The Mirembe Kawomera “Delicious Peace” Coffee Project:
Tikkun Olam (“repair of the world”).

The Abayudaya have always shared resources with their neighbors. All 20 of our Abayudaya-Kulanu projects benefit their Muslim and Christian neighbors, whether in the elementary school and high school that feeds and educates hundreds of Ugandan children each day, or our adult literacy programs, or our agriculture workshops in irrigation and appropriate farm technology for farmers; everyone attends. This is the nature of our work. For me personally it was a short leap from “Jewels of the Diaspora” to “Delicious Peace”, co-creating with farmer JJ Keki the interfaith Mirembe Kawomera “delicious peace” fair trade, kosher, organic coffee project. The “Jewels of the Diaspora: A Concert Celebration of African, African-American and Jewish Song” duo show is an interfaith, multi-cultural, musical blow-out my friend Janiece Thompson and I sing at colleges, community events and schools around the US. It was created, partly, to be an excuse for organizations to work together on something for a change. A church and a synagogue, or a Hillel and an African studies department, co-sponsor a “Jewels “ concert/ workshop, and hopefully find some common ground. We started performing it after the riots in NYC and have been doing it ever since, particularly at colleges. The interfaith, anti-racism, coalition building hidden in this fun, up-beat concert we so love singing together for years was a precursor for my work in Uganda particularly on the coffee project.

If you haven’t heard about it yet, our project supports Muslim, Jewish and Christian coffee farmers in Uganda working together in peace. We hatched it at my dining room table when JJ and Gershom were visiting us in December 2002 for a few snowy weeks here in the Berkshire Mountains during a Kulanu speaking tour. That week together we went sledding, performed in a community music jam at the general store, did some press interviews and talked about sustainable organic agriculture, visiting the conservatories of Smith College Botanic Garden. We were happy to share JJ’s passionate views on the importance of organic growing, for the health of the farmers and their families, the health of the people who buy the crops, and the planet. We talked about what crops he was growing and how struggling Ugandan farmers could eventually become more self-sufficient, how we were uncomfortable with the power imbalance of the charity model, per se; the crops are beautiful and farmers just needed training and access to markets. According to Maimonides, helping someone find work is the highest form of charity. That night at the table we came up with three poverty fighting business ideas, and with much hard work, all have come to fruition: coffee, tourism (I was so excited I wrote up the first sample “Mitzvah Tour” itinerary that night, now in its 5th year, earning $700. per traveler in employment income for the community. We trained guides and Abayudaya have now built a small guesthouse.) and a micro-finance bank project (so people could have access to small business loans, based on the Grameen Bank model made famous by Nobel Prize winner Dr. Younis. Kulanu granted the initial micro-finance seed money and Abayudaya members took bank training in Mbale, all within 2 months.) More details on sustainable, eco-tourism and micro-finance projects later.

JJ was discouraged because coffee prices had crashed, wiping out him and his neighbors. I had been hearing locally about the new international fair trade coffee movement and its price guarantees to farmers regardless of market crashes. This was news to JJ and he was elated. We set to work, with JJ going home to tell his neighbors of the promise of the Fair Trade movement and to organize the Mirembe Kawomera “Delicious Peace” Coffee Cooperative, while I did more research on fair trade and organic certifications, the supply chain and the international specialty coffee market. I studied Transfair USA and the Specialty Coffee Association web sites, and combed the web. I talked to every coffee businessperson I could find. I realized that due to the farmer’s lack of funds and training, we would need a mother cooperative and coffee processor (for husking, grading, packing and shipping) already certified organic and fair trade in Mbale. Although JJ’s Mirembe Kawomera coop farmers were already growing organically by default we needed a partnership because international certification organizations charge farmers a fortune to formally certify crops organic and Fair Trade. I found out who was already selling certified organic coffee in Uganda, and then, who was working in eastern Uganda. (Don’t reinvent the wheel!) More than one place JJ and I visited slammed the door in our face. Luckily I did find NOGAMU, Uganda’s nascent organic association, and Gumutindo cooperatives. Gumutindo was right in Mbale, though JJ had not heard of them before. Access to research on the internet discovers resources around the world and around the corner. We met with Willington Wamayeye, an great man, who created Gumutindo Organic Cooperatives. Willington had these certifications already in place, was selling organic coffee to Europe, and could train us in international standards. I hoped he would want to facilitate his first foray into the US market with support from Kulanu’s and Abayudaya’s extensive nationwide US audience, and welcome our new Mirembe Kawomera Coop to become one of his 6 coops. I promised to try and find a US company to import, roast, distribute and retail the coffee in the US. Thank goodness he got it! He got what we were trying to do and signed on with us. I don’t know how we would have done it without him.

I came home from Uganda and designed a campaign telling the story of our Mirembe Kawomera “Delicious Peace” cooperative to US coffee companies, emphasizing the messages of great coffee and interfaith peace. I researched and contacted 50 coffee companies by fax and phone. In the middle of a world going to hell in a hand basket, these brave, hard working farmers have found a way to work together for the betterment of all. They are the only good news, and I hoped, as bombs were dropping overseas, someone would understand the value of our story and help us make this fair trade organic coffee project a reality. I believed we had something special to offer, filled with hope and possibility, and that people would want to hear about and support these Muslim, Jewish and Christian farmers working together in these awful times.

Most coffee companies said we were too small to bother with, or wanted samples we did not have yet. One tried to sue us for using the word “peace” in the title of the project because they said they had a monopoly on the word “peace” associated with “coffee”. OY! I got one “yes” who did not move on it and several maybes. I kept pushing to land something solid. It took many months. Then Paul Katzeff from Thanksgiving Coffee Company called me when he received my fax. I had read about Paul in a New York Times Magazine article and had put him on our list of possible companies. To tell you the truth, when I started this I had no idea how complex the coffee business is and it’s a good thing. I would have been too overwhelmed! I didn’t know if we would have to sell 10 sacks of coffee to 25 different companies, or what. I shared the project with Paul, telling him the about our unique interfaith farmer’s cooperative and Kulanu’s and Abayudaya’s extensive US support network eager to support our coffee project. We talked about the enormous potential for interfaith organizing and getting people of all faiths involved. Paul loved it! He got what we were about and ran with it. He bought the whole crop and made a ten-year commitment! He brought us access to international pre-financing for farmers, a relationship with the biggest coffee exporter in the world, and a kashrut certification, taka! Amazing! We had found the right fit. I don’t know what we would have done without Thanksgiving Coffee Company.

Thanks to everyone involved the good energy sparks of this project are flying! Our little dining room table project has grown into an international model of peaceful interfaith cooperation and sustainable economic development, featured in worldwide press such as CNN and the BBC. Thatched mud huts are slowly turning into sturdy brick farmer homes. The project is a succeeding thanks to years of continuing detail work, working together with Paul and Joan Katzeff, the fantastic Ben Corey-Moran, Holly Moskowitz and all the good folks at the Thanksgiving Coffee Company, (“not just a cup, but a just cup”! YEAH!), JJ Keki and the Mirembe Kawomera Coffee Cooperative, Willington Wamayeye and the Gumutindo mother cooperative, and her international network of supporters, and diverse people from all over the world who are buying our coffee, excited to support this rare instance of Muslim, Christian and Jewish farmers doing something great together. For the first time farmers are guaranteed a fair price for their coffee regardless of market crashes, thanks to Thanksgiving Coffee’s commitment to fair trade pricing and their additional rebate of $1. per bag back to farmers. Our work continues in collaboration with JJ and the farmers and Ben Corey-Moran of Thanksgiving Coffee on strategic planning, with other NGOs, and with individuals such as Ken Schultz and his IDA Savings Program for farmers administered through Kulanu. I am proud that the Thanksgiving Coffee Company, and people of good will everywhere, are using the Mirembe Kawomera Coffee Project exactly as JJ and I designed it: to be a tool of interfaith peace fighting poverty in Uganda through the dignity of work.

The Mirembe Kawomera Coffee Project is soon to be the subject of a documentary film from JEMGLO pictures and a documentary music CD. I have been invited to lecture about this and other similar grassroots Kulanu Abayudaya projects at the Heller Graduate School for Sustainable International Development at Brandeis University, among many other places. It’s great to share the excitement about these unique projects, designed to help those most in need, each with its own story. I will do more as my music schedule permits. My message to you is: you don’t have to be an expert to learn to be of use. If I can do it, anyone can. All it takes is teamwork, homework, footwork and people of good will. I hope you will get involved too. To learn more, check out these pages! Love, Laura