Sarah Buchanan is the Founder and Director of Kula Project. She has a degree in International Development and has been working in subsistence farming regions throughout Africa for seven years. With the belief that local communities know what they need more than anyone else, She has worked exclusively with coffee farming families since 2013, empowering them to create and own their community’s sustainable development programs. Sarah splits her time between Atlanta, Georgia and Kigali, Rwanda.
Hey Sarah, thank you for spending some time to chat to Blaire Magazine today. We love your vision and we're very excited about sharing it with the world. Firstly, how has your day been? What have you been up to?
My day has been great! We shot our fall campaign in May, and we received the photos this morning, so our team has been drooling over them all day.
What are you currently working on? Any exciting, new projects?
Right now, we are finishing the construction of our very first coffee washing station in Rwanda. A washing station is the place where the coffee our farmers harvest become the coffee that we drink. If a community doesn’t have one, they get almost nothing for their coffee, and our community didn’t have one, so together, we are building it. It’s very exciting because by simply building this station, our families will increase their income up to ten fold.
So for those who are unfamiliar with the Kula Project, can you give us your elevator pitch please?
Kula Project invests in the dreams and business of coffee farmers in Rwanda.
Why did you become inspired with this vision?
I studied International Development in college, and with that, I had some internships throughout Eastern and Southern Africa. Over and over again, I saw organisations building these projects that would eventually fail because they simply never asked the community if they needed it. That was the biggest problem I saw in development: the lack of community involvement. So, in 2012, I started Kula, and after spending so much time with our ladies in Rwanda, we quickly learned that we could make a deep and sustainable impact if we focused on coffee.
What has been the most impacting story that you have heard from a farmer and made you think, 'okay this situation seriously needs to change...?’
I honestly don’t think I could pick one that has been the most impacting because there have been so many that have been incredibly motivating for us as an organisation. One of the most impacting moments for us happened last year when we were asked to meet with a group of women who had heard about our work. We pulled up to 48 women sitting on hand-carved wooden stools awaiting our arrival. A woman named Shantal stood up and began to share the group’s story. She said the name of their cooperation was Turwane K’ubuzima which translates to ‘Fight to Live.’ All of the women are living with HIV/AIDS that was contracted during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, and they desperately need help earning a sustainable income. We learned they had organised themselves a few years ago in effort to get antiretroviral medicines from Partners in Health. Once they were able to guarantee their medicine, they started a savings circle, allowing them to buy a piece of land – which explained why they had invited us to meet them. The Fight to Live Cooperative wanted to turn their land into a coffee farm, and they asked us for help. When we asked them why coffee, Shantal said, ‘we want our children to be able to go to school. The income from this land will guarantee that.’ Coffee trees can produce income for more than thirty years. She told us that the women had signed contracts naming successors to their portions of the trees and income should they succumb to their disease before their children finish school, so no matter what, these coffee trees could fund an education. It’s stories like these that provide the basis for why we do what we do.
What I find fascinating about the Kula project, is that you also invest time into sourcing out leaders amongst the community and educating them to educate the community. How did this strategy come about, and how do you identify a leader?
We started Kula with the belief that Africans have the best solutions for African problems. So, our programs have always started with finding a local leader that has not only built a strong rapport within the community, but truly knows the issues it faces and has ideas on how to solve them. Additionally, working this way creates a very different dynamic with our families because they know from the very beginning that we are a partner, not a boss, and that we are a friend, not a tourist.
How do you feel as though your strategy is helping strengthen the community?
It affirms the inherent dignity of the men and women we get to work with. Our program development begins with our US team and our Rwandan team sitting in a room or underneath a tree with the members of the coffee cooperative discussing the problems they are facing, how they think it could be solved, and how they plan to be involved in the solving of it. What we didn’t expect to see was how the benefits would flood outside of coffee. Being together in community meetings has created even more ideas, and sub-groups of our ladies have even started other businesses based on what they’ve learned from our meetings. So, we have the honour of helping them achieve those goals as well.
You specifically focus on aiding coffee farmer families. A question for the general population, is why aren’t these coffee farmers making a better living? Where has the system failed them?
The system fails them at almost every step. There is so much talk in the coffee community about how to make coffee sustainable, but Kula is fighting to tell them, ‘hey, if you don’t start investing in the communities that grow your coffee, the discussion on how to make coffee sustainable will be irrelevant because there won’t be any to save.’ The fact is, our ladies do not grow coffee because they just love the thought of people drinking it in the morning. They grow coffee because they want to send their kids to school. So if they aren’t earning the income they need to do that from coffee, they will find something else.
The profit sharing of coffee has to change. The way we buy it has to change. We have to look into the supply chain to know without a doubt the farmers are actually getting the money and treatment they require and deserve. We have to be willing to invest in farm inputs and climate adaptation training. We all can. Every person that drinks coffee can and every person that works in the coffee chain can change the lives of the people that grow it, they just have to choose to do it. But we all have to understand that if nothing changes, at some point in the not so distant future, we won’t even have this choice to make.
Where do you see this evolving?
I think we will start looking more into creating and fostering direct buying relationships and lobbying the coffee community to actually invest in the women and men that grow coffee. All of our families ask us to help them find someone to buy their coffee, so we know we can make a great impact that way.
There must have been a moment in time where you realised that this path you have chosen has changed your entire perspective on life. Can you share this with us?
I never expected to work in Africa. I definitely never expected to work with farmers, but I do, and I can only assume that I do because I was made to do it. I own and run a non-profit in a region of the United States that is still plagued with racism, that I didn’t even understand ran as deeply as it did until I started raising money to fund an African project. It has repeatedly broken my heart and the hearts of my team, and we really struggle with it. I think the first time I realised it was about four months after we started. I was explaining what we are doing to a group of people, and they were completely lit up and excited, until the second I mentioned, ‘oh, and we work in Rwanda.’ After that, everything changed. The comments that followed were full of racial stereotypes and ignorance, and that hit me like a ton of bricks. This has greatly changed my perspective on race, nationalism, isolationism, etc. and I speak for my team when I say we struggle every day trying to maintain our focus and not be distracted by the words of others.
Would you ever consider selling Kula Project coffee to help support these farmers?
Yes, we are currently figuring out what it looks like to do that now.
We're on the topic of 'time' this month and I have been questioning people’s perspectives of what time means to them. Firstly, how do you feel as though the community you work close with value their time?
We’ve come to learn that in some ways, they value their time the same as we do in the US. They also have businesses to run, work to do, families to provide for, etc. But in other ways, they seem to value time very differently. Whereas here, people seem to often sacrifice what’s truly important to them in order to do what they think they have to do. In Rwanda, people seem to be willing to put aside anything and everything for what’s truly important. That’s something they never seem to sacrifice.
What is time?
Time is a paradox.
Time can be the exact opposite experience as it is for you than it is for me, but yet we are experiencing it in the same moment.
You can be in a beautiful moment of time, and wish it would just pause and give you a bit more of itself, just that once, to be able to experience that moment for just a little while longer.
But while you’re asking for it to slow down, and pause, and gift itself to you, someone else is going through hell just begging for time to fast forward, so they can get out of whatever suffering they are living through. It’s a paradox.
Recognising that helps you really love the beautiful moments, and simultaneously makes you empathetic to times in your own life and the lives of others that aren’t quite as beautiful.
Would you agree with the fact that they may make better use of it than western society?
In some ways, absolutely. Our families make time for each other in a way that is unmatched to anything I’ve ever seen. People matter more than anything else, and it’s really beautiful to see.
From what you've learnt and been exposed to, what advice can you give to people in the western world to help them 'wake up'?
Making time for someone can mean a lot more than you think. Showing up and being there, really being there, undistracted, can change the heart of person. It can mend it, too.
If you could depict time in an experience, what would it look like?
It would probably look like a group people, both my team and the families that we partner with, sitting all together under a tree, talking about the best ways in which to change their families, their communities, and their country for the better. Time seems to actually stand still in moments like those.
Map out your next two-year goals for us?
In the next two years, we want to have a direct buyer for every single one our families. That’s going to take a lot of conversations, probably a lot of letdowns and frustrations, but also a lot of joy and celebrations of wins. We want to create ways for everyone to be involved in the stories of our families by giving them an opportunity to buy the coffee, so that is going to take some logistical manoeuvring, but with what we’ve been able to accomplish in the past few years, I’m very confident we can do it.