Howard Schultz Chairman of US retail giant, Starbucks has been in the country as part of an initiative to boost coffee projects. In an interview with The New Times, he spoke about his company’s vision for Rwandan coffee farmers, new opportunities for Rwandan coffee and his friendship with President Paul Kagame. Below are excerpts.
TNT: You have visited Rwanda at least more than twice and on the latest trip, I gather you have been visiting different farmers corps and different coffee projects, what’s your impression in the field?
HS: This is my third time visiting Rwanda in the last four years and it has become an important place for our company and more than that it has become important place for me personally. First, because of the respect and admiration for President Paul Kagame for the leadership that he has shown in this part of the world since the genocide.
And also the realisation that perhaps in our effort to buy Rwandan coffee, we can also have a very positive impact on the landscape and the people.
Today was a great example of that, we visited a place with thousands of people at the cooperative and realising that this little coffee company that has grown to have that kind of positive impact on the lives of so many people, families and their children, giving them a hope for the future---this is humbling and inspiring at the same time.
I think Rwanda is a very special place and we are witnessing not only a transformation of a country, but a wonderful example for the world. To play a small part of it, to be here and watch the progress, and see in the minds and hearts of people, this new beginning, is simply inspiring.
TNT: Let me turn to the broader issue of the on-going global recession. Has the current economic crisis forced you to scale down the amount of coffee volumes you import from Africa?
HS: I’m an optimist, our company has been in business for almost 40 years and we have managed to navigate our way through cyclical changes in the economy before and we are doing it again.
But in short, we are not buying any less coffee this year than we bought last year. In fact our desire and need for the highest quality coffee in the world for us to source, roast and brand and provide for our customers is higher than ever before.
And to do this we look at east Africa as unique place for us to continue to find those great coffees. And specifically I have high hopes for the quality and value of what Rwandan coffee can mean to starbucks.
One of the things that I think is interesting for us is that about 50 million customers a week pass through our stores and so we have a great opportunity and foundation to tell the story of not only Rwandan coffee but the story of Rwanda.
One of the unique attributes of a healthy enduring consumer brand is trust by their customers. The trust that people have for what Starbucks stands for is at a very high level. So when we bring Rwandan coffee into our stores, the expectations from our customers is that this must be very high quality coffee.
Our stores provide a tremendous vehicle to communicate and tell the story of what is happening in Rwanda.
TNT: I have heard some reports that Starbucks has scaled down the amount of coffee volumes it’s been buying from Rwanda, how true is it?
HS: No, let me explain that. Last year’s crop was a better crop in terms of overall volumes for high grade Arabica coffee. This year’s yield of the crop is not as large in terms of top quality compared to last year.
It’s not because of our need in terms of overall volumes but rather it’s the need for top quality grades.
One of the messages I shared with head of the coffee board and President Kagame and today at the cooperative, is that we are in Rwanda today and we are in Rwanda to stay and our needs are great but there has to be high quality coffee.
TNT: So what must the farmers or Rwandan authorities do to ensure high quality coffee?
HS: One example related to your question is that five years ago we opened up an agronomy office in Costa Rica, another important region for the company.
We have used this support centre to share the knowledge of best practices on how to grow the highest quality coffee, leverage fertilisation, and understand yields. In this time, the coffee farmers have benefited significantly in terms of their net profits as a result of the knowledge we have shared.
Tomorrow we will officially open the next agronomy office, a farmer support centre in Rwanda.
This centre will support both Rwanda and other countries in Africa for the sole purpose of replicating what we did in Costa Rica, to help farmers to produce high quality coffee.
This is part of our long term commitment to make sure we create a win-win----for our company, our customers and share holders, but most importantly for the farmer.
TNT: So basically your message is; we are hear to stay, all we need is you to provide us with high quality coffee and we are in business.
HS: In addition to that, we are also aligned in many ways with the fair-trade organisation and our customers have great respect for what fair trade means.
So one of the things we did today at the cooperative is that we announced we are making a large purchase for Rwandan fair-trade coffee that will be available for throughout our 800 stores in the UK, beginning of February.
This will be the first time Rwandan fair-trade coffee will be sold in our UK business.
These are the early days of the growth and development of the partnership between Starbucks coffee company and Rwandan coffee farmers.
TNT: How much coffee will Rwanda export to meet the demand of the 800 stores in the UK?
HS: I don’t know the percentages but I think Rwanda is going to be an important part in the coffee portfolio of Starbucks in future
TNT: But are you certain of getting the right quantities to meet the demand.
HS: We had a very positive meeting with President Kagame and the head of coffee Association.
They have a complete understanding of the opportunities that they have in this industry and specifically the opportunity with Starbucks and I’m quiet confident that investments will be made and the partnership that we can provide will go along way in providing us a long term opportunity for the growers to grow the coffee, as to buy it and for them to get a fair price.
TNT: Critics of fair-trade say that benefits supposed to trickle down to farmers remain elusive especially for the Africa farmers. How do you respond to that?
HS: The truth is that if we look at since we have been buying coffee in 2004, almost every year the price of coffee has gone up. So the question is not fair trade but making sure that the farmer receives the money and based on the conversations I had last night, I think there is a lot of commitment and great leadership for the farmers so am not concerned about that.
TNT: Let me turn back to your relationship with President Kagame. I gather you are his personal friend, how did this kick off?
HS: I have a very good friend in the US who met President Kagame and he called me one day and said I want you to meet a very special man. I said ok who is that man? He said the President of Rwanda.
I had never heard of Paul Kagame before---am sorry—I never did. I didn’t really understand the true story of what happened here.
I must say that some times you meet people and within a few minutes you have this connection. And I think within a few minutes, we felt we knew each other and there was a common interest and that started a very unique and important friendship.
And as a result that, Starbucks wants to do more than just buy coffee. We want to make a difference in this country. We want to be the kind of company that makes a profit but also we want to give back----finding ways we can help and assist in the transformation of this country.
TNT: What special features did you find in President Kagame?
HS: High level of integrity, ethical standards, his vision for the country and his people, his enthusiasm and passion for transformation and healing.