BY J. A. RIPPO
The remarkable story of a coffee known as “Delicious Peace” begins in the aftermath of the long civil war in Uganda: a war that saw the rise of Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army and also the work of J.J. Keki, the Ugandan musician and 9-11 survivor.
Keki visited the USA for the first time in September, 2001 and was scheduled to take a tour of Manhattan’s World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11. As he walked toward the doors of the WTC, Keki saw the first plane hit the building and he ran from the scene. As he explained to the BBC, much later, something in him snapped at that moment. For so much of his life, he had witnessed the outrages of war in his Ugandan homeland and he had thought he would be free from such concerns in the USA. He was therefore dismayed to witness terror and mass death inspired by religious conflict.
As an Abayudaya Jew in a land divided between Christians and Muslims, Keki had experienced discrimination, intolerance and terror, which the Ugandan wars only made much worse for every group in the Mount Elgon coffee growing region from which he came. On his return to Mount Elgon, he decided to approach the surviving coffee growers and form a co-operative which would grow and sell their coffees. The aim was as much to demonstrate a united effort between disparate Muslims, Christians and Jews as it was to restore the viability of the trade itself.
Keki said, “I went from house to house. I brought the idea to my friends around me: Muslims and Christians. I said we should make a co-op, selling our coffee together as well as spreading peace in the world. They were all so happy. We called it Mirembe, which means peace, and Kawomera, which means delicious or good tasting — that our coffee must be of quality.”
Keki began in 2004. Trees destroyed or neglected during the war were cleared away. New seedlings were planted. By 2010, the first crop of berries from the new plantations were ready to harvest.
The effort was daunting. In the years before the war, the land had been home to a quarter of a million coffee farmers growing robusta beans on large plantations. Keki eventually found 1,000 survivors, mostly in eastern Uganda, in steep, mountain regions more than 1,600 meters above sea level. War had spared them, since the terrain was difficult even for donkeys, the preferred method of travel. This group became the Mirembe Kawomera cooperative.
The co-op’s members created a non-profit organization called Kulanu and used it to achieve Fair Trade certification, which brought higher prices and pledged them to sustainable, ecologically friendly farming standards. At the beginning, there was some difficulty finding buyers. Samples of green coffee had to be inspected, sample roasted and cupped before distributors or roasters would commit to purchase. Even shipping small quantities to potential clients proved difficult and expensive. Fortunately, help arrived from two directions. One was Paul Katzeff, CEO of Thanksgiving Coffee Company in Fort Bragg, California. An agent for the co-op told the story of the war-veteran growers to Katzeff who, deeply moved, pledged to buy an entire container — 37,500 pounds — on the spot and to market it under both their label and his own. To say the least, this is an unusual way to do business. The second boost for the co-op came from film makers Curt Fissel and Erin Friedl, who received one of the new co-ops earliest coffees — a 2005 crop culled from remaining trees that had existed before the restoration of the growers lands in eastern Uganda got underway. Their documentary film, titled “Delicious Peace” tells the Mirembe Kawomera story.
The crop is different from most Ugandan coffees: less acid and with a deeper body that tastes more like Indonesian than coffees from Uganda or nearby Kenya. Based on earlier samples, Germany is becoming a strong buyer of Ugandan arabica coffee futures, especially as favored Java coffees have increased dramatically in price recently. The Mirembe Kawomera co-op is said to be a fine substitute.
Mirembe Kawomera seems to have a bright future and the mostly small farmers with little acrage and few trees expect to keep the peace among their members of different faiths. A lesson learned after nearly thirty years of war is that there is little left for the survivors except the hard work of re-building trade and infrastructure and Jews, Christians and Muslim growers look forward to a time when they send their children to the schools their profits will create, free of the animosity that blighted a generation. If their coffee is as good in the future as it has been so far, they have a good chance of success.