St Remio: Coffee with a conscience

St Remio

St Remio is committed to empowering the lives of Rwanda’s female coffee producers and promoting the stories behind each cup.

June 21 was no ordinary day for St Remio Director Julia Tink and Founder Trent Knox. As they emerged from their car at the top of a hill overlooking the Rukara suburb in the Kayonza district of Rwanda, they heard singing and chanting in the distance. Drawn to the sounds, the husband-and-wife team made their way down the dusty clay path holding hands. Tears rolled down Julia’s face as she saw the joyous expressions of 150 local women who had gathered to celebrate the official opening of the Twongere Umusaruro Cupping Lab and give thanks.

“We were expecting a few people to witness the official cutting of the ribbon, with maybe a journalist present and a photographer, but what we got was a celebration of grand proportions. It was a moment I’ll never forget,” Julia says. 

St Remio
Members of the Twongere Umusaruro Kayonza Co-operative celebrate the opening of the Cupping Lab.

The local women from the Twongere Umusaruro Kayonza (TUK) cooperative were clapping and chanting in their native tongue, “thank you for empowering our lives, thank you for building our Cupping Lab”. It wasn’t English, but the expressions of gratitude on every face said it all. Even the local mayor, head of the police, and head of the town’s electricity company attended, as did the women’s husbands who watched on as their wives danced ceremoniously in green sarongs – a show of support and independence for the female coffee producers.

“The opening of the Cupping Lab represented more than just the opening of new building in the community, but freedom and empowerment for the female farmers of the cooperative. They were the rock stars that day,” Julia says.

Trent and Julia helped establish the Twongere Umusaruro Cupping Lab at the cooperative’s washing station thanks to the generosity and support of their St Remio customers and green bean importers Sustainable Harvest. 

The Melbourne-based couple launched the capsule and whole bean coffee business in 2015 with the purpose to help empower the female coffee farmers in Rwanda and make a meaningful impact on their lives. 

“Around 75 per cent of the world’s coffee growers are female,” Trent says. “After visiting TUK in late 2015, I made the promise to help this community and fund a cupping lab. St Remio didn’t exist in its current form, but this trip signified the foundation of the brand.

“I had been involved in coffee for more than 10 years but it was right here in the fields of Rwanda that I truly understood coffee and the individuals, families, and communities behind it. After spending time with the female coffee producers and listening to their stories, I was compelled to create a product that would both empower and celebrate the grower.”

St Remio
Farmers from TUK doing a cupping demonstration at their new facility.

St Remio’s first project was to donate funds to Sustainable Harvest’s Premium Rewards Sharing program in 2017-18. Its funds allowed the female farming cooperative of TUK to earn products such as agricultural tools, livestock, solar lamps, mattresses, and fabrics.

Last financial year, St Remio helped deliver the Cupping Lab for farmers and agronomists to improve their palates and showcase the area’s coffee to international buyers.

“It’s no different to going to the Yarra Valley and having a wine maker open their cellar door. We’ve created the same thing for coffee in Rwanda,” Trent says.

“It took a good six months but we were determined to make this lab a reality. Now, local agronomists can teach members of TUK to understand coffee, how to cup coffee, taste, and improve the quality before it is sent to Kigali – a major export port. We hope that it will  provide producers with the tools they need to reach a higher quality product that will in turn generate a higher price for the coffee that they greatly deserve.”

More than just a new establishment and talking point in the community, Trent says the Cupping Lab has become a sanctuary for employment and education for the local community about a product very few producers understood.

“On my first visit to the cooperative in 2015, I asked how many people drank coffee, and not one person raised their hand. They thought it was white man’s medicine. Some of these ladies had been growing coffee for 35 years and they didn’t know what it was,” Trent says. 

“Fast forward four years, and I got to stand in the Cupping Lab and watch the women cup their own coffee and explain the flavour profiles and processing methods for each one. They now clearly understand the importance of the end product and the seed-to-sip philosophy.”

St Remio is a business built with the intention of giving back to the coffee growers at origin and building their profile. 

“When you enjoy your morning coffee at home or in a café, do you ever stop to think about the people behind it?” Julia asks. “It’s not really on the consumer’s mind just how much effort when into producing that cup of the coffee, but it should be. Coffee isn’t a commodity. It’s about people. Our campaign aims to highlight that in every cup of coffee there lies 1000 stories. That’s the impact each cup has on a community. I hope we can change the conversation and that people think and appreciate their coffee, and most importantly, the people behind it.”

St Remio
Female coffee farmers of Cocagi, whom St Remio are supporting this financial year through the purchase of new land.

In addition, Julia hopes St Remio will empower the community for generations to come.  

“We spend a lot of time talking about influence, but true meaning and purpose comes from impact,” Julia says. “These women are mothers, daughters, and wives just like me and they are driven by family, just as Trent and I are. We share the same values and it’s important to support them, empower them in business and invest in their future.

“Seeing the impact of our actions first hand certainly makes the challenges of building and running a business fade and drives us to do more for communities like TUK. ”

This financial year, St Remio has partnered with Rainforest Alliance and will purchase four hectares of land for the female cooperative of Cocagi. They will also purchase 12,000 coffee plants, cherry tomatoes, avocados, sunflowers, and passionfruit vines to help diversify the farmers’ income while the coffee plantation is being established. This in turn will support 1100 women and their families. 

“St Remio is so rewarding and in time, we hope to be in position where we can fund multiple projects at once,” she says. “As a business, we stand for more than just good coffee. We are determined to build a brand with purpose and meaning. We want to take people on a journey with us as we evolve. Coffee that is ethical, sustainable and empowering women – that’s my kind of coffee.” 

This article appears in FULL in the October 2019 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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