in Southern Province of Rwanda. The positive impact of these workshops is easy to see:

  • The workshops on entrepreneurship ranged from business ideation to sales and marketing, with each attended by between 60 and 80 young people, the majority of whom were women.
  • Stemming from these workshops, a variety of viable business plans were proposed, with each formed around ambitious and sustainable ideas that fed back to the communities.
  • As a direct result we are very proud to now be supporting three nascent businesses and providing them with access to finance and technical assistance.

Other implementations have been equally impactful.

We’ve worked with solar business BBoxx to deliver household solar kits to communities by holding workshops and encouraging partnerships, and we’ve seen young people involved in our programmes since hired by the solar giant! As well as new job opportunities, by illuminating homes within the coffee co-op communties, school work and small businesses can flourish, offering new opportunities for individuals.

We will also be working with Oxfam Rwanda and its local partners RICH to work with young women in these rural communities to combat gender-based violence (GBV) and unwanted teenage pregnancy. GBV and teenage pregnancies are not just societal problems, they’re economic ones. Having children at an early age has a negative impact on the individual’s ability to earn for herself, for example, while the issues with GBV are countless.

As part of our coffee project, Challenges has partnered with the non-profit organisation Twin, and its marketing department Twin Trading. Twin has been working with each cooperative to deliver quality improvement training, price risk management and future’s markets training, but perhaps most importantly working globally from its London office to sell the coffee beans of the cooperatives involved in this innovative project.

The cooperatives are at different stages of a similar journey. Some are large institutions selling several containers’ worth of coffee globally; some are smaller, more communal, and entering the international market as exporters for the first time. Co-operatives exporting earn much more per kilo; price increases that directly improve the smallholder farmer’s income.

Coupled with working with the cooperative to gain certification such as Rainforest Alliance, Organic or otherwise, Challenges and Twin’s collaboration has had a significant impact on hundred’s of people’s livelihoods.

Our strategic partnerships have also yielded bountiful harvests in Scotland. Our work with the Scottish Fair Trade Forum (SFTF) included working with media production companies in both Glasgow (Media Co-op) and Kigali (MyStory) to create a short film that would be shown to parliamentarians in Holyrood and Rwandan farmers alike.

Aimable Nshimye, with Amy Oroko (Matthew Algie), Martin Rhodes (SFTF) and Eoghan Mackie (Challenges) in Glasgow. Image: Martin Shields.

And earlier this year, SFTF, Challenges and Twin combined to celebrate the programme across several weeks during Fairtrade Fortnight and other events in the UK across February and March. The manager of the Sholi co-operative, Aimable Nshimye, attended events at Montgomery Street Lane in Edinburgh and Matthew Algie’s headquarters in Glasgow on behalf of the project’s beneficiaries, taking the opportunity to promote Rwandan coffee, and with his calm, friendly demeanour, Rwanda itself. The collaboration with Twin and SFTF demonstrates the benefits of working together to create exciting possibilities and sustainable, long-lasting solutions.

Finally, with the support of the Climate Justice funding from the Scottish Government, we’ve seen a waste-water site installed at one washing station in Western Province (after being used in coffee washing, water becomes toxic to environment and people) and a solar PV system in another co-op in Southern Province.

The water treatment site is an implementation so effective and with such value for money that the Scottish Government has issued further capital to ensure that all co-operatives in the project will receive one. The solar PV is a massive breakthrough. For one co-operative, it is the first time their washing station and office has access to electricity. It is an indication of the exciting possibilities by working with coffee and clean tech.

Now, to the future. This project has not only delivered meaningful change, it promises even greater opportunities to come. Working with agroforestry is one: shade-grown coffee is better quality, while also benefiting the local ecosystem by stopping soil degradation and offering opportunities to diversify farmers’ incomes by including fruit and timber to be sold later on.

And we will of course continue to develop partnerships with clean tech companies to support local communities gain greater access to water and electricity. The sector is becoming ever more innovative, with Rwanda, like many African counties, leading the way in solar take-up.

Coffee remains a volatile commercial product. Giants such as Brazil and Columbia dominate the international market, while the impact of our changing climate bodes upheavals in ways of life. Coffee has taken Rwanda a long way, but now halfway through this project Challenges Rwanda are already looking beyond to the wider possibilities within agribusiness and clean tech, and will continue to support efforts to ensure income generation opportunities.

The Challenges Group

Enterprising solutions to global challenges

The Challenges Group

Written by

The Challenges Group

Enterprising solutions to global challenges

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