Six years ago, Sarah Buchanan’s life changed while she was holding a flashlight. She was in Kenya on a mission trip, providing light for a dentist who was working on children. It was a small responsibility that became the impetus for big change in her life: she’d spent the flight to Kenya studying for the LSAT, but on the flight back, she ditched the pre-law track and began plotting a different kind of future—one that would let her give back and do something about the extreme poverty she had seen in Africa.
In 2012, her plans were realized in Kula Project, a nonprofit that Buchanan founded to help Rwandan coffee-tree farmers create sustainable incomes. After starting with just a handful of farmers, Kula now works with 250 families, teaching them entrepreneurial skills, helping them get access to planting supplies like fertilizer, and later, selling their coffee at fair-trade prices. “People always ask why I was interested in farming,” she says. “But it’s not about farming. I wanted to give women a chance to send their kids to school, and we do that through giving them a sustainable income, which comes from farming.” Each Kula farmer is given between four and 800 coffee trees, each of which provides income for 30 years once fully mature.
Impoverished countries can be awash with young, foreign (and often white) women with ideas on how to make a difference. Buchanan was well aware of the stereotype—and made it a priority not to become it. Kula’s farming program is created with input from both community leaders and geopolitical experts on Rwanda, and is designed with a six-year exit plan in mind. The organization doesn’t recruit farmers, but instead asks existing participants to invite their friends into the program. “So often, foreigners come to these communities with their own ideas, and the citizens never feel equal,” Buchanan says. “I made it a point to our farmers that I was here as a partner, not their boss. If you affirm people’s inherent dignity, they feel ownership of what you’re trying to do together and are even more motivated to make it work.”
When a farmer called out her early decision to give every farmer the same number of trees, Sarah took it as the highest compliment—and saw it as a moment of success for Kula. “This farmer told me, ‘Sarah, you cannot give every farmer 500 trees. I don’t have space for 500, and Gertrude has space for 700, so you cannot have equal numbers,’” she says. “It made me so happy. Usually they would have taken the 500 each and redistributed it amongst themselves after I left.”
It’s this candor, and the relationships she’s developed with her farmers—“they’re not impact numbers; they’re friends, and some of they are family”—that inform every decision Buchanan makes at Kula. All of the families Kula works with either survived or committed the genocide, and for them, the act of planting and harvesting coffee trees is as much about forgiveness and healing, as it is about economics. And that’s not lost on Sarah. “Our farmers often say they find peace through coffee,” she says. “By working together for a common goal of progress, they begin to see each other in each other, as opposed to holding onto differences created from colonial rule.”
It’s also part of the reason she’s been cautious about how she scales Kula’s efforts in Rwanda. “I want to make an impact that’s deep, not wide,” Buchanan says. “If we didn’t offer training or follow through on impact measurements, and just gave farmers trees to plant, I could help thousands of people tomorrow. The need is there. But surface help doesn’t get to the root of the problem. If I help them plant a thousand trees, but they can’t get the right fertilizer or get their coffee to market later, what good would we have done?”
As for her style, Buchanan agrees with Alternative’s philosophy of packing light and with intention, taking only the necessities. “When I’m in Africa, I very much dress like I do at home, just a little more strategically. It’s taken me a few years, but I’ve finally developed some travel hacks that really help. I always bring dark jeans and black jeans. I can wear them over and over again without having to wash them, as my access to laundry isn’t reliable or frequent. Solid color shirts are awesome, and then I add a thin scarf to them, so I repeat the shirts as well. Button-up chambray shirts are also a girl’s best friend. Lastly, I like to wear hats, and adding a cute hat to a pretty bland outfit can change the whole thing.”
WRITTEN BY FEIFEI SUN