JULY 2003 WAS THE BEGINNING of a relationship between two trailblazing women who aspired to make their way into the male dominated global coffee trade. Epiphanie Mukashyaka owner of Bufcoffee, was a coffee processor, the first woman in the country to process fully washed specialty coffee. Phyllis Johnson of BD Imports, a US based green coffee importer shared dreams with Epiphaanie along the beautiful countryside of southern Rwanda. Both entrepreneurs believed that coffee could be the vehicle to improve their lives as well as their communities. Back then, Phyllis was new to coffee importing and Epiphanie was new to coffee processing. As one would imagine they wanted to support each other and BD Imports became Bufcoffee’s first buyer, purchasing almost 8,000 lbs of green (raw) coffee. The sale gave Epiphanie well needed funds and confidence that she could operate in a global market, for Phyllis, she gained the opportunity to provide a special coffee based on a special relationship from Rwanda back in the US.
There was a little uncertainty in the start of their relationship. The coffee sample Epiphanie brought to the cupping table during their first meeting had not been processed well, Epiphanie was still learning. The coffee wasn’t the quality that Phyllis sought for her business. After Phyllis returned home, she and Epiphanie stayed in touch and discovered that something had gone wrong with processing the sample and she sent a new set of samples. Epiphanies’ coffee was indeed high quality, with beautiful flavor notes, full bodied, and just the right acidity.
While Epiphanie was overcoming her business challenges in Rwanda, Phyllis faced an uphill battle offering Rwanda coffee to a market that was either unfamiliar with the country or unwilling to offer the coffee because of the country’s history. However, it wasn’t long before discerning coffee roasters started to notice that Rwanda coffee was very special. As a matter of fact, Rwanda coffee producers, with the support of USAID soon became highly sought after in the global market. The coffee became so popular that in the next season larger importers squeezed BD Imports out of the market and Phyllis could not purchase Bufcoffee. Unfortunately, Epiphanie was advised to sell her coffee to other importers instead of BD Imports. Being a small company with few resources, BD Imports couldn’t compete. Phyllis had been warned that the coffee trade wasn’t always friendly and larger players could easily shut down a small company. For Phyllis, it was important to help ensure Epiphanie was successful even if it meant that she wasn’t involved in the transaction. Phyllis contacted all the customers she had gained in selling the first shipment of Bufcoffee and advised them they would have to purchase the Bufcoffee from her competitors going forward. Although the business relationship changed the two ladies remained friends throughout the years and occasionally saw each other at coffee conferences.
In 2019 Phyllis was in the country for a conference and got a chance to meet up with Epiphanie. They took a ride out to the countryside to see the farms and to see how far Epiphanie had come since the first time they met in 2003.
Today, Bufcoffee has grown from operating one to five coffee processing stations that are spread throughout the southern region of Rwanda. The company employs over 7000 smallholder farmers and is one of the most respected companies in the country. Epiphanie was the first women coffee processor in the country in 2003. Today she is a role model for the many women not only in Rwanda but for women around the globe. Bufcoffee has won several awards for its coffees. Epiphanie’s son Samuel graduated from college and joined the business and has taken a lead role in the business. Bufcoffee ships its coffees to Australia, Belgium, Japan, Norway, South Africa, South Korea, Switzerland, UK and the USA.
BD Imports offered a small start, with a lot of encouragement to Bufcoffee, playing a small part in what turned out to be a huge success for the rural community in southern Rwanda and coffee drinkers around the world. Epiphanie presented her long-term friend and first customer with a basket of flowers during a recent visit to one of her most popular washing stations in Nyarusiza. It was a joy for the two ladies to spend time together at the school that Bufcoffee and one of their international customers built. “It has been such an incredible experience watching Bufcoffee grow over the past 17 years. We were most excited to see how Epiphanie’s dream to help the local community became a reality. Epiphanie is a testament to the fact that investing in women pays off for the community. It is a joy to visit several of her washing stations and the newly built school in Nyamagaba district.”