Tim Adams discovers whether Howard Shultz’ plans are good deeds, or just froth
One of the reasons that Schultz has come to Rwanda four times in the past three years is that he has found an ally in his storytelling in President Paul Kagame.
Kagame has used the power of narrative to lead his small landlocked country from the terrible days of genocide to a point where it is routinely considered a model of African possibility.
Kagame, the most studious of military leaders, who got his political education in refugee camps in Uganda, has somehow reinvented himself as a master of marketing.
He has rebranded his country, not only to the outside world but also to his people, through an inclusive program of confession, forgiveness and forgetting, Rwanda has not only, on the surface at least, moved on from the horrors of civil war, it has bought into a tale of the possibilities of trade and economic advance.
One evening, before the president has dinner with Schultz at his private residence, I sit down with him in what looks like a wedding marquee in his grounds and ask him about the curious friendship that has seen Kagame visit Seattle on several occasions and be entertained at Schultz’s home.
What is in it for him, I wonder.
“For a start,” he says, smiling, “we both have an interest in coffee.” Rwanda is quite a minor player in the world coffee markets, but it is still the nation’s number one export.
I wonder how the president will measure the success of Starbucks’ investment in his country.
“What we look for is to see that the farmers are getting more out of their crop,” he says.
In the recent past farmers have been abandoning coffee because there was no income in it - in real terms coffee farmers are paid far less than they were 30 years ago.
He believes that Starbucks, which has opened a $250,000 farmer-support centre in Kigali to share best practice, can help to reverse that trend.
He wishes they could do more - “We’d love to see more of the value chain over here,” he says, meaning roasting plants and packaging facilities, “but we don’t want to make too many demands.
You have to move at their pace, really.”
Kagame is a soft-spoken and serious man, but he becomes animated when he lays out his vision for his country.
“Trade has always been the single most important thing to enable transformation to take place here in Rwanda; it creates entrepreneurship, self-reliance, rather than people always waiting for someone to help them out.”
After the genocide, Kagame suggests, trade not aid was really their only hope - “If you have to work with your neighbour, have to sell him something, then it builds a community.”
There is, he says, no other way to achieve it.
Kagame has made a point of selling this tale to a world-class team of yarn spinners: Bono has been here, of course, and Bill Clinton; Tony Blair has a full-time office in Kigali, paid for by Lord Sainsbury and staffed with a team of up to nine people, providing technical support in the country’s efforts to build a civil society; the Bill Gates Foundation has invested $49m in the agricultural consultants Technoserve, which is helping small farmers increase their yields and quality with practical interventions; and then there is Schultz. Kagame sees in their association not only the chance to get a fairer deal for Rwanda’s impoverished farmers but also a possibility of connecting directly with a vast constituency of consumers - bringing them the good news of Rwanda’s transformation, the happy ending he is trying to write to all the horror.
“I believe I can tell that story through their stores,” he says. “Alongside the story of Rwandan coffee many other positive stories of Rwanda can be told.”
Is he confident, I wonder, that the story goes deep enough to prevent the horror from returning?
“We still have a huge challenge in rural areas,” he says. “But still I guess that every single family is in a better situation than it was 15 years ago. How much better - that is the question.”
You don’t have to travel very far out of Kigali to be confronted with some of the answers to that question.
Rwanda is a lush and fertile country, the slopes of its hills are dense with coffee trees, but the average coffee farmer still lives on little more than $1 a day in a one- or two-room hut.
With the Starbucks team, and Harriet and Rob from Fairtrade, we bump along dirt roads in Jeeps in search of the subplots in Kagame’s transformative narrative.
At the coffee co-operatives the stories come at you thick and fast. Many of them are, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, full of hope; all of them are heartfelt, many are heartbreaking.
Each co-operative we visit has a pioneer, someone who has seen the possibilities of organisation, the protection it might afford from sharkish coffee traders, the opportunity to build a new society from the carnage of civil war.
These men greet us in knackered suits and ties, the women in their Sunday clothes, and talk of some of the benefits that have flowed from the initial arguments for co-operation.
One after the other they take us around their coffee-washing stations, among the mesh trays on which the coffee “cherries” are sorted for quality and the coffee is left to dry, and they talk of how the guaranteed minimum price of Fairtrade coffee has given them a small measure of security, of how they have voted to put their accumulated 10-cent premiums toward schools, or health insurance, or a canteen, or mountain bikes.
By way of greeting, the women dance for us (and Harriet Lamb, full of giggles as well as policy directives, insists that the British contingent hokey-cokey in reply).
When you sit down to talk with the farmers, the stories they tell of their own lives are often fractured and incomplete.
The past is often too hard for them to contemplate. When I try to get anyone to describe the year in which these valleys were killing fields, as Hutu massacred Tutsi, they talk in vague terms or say nothing. For many, it seems life began in around 1998, or 2000, or 2001, with the creation of their coffee co-operative and a chance to plan a little for a future that had once seemed so unlikely.