MiiR recently visited Kula in Rwanda to better understand their work and strengthen our partnership. What we saw, heard and experienced there changed us. Getting to know Kula’s Founder & Director was no exception. With an easy joy and striking humility and vulnerability about her, Sarah blew us away with her commitment to Rwanda, a country where she feels most at home and in tune with her purpose. Today, our Co-founder & Impact Content Producer, Rebecca Papé, shares her conversation with Sarah.
MiiR | Tell us who you are.
Kula | My name is Sarah Buchanan-Sasson and I am the Founder and Director of Kula, which is a nonprofit eradicating poverty through the development of entrepreneurs in Rwanda.
M | We’re here in Rwanda now. What drew you here to begin with?
K | I first came to Rwanda in 2013, just for a trip. Kula was working in three other countries, on programs that admittedly weren't going very well. But I had studied a lot about Rwanda and its history in college. So I thought, I want to go to Rwanda, just in case I never get another chance. And when I came here, there was this overwhelming, almost spiritual feeling of things not working in the other places because you're not where you're supposed to be. And this is the place you're supposed to be.
M | Tell us about Kula’s work then and now.
K | Kula has changed and evolved so much over the last seven years. We started in May of 2012, and we look nothing like we did when we first started. To me, you should always be refining and moving forward and letting the community shape your programs. My husband and I crisscrossed the country of Rwanda in January of 2014, and the more we talked to people, the more we realized that the needs seemed so simple. They were all coffee farmers and they needed to grow more coffee, they needed a place to sell their coffee, and they needed the training to get their quality up. And that was something that seemed so obvious that we could do as a nonprofit. And we thought, let's wrap everything up and come here and go deep here instead of super surface in a lot of other places.
M | Kula has branched out in so many ways from its initial support to just coffee farmers. When I think about your program, the word “holistic” comes to mind. How did it take shape?
K | We say, "don't make decisions about them without them." If we are trying to create something that's supposed to change somebody's life, we want them to have a say in how that's actually going to happen. We started with helping coffee farmers plant more coffee and improve coffee quality through training. Soon they were telling us, we have more coffee now, but we don't know how to do these things. So we took all of that feedback and molded it into a business fellowship. It’s industry training that includes our work with women’s centers, where daughters of coffee farmers are learning to sew and weave.
If we are trying to create something that's supposed to change somebody's life, we want them to have a say in how that's actually going to happen.
But then this middle piece — which has been the biggest piece and where we've seen the most outcome — is life and leadership skill development: personal finances, how to create a budget, and one-on-one mentorship the entire time they're in our fellowship that starts with creating a household vision. Answering questions like, “what do you want your family to look like in five years and ten years, and how can Kula work with you in all of those steps to get there?” Because we learned that so often, our fellows just wanted somebody to believe they could actually reach these goals. And for them to hear their mentor say, you can dream that your little girl can go to university, that is within your reach and we are going to be alongside you as you get there, that’s powerful.
M | Can you talk about the importance of hiring local?
K | Kula is a staff of 22, three of which are Americans. Hiring mostly Rwandans has been the greatest key to our success. People know them, they trust them, they can communicate with them, they can relate to them. They’re cultural translators for us. Aside from that, we've created 19 jobs here with many more to come, we hope. And they see our investment in them, and then they invest in our fellows. And they call themselves Kula family, not Kula staff. We didn’t tell them to say that.
M | MiiR’s mission statement is to empower people for a better future, and we try to weave that into every relationship we pursue. MiiR and Kula are obviously aligned in a lot of ways. Share with us what our partnership means to you.
K | We are so grateful when we can find people who are committed to the long term just as much as we are. It can be hard to get people excited about something that takes the baseline 15 months to complete. Our success is generational. People ask, “what's your definition of success?” and it's not easily answered. In some sense, it’s that 20 years from now, I'm sitting at a graduation of the daughter of one of the ladies that was in our program, because she was able to have the finances, and the dreams, and the belief that she can put her daughter all the way through university. We get to be a part of that. And that is such a long term goal that takes people committed to the long term.
When we talk about empowering people, empowerment isn't immediate. It takes so long. And the arc of that is so beautiful, and sometimes messy, and almost always so hard. But it’s never not worth it.
M | It seems like we have a lot to learn from Rwanda.
K | It can be difficult to get people excited about Rwanda, a place often only known for its genocide 25 years ago.
We originally came here to help move Rwanda forward. But the more time goes on, the more I realize we have so much more to learn from Rwanda. It's the first country to ban plastic bags. There are more women in government than any other government on Earth. The way they have moved forward, after things that we can't even imagine to be true during the ‘94 genocide, with such redemption and grace and prosperity blows my mind.
One day I was talking to one of our farmers, and I asked him why he thought Rwanda has come so far in such a short amount of time. And he said, “when you don't think you're going to be killed in the night, you're so ready to make your life better in the morning.” And it took me a second to realize how literal that statement was. They have already survived the worst possible thing that could ever happen.
What we want people to know is that while it seems like the world is just burning, there are places where things are getting better. And that's this place, and we get to be a part of that story. And we have structured our team so that money goes straight into our work, straight into our communities, and we are ready to use it as soon as we get it. And great things are happening with it — change is happening. And we are seeing it visibly, both in the short term and knowing the future of the long term.
We want people to know that they can easily be a part of all this amazing work and change that's happening here.