“I used to have so little income that I couldn’t support my family. And an education for my children was simply out of the question. So there was little chance of them having a better life. But that’s all changed, thanks to the cooperative.” These are the words of Cecile Mukagasana, one of the 30 women who founded Abateninkunga Ba Sholi in 2008. The cooperative’s name translates literally as ‘Mutual Assistance in Sholi’, a region in the Central Rwandan highlands.
“We’ve seen the positive impact that Cecile describes among all our members”, says Managing Director Aimable Nshimiye. “We have more than 600 of those now, both men and women.” And ‘Sholi’ hasn’t just grown in numbers of members. “We have also acquired the equipment and infrastructure we need as a professional coffee cooperative: from our own truck and conference room to a cupping coffee laboratory and two coffee washing stations.”
Supply, demand and market reach have grown too. “We barely produced 125 tons of coffee cherries in the beginning, but last year that number had risen to 1,680 tons. And where we originally only sold our coffee domestically, we now focus mainly on export. We’re gaining more international buyers, including a handful of regular buyers from America, Germany, Great Britain and the Netherlands.”
Sholi’s growth isn’t just expressed in quantity, either. “Our coffee is earning higher and higher quality scores”, Nshimiye explains. “How we’re making that happen? We collect feedback from our buyers. We constantly test our coffee in our own cupping coffee laboratory. And since 2014, we’ve had our own washing stations. Before, our coffee beans were unwashed or only half-washed, which limited the quality. Now our members can thoroughly wash their coffee cherries through a washing stations.”
“We’re located in a fertile region with plenty of rain”, says Nshimiye. “That’s also good for the quality of the coffee. But so is the training that we’ve received from Rabo Foundation-partner Progreso over the past 10 years or so. The training has taught us how to make our coffee crops and processing even more productive and sustainable. That’s knowledge we pass on to our members, as well as other smallholder farmers who sell their coffee cherries to us.”
“Our operations have improved as well, thanks in part to the training, contacts, advice and educational trips Sholi has received via Progreso”, Nshimiye continues. “From good governance, people management and transparent financial policy to sales, marketing, communications, acquisition and relations management. But we’re also working to improve digital tracking and traceability, because foreign buyers want to see exactly which farmer produced which coffee cherries.”
Not all cooperatives pay so much attention to operations, Nshimiye explains, but he urges them to expand their focus. “It’s helped us to become a strong international brand, with a good reputation and a stable financial background. This makes us more attractive for new buyers and commercial lenders.”
According to Nshimiye, investing in smart operations also means earning globally recognized seals of approval. “Things like Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, Organic, Café Practice and UTZ; seals of approval that show how you as a cooperative work on fair prices, good working conditions, environmental protection and addressing climate change.”
Certification costs time and money, as Nshimiye knows from experience. “But it’s more than worth the investment. Because certifications open doors in the international market. And they make you focus on your goal: better lives for your members and the local community.”
With higher prices, cooperative profit sharing and access to microloans, the members of Sholi have more money to grow their farms, hire staff, buy livestock, conduct home repairs and pay for their children’s education.
Besides, Sholi helps them arrange for solar panels, and cooperates with the government to provide good connections to the electricity grid. It also provides every member with a cow for manure and milk, and with health insurance. Nshimiye: “We’ve even built a medical center here and pay the staff. Because the healthier our coffee farmers are, the stronger our coffee business!”
How Rabo Foundation supports Sholi
Rabo Foundation came into contact with Sholi via Progreso, and has been one of the cooperative’s financial partners since 2014. “They believed in our ability to improve the lives of local farmers, even when we hadn’t yet built a strong track record”, says Nshimiye. “Since then, the foundation has played an essential role. Its donations, loans, network, knowledge and guarantees have enabled us to take big steps forward. For example through more efficient production, lower crop losses, higher sales and better prices. Our farmers are also much more aware of the climate and environment, and of the fact that we’re part of a sustainable value chain.”
Rabo Foundation’s support has helped Sholi to the point where it will soon be financially self-reliant. This means it will no longer come to Rabo Foundation for loans for working capital and trade financing, but rather to Rabo Rural Fund. "Sholi are a perfect example of what can happen when you stick by a partner you believe in", says Kevin Kabatsi, Program Manager Africa at Rabo Foundation. "Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was the level of performance Sholi shows today. It has come about through the quality of their leadership and our patient investments in both the management of their finances and the capacity building provided by Progreso."