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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 hand­son 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.

JEN­NIFER DOWN is the author of Pulse Points and Our Magic Hour.

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