A Rwandan Family Affair
Umuko Coffee is a new U.S.-based coffee importing company, started by Jean Christophe (Chris) Rusatira. But it draws from a rich coffee-growing legacy. Chris’s family has been growing, trading, and processing coffee in the western mountains of Rwanda for almost five decades, through numerous dramatic ups and downs (including civil war), working since 2014 under the name Gasharu Coffee, an operation that is currently overseen by Chris’s brother, Valentin Kimenyi. Chris, who lives in Baltimore, Maryland, is a Johns Hopkins grad who works in public health but somehow still finds time to handle the import side of the family business.
Part of Umuko’s mission, as stated on their website, is to disrupt a system that for too long has sent 90% of the profits generated by Rwanda’s coffee growers to foreign interests, a raw deal for poorly compensated local workers, who are highly skilled laborers, and the surrounding communities.
Together, the two companies, Gasharu and Umuko, represent a counterweight to the domination of large multinational companies in the Rwandan coffee industry. Instead, they promote local equity, innovative and sustainable agricultural methods, and community support, working to bypass large importing firms by forming personal relationships with likeminded buyers around the world—like Coffee By Design.
“Our relationship with Chris started with quality,” says Jeremy Rävar, Coffee By Design’s director of operations. “It was winter, 2021. We’d been looking to bring in more coffees from East African countries. Chris had somebody who was up in this area drop samples off, but we had no real information about the coffee. Anyway, we cupped the samples, and they were really good. Chris reached out about a week later to follow up, and we were like, ‘Oh my goodness, these coffees are amazing…let's definitely talk more!’”
That, says Rävar, led to a long email chain over the next month or so, culminating in Coffee By Design offering its first Gasharu coffee in March of 2021. But the two didn’t meet in person until more than a year later.
“It was such a funny thing,” says Mary Allen Lindemann, co-founder and owner of Coffee By Design. “We had been communicating with this guy Jean Christophe for months. And then we were in Milan last year at World of Coffee [the premier European coffee event], and we're sitting next to this guy who introduces himself as Chris. And it took us a second before we realized who that Chris was! Jean Christophe…Chris…It was like, ‘Ohhhhh….’”
“As we came to know Chris more on a personal level,” says Rävar, “we talked a lot about things they were doing, experiments, innovations. Our most recent visit to Gasharu solidified our hope to do some more things that maybe go a little bit further in terms of collaboration and expanding our relationship. So, for example, we are selling their ‘Ireme’ coffee, which is incredible, made from an anaerobic process, and we have been submitting it for food awards.”
Rusatira clearly has a relentlessly innovative and inquisitive mind. On top of being a coffee grower and importer and having a Master’s in Public Health from Johns Hopkins, he is also a new father and is working on his Ph.D. “Gimme a clue!” laughs Lindemann in awe and admiration. “Please tell me how this all gets done. I have no idea, but they’ve got something figured out!”
Rävar points out that Rusatira’s brother, Valentin Kimenyi, is similarly accomplished. “He’s the agronomist—he went to school for coffee, agriculture, and business. They're basically partners. I mean, the whole thing's a family affair.”
“We had an amazing time with the family,” says Lindemann. “Chris's parents are incredible human beings. The fact that his dad started the farm when the dad was 17 and made it through the genocide…It's amazing when you hear that. How do people survive and stay in business and then just continue this commitment to equity and excellence?”
At this point, Gasharu works with 1,760 partner farmers, employing 344 community members (70% of whom are women), tending around 44,000 coffee trees. Their Rugori Community Program explicitly invests in women, an acknowledgement of women’s outsized contributions to coffee production in communities where, according to the website, women “often face limited access to land, credit, education, and other market opportunities.” The program helps to provide everything from health insurance to training, financial opportunities, and even goats. Ultimately, it is an investment in the future, one that “promotes gender equality, reduces poverty, improves livelihoods, and fosters the adoption of sustainable farming practices, ultimately leading to inclusive growth, community resilience, and a thriving coffee sector in Rwanda.”
What Chris and his family understand is that to make excellent coffee, to be good stewards of the land and practice sustainable farming, and to partner with workers and elevate the surrounding communities, they have to find partners all down the supply chain who share their values, who want to build relationships built on honesty and trust, and who are willing to pay a little more—a fair price for an exceptional premium coffee.
“I mean,” says Lindemann, “your hope is always for long-term relationships and honesty. And I would say that about any of the people we work with, not just coffee farmers. It about a relationship, and we're all human, and we all make mistakes. But if you can't be honest, then you've broken trust.”