Portrait

Talking coffee and family with entrepreneur Sam Muhirwa. By Jennifer Down.

Sam Muhirwa and Epiphanie Mukashyaka

Sam Muhirwa has a serious face, brow slightly knitted. He speaks intently, barely breaking eye contact, even to blink. A Rwandan, he is in Melbourne, in part, for the Melbourne International Coffee Expo. Talk about coffee and he speaks with evident passion and knowledge, in phrases that edge on formal. I glimpse the managing director, the consummate businessman. But when I make a joke, or nudge him to the topic of his mother, his face opens into a broad smile. We sit face to face in a booth at the rear of a small cafe at the top end of Collins Street – the Paris end, tabloid liftouts like to say – where, outside, people in suits conduct booming phone conversations and suck down macchiatos, less with enjoyment than fervour. It is three o’clock on a Friday afternoon and soon they will make the transition to beer or Aperol spritzes.

Sam’s admiration for his mother is instantly apparent. Epiphanie Mukashyaka established her coffee business Buf (pronounced buuf) in 2000, six years after she lost her husband – a coffee farmer – one of her children and members of her extended family in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. With seven remaining children to raise, including Sam, she decided to keep the farm going. “Coffee was how my mum was going to raise [us],” Sam tells me. “After [1994] she was alone, having nothing. She was supposed to figure out how she [could] be together with these seven children, the way we can go back at school, the way we can eat.” In the final years of the 20th century, a USAID-financed program was established with the aim of shifting the emphasis in Rwanda’s coffee production from quantity to quality, allowing the country to move into the more lucrative speciality coffee market. With a new understanding of the financial potential of fine coffee, Epiphanie founded Buf and developed the business to include a washing station. This allowed for greater quality control in the production process, which, in turn, improved the overall standard of the coffee. “Around 2003, that was our first coffee-washing station,” Sam says. “2006, the second. Now we have four coffee-washing stations. I started to work for the company around 2007. Now it’s been 11 years, and I’m the managing director.”

Coffee farming had always been the family trade and Sam grew up around the cherries. He recalls accompanying his father to suppliers when he was 10. “I was at school but sometimes in the holidays I used to help out. I was growing up with the business.” After finishing high school, however, he studied electrical engineering. “[Business] was not in my mind. I was willing to have … if [Buf] failed, I can have something more professional.” A back-up plan, I supply, half joking given the business’s evident success. Yes, he agrees, with one of his sudden, startling grins. These days, he manages Buf with his brother Aloys. “My day-to-day [involves] overseeing the company, how we can expand or improve, and also marketing.”

Epiphanie continues to play a critical role, though now it’s more one of advising and guidance than hands-on expertise. “We like her advice most of the time,” Sam says, laughing. He and Aloys come up with the ideas, and run them by their mother as a kind of litmus test. “For her, it’s just, ‘This is gonna work’ or ‘Not gonna work.’ [Her job is] not really overseeing, but giving us that advice, which sustains us.”

She remains a well-known and highly respected figure whose name evokes trust among the farming community. “Her name is very good when you are in the shadows somewhere,” Sam says and laughs again.

Online research yielded feature articles about Epiphanie that frequently described her as inspirational and resourceful. But it’s difficult to fathom the tenacity and entrepreneurial skill she must have brought to bear, especially in the face of limited education, economic devastation and the psychic wound of genocide. It is remarkable, I suggest, that she didn’t merely survive, or keep her family’s head above water – she became a community leader and developed a business that nurtured others. “It was hard for her,” Sam says. “She worked so hard. She was a mother not only for [us] seven children, but for the whole neighbourhood.”

He speaks about business as a source of hope – not in the circumlocutory bullshit manner of a Silicon Valley start-up spruiker, but with clear-eyed pragmatism. “If we want to be more sustainable, we have to look at the way [business] can play a major role. Because if I look at things like quality and production, I have to work with people who are healthy, who don’t have problems that are so big they can’t [attain] basic needs. Are their children at school? Are they getting medical insurance? Are they able to take people who are sick to the hospital? Those are the key things.”

In the next two or three months, Buf will finish building a kindergarten catering to the children of coffee farmers. In Rwanda, Sam tells me, children start school aged six or seven. “But really, education starts at three or four years old.” Having spent extensive amounts of time with farming communities, he says, “We’ve seen this gap. We’ve seen many children being left alone or at home, because their parents went to care for the farm.” The kindergarten, he explains, is “another way to bring us together [so] we can educate each other. It’s important for us to leave time to the parents so they can take care of their farm while we’re educating their children. Whenever we be taking care of the coffee farmers, we be taking care of their children.”

In a separate but linked initiative, Buf will also distribute cows to farming families, providing a crucial source of dairy and nutrients as well as the potential for a second stream of income. The five-year project will initially distribute 500 cows – one per family – with the idea that each cow will be mated with a bull and, eventually, Buf will receive a calf back. That calf  can then be given to another family. “And,” finishes Sam triumphantly, “the kindergartens can buy milk from [the farmers]. All the kindergartens [are] gonna have milk. It’s like a circle.” Bit by bit, Sam and Aloys are building outward from the ecosystem created by their mother.

It’s clear that Epiphanie’s ethics are enmeshed in Buf’s culture. But, I ask, why has it remained so important to Sam, even as the business grows? “The way I do things is I look at their basic needs, I make sure we can solve it, and then we go from there,” he says. I struggle to dredge up, from the recesses of my mind, the adage about giving a man a fish, feeding him for a day and so on. “If I give you something, you can give me something, and we’ll help each other. Not giving so much as depending on each other.” Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime, I think belatedly.

Just before I thank Sam and say goodbye, I ask a final question: What was the most important lesson he received from his mother? I expect him to give an answer related to the practical workings of the business, or some industry-specific piece of advice. He’s accustomed to discussing his business rather than himself.

But Sam doesn’t miss a beat. “The most important thing she taught me is to be honest, be confident and to be responsible.” Did she tell you those things? “I saw her do it,” he says.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 5, 2018 as "Grounded in family". Subscribe here.

Jennifer Down
is the author of Our Magic Hour and the forthcoming Pulse Points.

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