By: Caroline Newman | University Communications
You already know that coffee can wake you up in the morning. What you might not know is that your morning cup can also help men and women in a war-torn country halfway around the world put down their weapons and provide for their families.
That’s the premise behind University of Virginia alumni Huw Rees-Jones and Mary Lansden Brewbaker’s startup business, Good Grounds Coffee Co., which sells coffee produced by former fighters and war widows in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Their coffee is now being sold in several specialty coffee shops in the United States (including Mudhouse Coffee Roasters in Charlottesville) even as the couple continues to seek new partnerships with investors and nonprofits.
For almost 20 years, the Congo has been mired in one of the bloodiest conflicts since World War II. More than 5 million people have died; job opportunities are scarce and many Congolese are forced to become paid fighters just to support their families.
Companies like Good Grounds, partnering with local farmers’ cooperatives, provide a viable alternative, helping former fighters farm and sell coffee in exchange for handing their weapons over to the United Nations.
Rees-Jones and Brewbaker, who graduated in 2014 and married a year later in Charlottesville, heard about the cooperatives from a business partner in Kigali, Rwanda, where they live. One cooperative, based on the Congo’s Idjwi Island, was struggling to sell its coffee and pay its 5,000 farmers after the coffee market crashed in 2015.
Some of the farmers were in danger, making desperate, treacherous journeys across the jungle to smuggle coffee into neighboring countries like Rwanda, where coffee exports are more widely known and trusted by international buyers.
“A lot of Congolese coffee has been exported under other countries’ names, because Rwanda and other nearby countries have better reputations for very good coffee,” said Brewbaker, who studied economics and religious studies at UVA. “Congo does not have that reputation yet, even though the coffee is of the same quality.”
The couple wanted to help and in late 2015 traveled to Idjwi Island to meet with the cooperative. Farmers gave tours of their fields and shared how farming coffee had helped them build brick homes for their families and feed and clothe their children, all without resorting to war.