A renaissance woman in the truest sense, Grace Hightower De Niro has never been one to quell her inspirations. The actress, singer, philanthropist, and mother of two—-somewhere within the red-carpeted, meeting-laden, downtown traffic that guides her days– still finds time the time and space to create.
Understandably, said creations have been preceded by grand inspirations. After a chance meeting with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, she started Grace Hightower & Coffees Of Rwanda, a fair-trade coffee grown by family-owned farms in Rwanda and currently sold domestically at Whole Foods and other upscale grocers. The proceeds from each $12.50 bag sold go directly to the families and farmers that create these superiorly delicious blends. Beyond the desire to produce the best coffee on the shelves, Hightower De Niro wanted to establish an outlet that would both empower Rwandans and promote the progress of the country, socially and economically.
On this, the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide, we took a moment to speak with Hightower De Niro about social inspiration, second-chances, and her fantastic journey to create that amazing cup of Joe.
EBONY: I’m actually having my first cup (of your coffee) now.
Grace Hightower De Niro: Oh really!? Which one?
EBONY: Medium Dark.
GH: The Medium Dark!? Oh That’s my favorite! All of them are very good but the Medium Dark is my favorite one.
EBONY: It's excellent! How did this all begin?
GH: Well, I was initially inspired two years ago when I met [Rwandan President] Paul Kagame at a dinner engagement. When asked what the tools were needed to improve the progress of his country, he proclaimed that, “We want trade, not aid”. It was interesting and profound hearing that from a country that small and poverty ridden, especially after the genocide. These were people that wanted to not only create, but to use those creations to build sustainable life for themselves. I became increasingly interested and, after some research, found out that coffee was one of the country’s main resources. I planned my first trip to Rwanda and the rest was the beginning of an amazing journey. I found their coffee to be delicious! I think when we think of coffee, we immediately think of Latin America. I never knew Africa was the mother. Not just the mother continent, but the best coffees come from Africa. It was a most interesting discovery for me.
EBONY: Was there a singular, defining moment that solidified your decision to start the company beyond Kagame’s “Trade, not aid” declaration?
GH: When I traveled to Rwanda prior to creating the company, the countryside and farms touched me deeply on a personal level. Growing up in the south and growing up on a farm. The humble backgrounds. Growing up in an environment where people of color, if only given the opportunity, could have their creativity be further expressed. As I rode along the one-lane highway in Rwanda, all of that came back to me. I knew. There was a “knowing”. I knew that I wanted to work in some type of way within the country. My vision is to hire qualified employees that may have not yet had the opportunity to create a better life for themselves, or did have one but might have came down on hard times and need a hand. My philosophy is more of a hand-up than a hand-down. I truly believe in allowing people to lead with their integrity. Everyone has something to contribute to this world. It’s just a matter of being given that opportunity to do so.
EBONY: Describe the process of entering and establishing yourself within the farming community in Rwanda.
GH: As we were over there we first learned about the coffee-farming process itself. There is one harvest a year that starts in April and ends in the early area of June. The monies from that one particular harvest has to last them all year. So these are quite small, family-owned, and handed down through generations. And are all manually worked. Cherries are manually picked, sorted, and dried. They are soiled several times and washed at community washing stations. After multiple sort and drying processes, they are taken into the city of Kigali and held at the quality assurance center just prior to being exported. We used the time spent learning the process as an opportunity to also learn about the farmers and people within this community. We had two coffee consultants with us and chose the coffee based on these standards, as well as trying to target partnerships that had female input and participation. There were quite a few. Women have been very instrumental in the progress of the country since 1994. That was very important to us.
We used the several months it took for the coffee to be imported into New York to formulate the company. It all happened unusually fast and almost simultaneously. At the same time we were looking at distribution and ways we were going to market and bring about awareness of the coffee itself. Above all, we wanted to make sure the product was of top quality. That was the main prerequisite. The quality has to be really great. Then we would be able to tell the story.
EBONY: Was it easy to build a rapport with the other farmers as a Western outsider and knowing that these farms are generations old. Were there any hurdles?
GH: No, it was quite easy. The farming community is an incredible group of people and, when you look in their eyes, you can see a real authenticity and truthfulness and honesty there. They have a great read on people and they know who is there in sincerity and who will help them build a sustainable life as well. It was easy after sitting and speaking with them and giving my vision of what I felt the company could create and how they could participate. You have to keep in mind that this is the main resource of their income and represents 50% of the cash crop in Rwanda. This is their means for living. The farmers are eager to do business and don’t particularly want to wait to be given something. I have only dealt within Rwanda at this point and my vision is to source from small farmers globally. I want to give them the best price they can get. They WANT to do business so the transparency is there. All questions are answered and you don’t feel like you have to play checkers with anyone. I enjoy that and can only work within a company or own a company that is transparent. Everything else is off the table for me.
EBONY: This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide. The New York Times Magazine recently ran a very powerful photo essay, where portraits were taken of surviving victims standing alongside—at times even embracing—the perpetrators they were given the opportunity to pardon. It’s a beautifully polarizing look at the path towards reconstruction within the country. What sense of social reconciliation have you been able to gather from your vantage point?
GH: I did see the article and keep up with many of the stories that have been coming out. While I was last visiting, we spoke with a young lady and her brother that had escaped during the genocide as orphans and came back to reclaim their coffee farm. Hearing their story and what they have gone through was profound and moving. To be able to move forward and live after having to decide if they wanted to victims or if they were going to start to create a life for themselves. The social reconciliation process there is interesting. It’s affected all areas of business in Rwanda. You learn that once you let go, you are able to become more open and creative. We all could learn from it. It’s not easy. They’re not saying, “I forgive you and everything is great”. At the same time, you have to make a decision. Are you going to be shut down with anger and hatred or can you let it go and move forward and try to create an environment in which it never happens again? We also went to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. It’s a very awakening experience. You become very aware of your mortality, the time you have here, what you decide do with that time, and how you want to participate with the world at large.
EBONY: What has the feedback been like back here in the states?
GH: It has been amazing! I had a person come up to me and say that they had been a Starbucks fan forever and were now were changing over. It’s hard for people to change their habits, especially habits that involve food and drink. It’s been really wonderfully well received. And I don’t have to sell it. You taste it and it really sells itself, as you can tell! (Laughs) We have been very fortunate. Again, many people have no idea Africa has coffee. What I’m doing is considered “specialty coffee," and it’s important to get people to understand where it comes from. From crop to cup. The teaching is a large part of the vision.