For a while now I’ve watched through little squares on Instagram, the joy, the connection, the big smiling faces and the impressive landscapes all lit up by The Kula Project. A beautiful example of social media breaking down arbitrary walls and bursting open wide the question of what it really means to be a global citizen.
In an inspiring interview with the founder of The Kula Project, Sarah Buchanan-Sasson, I find out some more about this not-for-profit that invests in the dreams of Rwandan families and helps to build businesses, empower their communities and provide education, food and healthcare. Kula means a community of heart and, as you will discover, the name couldn’t be more apt.
Sweet dreams of flying machines
“When I first met Odette she wouldn’t look me in the eye, she spoke to my feet and in a whisper so that I couldn’t hear her. Now when I see her and she’s walking across the street, she starts giving me air high fives and she grabs my arm and we walk together and she tells me all these ideas. She tells me how her little boys are both in school and one of them wants to be a pilot.”
Sarah Buchanan-Sasson describes a relationship she has forged with one of the many women in the Rwandan community that has become like her family, where she, along with her husband James and a small team, have established The Kula Project - a social enterprise that invests in the dreams and businesses of families in East Africa.
The Kula Project is like a start up accelerator and ideas incubator for business owners and communities in Rwanda. Something so prevalent in developed countries, but up until now, made elusive to aspiring entrepreneurs in developing countries like Rwanda. Members of the community come to Kula with their ideas and the Kula team helps them to realise their concepts by providing education, training, grants and facilitating the ideas to market.
In a little over five years they have planted 100,000 coffee trees, helped 600 families in eight regions, built a coffee washing station, a vocational centre and helped to rebuild a district after a landslide. Just as importantly, they have built trust and they have amplified hope within the communities.
We are not a voice for the voiceless
“There is a peace and calm about the whole country. I’ve been to several African countries and there is this chaotic energy and part of it is fun and exciting, but part of it is overwhelming and Rwanda is just, calm."
"People have overcome things here that we can’t even imagine to be true and now all they want to do is send their kids to school and there is something so beautiful about that desire and that determination to see it comes to fruition.”
Over 20 years ago, the world gave attention to Rwanda in its darkest hour, the horrific genocide that killed roughly 800,000 to 1 million people, but Sarah believes it is time for the world to check back in. To see how resilient the people here are, to see the beauty in the landscape, to hear the individual stories of the people and the families who have rebuilt their lives.
She says, “you don’t see litter on the ground, they were the first country to ban plastic bags. It’s ridiculously beautiful, the contrast of the mountains, the rainforests, the tea plantations, it’s all stunning.” Rwanda is the fifth safest country in the world, the third cleanest and has more women in parliament then any other country.
Over 90% of the farmers Kula works with will use their income to pay the school fees for their children.
“People are starting to change the way they talk about things. It used to be talk about - ‘can I feed my kids tomorrow?’ - and now it’s; ‘I’ve saved this money to start a business, or I’ve saved so my kid can go to uni.’ Or where it used to be just one child in the family at school it’s now ‘all my kids are in secondary school.’”
What Sarah and her team stress is, they are not there as a voice for the voiceless, “they don’t need anyone to speak for them” she says, "we simply give them access and funds and equal opportunity to be heard by people who matter."
Coffee, charging up the community
In Rwanda coffee is the largest cash crop for export. Three years ago Kula were in talks with community members about what they wanted. They said more coffee, better coffee and a place to sell it. So the Kula team helped them with seedling nurseries and livestock programs to provide manure and three years on the coffee trees are starting to produce. Now they are helping the entrepreneurs get their coffee to market by connecting them with buyers.
One $6 coffee plant will provide income for one family for 30 years. The coffee washing station they built will employ 200 people per season and has seeded other initiatives that have helped the community to grow.
“The women came to us and said they make very little money when it’s not harvest season and can we help them to build a vocational centre?” Well, Kula did and it turned into a business centre to provide adults in the rural area with education and business training. It also houses a co-op of tailors and weavers to assist with income in the coffee off-season. There are plans to start seminars in maternal health and family planning.
The women even planted a community garden in between the washing station and the business centre. When Sarah learned about the garden she asked if they split the profits; “no, they said they planted things you can’t get from other farms in the area and they use the profits to buy things for the centre. I love that! I didn’t even know they were doing that!”
“That’s when you know, when you really start to see success is when they are doing things to make stronger what you helped them to start.” Are people coming to you with ideas I ask? “Oh yes. We get several ideas a day.” Sarah emphasises that obviously they cannot invest in them all so they need to see some sort of business plan and that there is a feasible market for the idea. It’s clear that they have built a really strong rapport in the community and people have come to trust them and have seen that they are there for the long haul.
“One of our Rwandan ladies, Frances, said - “Kula is like the rains, they always come back.”
Hope is a four letter word
The Kula project has had many struggles and sacrifices have been made along the way. There have been projects that have failed but the team rebuild and rebuild and call on every inch of patience in the hope of seeing long-term sustainable development. They are staring to witness the changes and the incredible individuals who are building their own businesses and empowering their communities to move forward.
“We keep going because no matter how Utopian it sounds, we firmly believe that the next generation of Rwandans can change the continent and we have always believed that the continent can change the world if it’s given the equal opportunity to do so.”
The community is their family. They know them as their friends. They share life together; “our programs wouldn’t work if we didn’t take the time to know and to learn about and listen to the people who we partner with.”
Like walking, arms linked down the red dirt road with her friend Odette and listening to her excitement and pride about having both her boys in school and having dreams of flying planes.
“We are all people and we should all care about people regardless what the colour of their skin is, who they worship, who they love, that doesn’t matter. You know what matters first? It is that we are all a part of this one earth that we all have to protect and whether it be climate or war or just love (and I think we’ve seen it get ripped apart a bit by tension and hatred), it doesn’t matter what your passport says, you’re a person and I’m a person and lets just start from there.”
In support of The Kula Project I am stocking their Coffee Tree Bracelets: handmade brass bangles made in Rwanda. Every purchase helps to plant one coffee tree.