An Emotional Return to Rwanda for the Starbucks Origin Experience

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Twenty years after the genocide in Rwanda, Arthur Karuletwa chooses words carefully as he talks about his homeland.

In a soft voice, he shakes his head realizing “an unfortunate sequence of events” doesn’t begin to describe what happened over a period of 100 days in the small African nation.

“Within the blink of an eye the world lost one million people,” said Karuletwa.

He was 17 years old when Hutu extremists orchestrated the massacres of Tutsi and moderate Hutu people in Rwanda. Karuletwa was in neighboring Uganda at the time. When he returned to his home, the devastation he witnessed was “grotesque.”

“I vowed to go back and play a role in whatever recovery or reconciliation that needed to happen,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that all the family and friends that I lost was not in vain.”

Today Karuletwa works on Starbucks Global Coffee team which is responsible for coffee innovation, education and engagement with coffee farmers. As Starbucks director of traceability, he developed a program to trace coffee beans from the point of origin – the small farmers – in Rwanda, throughout the supply chain and ultimately to the consumer. 

This week he’s in Rwanda with 40 Starbucks partners (employees) from 16 countries who will experience coffee picking and processing. Starbucks has had relationship with farmers in Rwanda for at least a decade. Through the Origin Experience, partners gain an understanding and appreciation for the passion that goes into each pound of coffee Starbucks sells.

In Rwanda, partners will learn first-hand about the unique relationship Starbucks has with coffee farmers. They’ll also lend a hand painting a health clinic. In the middle of the week, partners will visit the Rwanda Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, to begin to understand the events that have shaped the country.

“When you look at the significance of Rwanda to our coffee platform, one would think that other countries would take precedence, but Starbucks is looking at Rwanda through the lens of humanity and that makes the country important to us,” said Karuletwa.

The country has changed significantly in 20 years.

In terms of safety, gender equality and economic growth, Rwanda is among the top performing countries based on United Nations metrics.

“Being on the ground in Rwanda, you really understand the impact that specialty coffee had in Rwanda in helping to bring some pride back to people who had none,” said Sandra Roberts, with Starbucks Global Coffee engagement team.

This is her sixth Origins Experience and her second trip to Rwanda. Roberts sees a tremendous value in the investment Starbucks makes in partner development.

The majority of Starbucks partners are involved with ‘the last 10 feet’ of the coffee bean, meaning they are serving customers every day in stores. The Origin Experience allows partners to encounter the ‘first 10 feet’ of growing, picking and processing coffee cherries.

“Partners see and touch coffee in a different way. They become the champions and guardians for our coffee and for what our company does,” Roberts said.

In its fourth year, the Starbucks Origin program has about 760 alumni.

Each partner who experiences a trip to Rwanda, Costa Rica or Sumatra has an emotional reaction, often tears, when they step foot on a coffee farm for the first time. The experience has a lasting personal and professional impact on the partners.

“The connections I’ve made around the globe have truly changed me,” said Roberts. “I appreciate the simple things in life and I believe from what I’ve seen there is hope for everyone. People are powerful when they come together.”

A life-changing experience is what Karuletwa hopes partners will take away from any Origin Experience, especially those who are on this week’s journey with him in Rwanda.

Karuletwa said he will put his emotions aside and focus on his leadership role to ensure partners have a meaningful, educational trip. But he knows there will be moments when feelings of pride and humility overwhelm him.

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