I recently spent time in Rwanda with the Kula Project, an Atlanta-based non-profit that helps families in East Africa grow and sell coffee to eliminate poverty. Together we visited a farm community in Rusave where about 10,000 people live. When the Kula Project first engaged with them in May of this year, they asked what their number one need is and the unanimous response was to have the funds to send their children to school.
For reference, that costs about $30 USD per child, per year. The poverty in this community is so extreme that families are stretched paying those fees. Yet, they didn’t seek a hand out. These entrepreneurs wanted to find a way to sustainably make an income. Together with Kula, they recognized that coffee farming is a feasible solution.
Sarah Buchanan, founder and executive director of Kula Project explains, “One of the things I learned when I started in this community is that you go in thinking you’re the Westerner helping this person in need. Then I quickly realized, they’re entrepreneurs just as much as I am, it just looks different for them. They have ideas to expand their business just like I do. The only difference is they don’t have access to the same resources.”
That’s where Kula steps in to aid these entrepreneurs. “We fund community-developed projects. The bones of each one of our projects are designed by the communities themselves. We bring in experts to make it better, and then we connect them to the resources to make it happen. If we want sustainable development that will impact the next generation, we saw coffee farming as the best outlet. Coffee is the only cash crop in Rwanda. Not only is it a cash crop, but it produces for 30 years. So, when we make a one-time investment, it pays off for these families for three decades."
After spending time in this community, I was reminded of some powerful entrepreneurial principles that are worth sharing for all the times we get in a rut and become frustrated with this chosen career path. All the quotes below come from Buchanan's recollections of her experiences with the local farmers.
1. Relationships matter.
“My granddad and dad used to say that a handshake used to mean something, and now in the US it doesn’t, but in Rwanda it does. The Rwandan farmers constantly remind me that your word means something because they trust the people with whom they work. They help each other. They want their neighbors to succeed. One of the women in our community was carrying a baby for her neighbor whose husband died so that the mother could carry her other baby and continue to work the fields so that their family could continue to earn an income.”
Takeaway: Like these farmers who band together so both they and their neighbors can succeed, you also cannot succeed in business without trusted relationships that lead to new customers, employees and partners.
2. Celebrate when there is something worth celebrating.
“As entrepreneurs, you get so caught up in the next win and the next task, that you forget to celebrate the one you just had. Our farmers remind me to celebrate. They celebrate at the end of a harvest by getting together, sharing a drink, or pooling their money to buy a goat to eat. I didn’t understand it at first, but one of the community members said, ‘Sarah, we just finished a very busy season. If we do not take the time to celebrate, we will not go into the next season with a rested heart.’”
Takeaway: It’s important to stop and celebrate, reflect, and be grateful before moving on to the next task.
3. Assume things won't go according to plan.
“We spend so much time making long-term and strategic plans, and then something happens that takes all of those good intentions and spins it out of control. If you don’t go into this work knowing that things can always happen and don’t have that elasticity built in, you will be in trouble. Our farmers are able to pivot really well. For instance, the rain came late this season so they decided to plant banana trees so in case the rain doesn’t come, the coffee trees won’t be burned by the sun.”
Takeaway: Take things in stride. There are always downs in companion to the ups. Have back-up plans, be nimble and know how to discern real problems from small ones.
4. Prepare to be second guessed.
“When you start a social enterprise in particular, the beginning is the easiest, but it’s maintaining it that’s hard. Once the dust settles from the pats-on-the-back, people begin to criticize you from every direction and I was not prepared for that. Our farmers are still struggling with this. They have people who exploit them and try to take advantage of their cost of goods. “
Takeaway: Don’t take things personally. Before moving on from criticism, stop and consider if there are truths in it from which to learn.
5. Learn from what didn't work.
“For our first two years, we had programs in Kenya, Swaziland, and Jamaica but we didn’t involve the communities in the design of our programs. We had to have that conversation admitting to everyone that what we had been doing for two years didn’t work. We had to decide to either call it quits or re-structure and figure it out. We decided to do the latter and figured it out in Rwanda, where we learned that we have to ask the community what they need, and we need to sieve out which ideas would be the best, and that’s how we found coffee.”
Takeaway: Failure is not to be feared. Use those moments as lessons to help guide you in a better direction.