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Pioneering a New Business Model, Rewards for Rwanda: A Different Way to Partner for Progress

By David Griswold, CEO and Founder of Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers

I’ve had the immense privilege of working with small-scale coffee farmers in the developing world for the last 25 years through my role with Sustainable Harvest, the company I founded. Sustainable Harvest is an importer of high-quality specialty-grade coffees from over 15 countries around the world. As pioneer of the Relationship Coffee Model, we’ve led the paradigm shift that has served as the foundation for the direct trade model and the interest in creating a closer connection between farmers and consumers. Today we are expanding our efforts by introducing a new model of premium sharing.

In my years in the field I’ve seen many aid programs fail, so my team and I set out to find partners that allow us to develop an effective, innovative and more sustainable approach. In 2013, Bloomberg Philanthropies approached Sustainable Harvest with a proposal to strengthen the farming industry in Rwanda with farmers in rural areas. We partnered to develop the Relationship Coffee Institute, an NGO that works with women to cultivate sustainable and profitable agriculture including coffee, mushrooms and honey production. The project provides women an entry point to the larger global market of international buyers and aims to help further national economic growth.

Today we are taking another pioneering leap forward with a new model called the Sustainable Harvest Premium Sharing Rewards™ program. This new social enterprise is a project of the Relationship Coffee Institute and Sustainable Harvest Rwanda supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies. The model has facilitated better relationships between these business women and retailers, better control over the quality of their harvest – and more opportunity to invest in vital training sessions.

One primary lesson learned was that many of us in the Western world take things like cell phones and flashlights for granted, never realizing what these vital tools can provide to people in developing countries. When we surveyed our partners in Rwanda, for example, we found that having a solar-powered lamp meant a woman could feel safe walking home alone and that her children could have light to do homework at night.

Sustainable Harvest Premium Sharing Rewards™ is a program that examines the many needs of local farmers to identify what tools small-scale farmers need as well as what training and skills they seek to help improve their agricultural production. Farmers accrue “rewards points” over time by following good coffee farming practices, producing high quality goods and being active participants in their cooperatives. These points can be used to acquire tools, like pruning shears, or other goods, like mobile phones and solar lights. This past year, the rewards program, supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, was piloted in Rwanda, and we used the pilot results to finalize the program. Here’s how it works:

  • Farmers who participate in the program come together to form a Sustainable Harvest Premium Sharing Group. The members of that group each have small plots of land with coffee trees.
  • Throughout the growing and harvesting of their coffee beans, the farmers receive training on how to take care of their coffee trees, compost, produce organically, and pick only the best, most flavorful beans. When the beans are harvested, the farmers take them to a processing center where we can collect and sell the coffee.
  • We offer these farmers’ high-quality coffee to specialty roasters around the world.
  • We ask roasters to take a portion of the value-added price they get from roasting or retailing the coffee and return it to the Sustainable Harvest Premium Sharing Rewards™ program nonprofit fund, which in turn helps to pay for the goods that farmers purchase using their “rewards points.”

The social enterprise business model we employed not only allows roasting companies to follow a “doing well by doing good” business model, but it also allows farmers to begin to share the wealth that comes from being engaged in the entire value chain, not just a raw materials provider as is usually the case for coffee growers. It incentivizes farmers to complete training while also earning.

The response has been powerful. In the pilot, the program not only helped women improve agricultural practices, but also helped increase their decision making power by giving them the opportunity to choose which reward assets were best for them and their families and then respecting those decisions. We are excited that this successful, sustainable program can now be scaled up to allow more farmers in more countries to benefit from a training and rewards program.

Surveys of women who participated in the pilot program in Rwanda indicate that it was successful. Up to 90 percent reported better business relationships, 83 percent highlighted better quality control in their coffee harvest and over 90 percent of participants attended more training sessions.

In addition to creating positive outcomes among women farmers, the program has had some other positive effects:

  • Sustainable Harvest Premium Sharing Rewards™ helped to ensure that farmers earn better wages from their coffee sales: As attendance at trainings increases and farmers grow coffee of increasingly better quality, the prices of their products will continue to rise. This ensures an ongoing supply of quality coffee and could induce the next generation of coffee families to consider coffee farming a viable business.
  • The program also helps to increase the export value of the coffee, which brings valuable foreign exchange to Rwanda: By fusing the interests of government, business and philanthropy, Sustainable Harvest Premium Sharing Rewards™ helps to maximize the potential for better lives for the greatest number of people.
  • As a company that strives to create more transparency in the coffee supply chain, we are pleased that consumers of Sustainable Harvest Premium Sharing Rewards™ coffee can know exactly where their dollars are going: Unlike other models that require significant overhead, Sustainable Harvest Premium Sharing Rewards™ is an efficient system that strengthens the rural organizations that serve growers. Best of all, the program targets individual growers, and rewards them directly for the work they do to produce a quality product.

In introducing and developing this program, we have followed an approach that Bloomberg Philanthropies champions: if measurements show your program is making a positive impact, scale it so that more people can take advantage of its potential.

We are excited about the great success of Sustainable Harvest Premium Sharing Rewards™ in Rwanda and are eager to introduce the concept to other African nations. We also plan to take the program to coffee-producing countries in Latin America and throughout the rest of the world.

We’re proud that the success of the Sustainable Harvest Premium Sharing Rewards™ program demonstrates that international aid programs can have both incredibly positive impacts, and still be implemented in a respectful and sustainable manner.

It was, and is, a team effort between the women growers in Rwanda who helped us design and scale this project, the incredible team at Sustainable Harvest who created and run the program, and our superb partners at Bloomberg Philanthropies. Together, we are all thrilled about the program’s future as we expand its reach to other parts of the world.