Faculty Voice Dan Clay
Dan Clay is Rwanda’s Juan Valdez. But unlike the fictional Valdez who merely trekked through Colombia with a mule laden with bags of coffee beans, Clay helped nurture the seeds of Rwanda’s gourmet coffee industry, thus giving the African nation a strong economic shield to protect peace and prosperity.
Clay’s relationship with Rwanda budded in 1979 while he was working at the U.S. Census Bureau’s International Statistical Programs Center. Building research capacity in Rwanda—as well as a number of similar countries—sparked a lifelong passion in Clay. The passion, however, burned brightest for one country. While the social scientist and value-chain expert’s relationships with other countries faded, Rwanda captured Clay’s spirit and drew him back time and time again.
In 1992, Clay moved his family from Michigan to Kigali, Rwanda, taking a job as director of a five-year food security project led by MSU and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Clay fostered great successes working with Rwanda’s Ministry of Agriculture, helping the country tackle issues such as addressing the decline in agricultural productivity, developing strategies to combat soil erosion, and improving small farmers’ access to seeds, fertilizer and other tools to promote sustainable farming.
Contributing to the nation’s agricultural improvement yielded career fulfillment for Clay, and his wife and three elementary school-aged children flourished in the tight-knit international community.
“We all thrived and look back on this stay fondly, even with our abrupt exit,” he says.
Clay was playing tennis the evening of April 6, 1994, when he heard a massive explosion. The threat of potential uprising nipped at the edges of Rwanda’s capital. So Clay became accustomed to the din of machine guns and mortar fire, which was as common as car horns and construction noise. This explosion, however, was different.
“This one was big, really big,” he recalls. “Driving home that night, I had an eerie feeling, and there was little to no traffic on the streets.”
Clay later learned that rebels had shot down the plane carrying Rwanda’s president, Juvenal Habyarimana, and Burundi’s president, Cyprien Ntaryamira, as they returned from signing the peace accords, effectively nullifying the hours-old agreement and sparking Rwanda’s genocide.
At 2 a.m., mortars flying overhead jolted Clay and his family awake. For four days, they endured fighting just outside their neighborhood. They huddled in their house with lights off and curtains drawn, surviving largely on crackers and waiting for safe passage to the airport. Finally, the U.S. Embassy switched evacuation routes, and an armed convoy was arranged to neighboring Burundi. Escorted by Marines, they were each allowed only one bag. Before being whisked out of the country, they had to say goodbye to their beloved 14-year-old Labrador retriever that had to be left behind.
More important, they bid farewell to a country that would never be the same again.
The grief of losing a family pet pales, of course, to the genocide that claimed an estimated one million Rwandans and ripped deep wounds into the nation’s psyche. Nation building and food security became even larger issues than before.
For those who returned, however, few touchstones to the past remained. Rwandan families stayed away, opting to remain in exile rather than return to their homeland; international aid workers arrived without spouses and children; destruction displaced order; and anger and fear simmered just below the surface as the Rwandans who stayed began stitching their lives back together.
“It’s taken many years to get over it, if it’s possible to completely get over what happened,” Clay admits. “This was their holocaust, and many will never forget it.”
A mere two years after the atrocities, Clay returned and began doing what he does best—making connections to restore food security. Four years later, he helped launch the specialty coffee industry, which contributed to resurrecting normalcy by stabilizing the recovering nation.
In the ’90s, Rwanda had neither a gourmet coffee industry nor the accompanying high-end java culture. Rwanda’s coffee was limited to commodity coffee, the majority of which was being shipped to Europe.
By 2005, specialty coffee accounted for 4 percent of Rwandan coffee production. Today, it claims one-third of the coffee industry, according to the Rwanda Agriculture Board.
As Rwanda’s minister of public service and labor, Anastase Murekezi witnessed this growth firsthand. He saw the Rwandan government introduce the specialty coffee industry; he watched it grow as USAID programs nurtured the burgeoning industry; and he’s relished the commitment of individuals like Clay who have helped stabilize his country by playing an important role in increasing exports and, ultimately, improving Rwandan farmers’ income.
“Dan’s greatest traits are humility, consistency and team spirit,” says Murekezi, who’s worked with Clay since 1991. “His assistance was crucial for the coffee sector in Rwanda. His contributions went hand in hand with his team spirit to manage key projects, partnerships and players in the Rwandan specialty coffee industry.”
PEARL of Wisdom
One of those key partnerships that created the specialty coffee industry was PEARL—Partnership to Enhance Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages. In support of local coffee producers, Clay and his team recognized Rwandans could dramatically increase the value of their harvest and substantially increase profits by upgrading harvesting and processing methods to the higher standards of specialty coffee.
To this end, PEARL was established. The local producers wanted fully washed coffee. Working with colleagues at the National University of Rwanda and Texas A&M University, Clay’s team introduced new farming and harvesting practices as well as methods of washing and sorting beans by quality.
The successful venture created some 160 new washing stations and cupping labs where trained employees taste-test local coffees to determine their flavor profiles and value. In only a few short years, coffee prices from PEARL cooperatives nearly tripled.
Success begets success, and thanks to help from MSU, Clay and a flourishing network, Rwanda coffee has attracted the eye of worldwide distributors.
Sometimes the best way to connect with international distributors is with a single cup. Angelo Orrichio, chairman and CEO of Michigan-based Paramount Coffee, remembers his first taste.
“I was asked to cup the coffee and offer my opinion,” he recalls. “I liked it, but my biggest concern was if I’d be able to buy enough to meet demand.”
Working through a co-op of farmers, Orrichio and Paramount joined Clay and others to boost and improve production. Together they built more washing stations and introduced new drying and culling techniques. On many of these trips, Orrichio traveled with Clay, who impressed the CEO with his spectrum of knowledge.
“Dan is able to entertain questions from all levels—government officials, importers, exporters, farmers—because he understands how the entire value chain works,” Orrichio says.
Over the years, Paramount’s relationship with Rwanda has proven profitable. Paramount emphasizes sharing its wealth among its partners.
“Since the coffee has sold well, we want to give back to the farmers,” Orrichio says.
“Rather than simply give money back, though, we identified a common goal.”
In this case, the reward was goats.
Goats are high currency in Rwanda, and working with local livestock buyers, Paramount purchased and donated 400 goats to the co-op’s top producers. The goats, which produced milk, cheese and, later, meat, were presented during a special ceremony attended by Orrichio, Clay and others.
“To see this partnership grow from zero to a prosperous one that sees us buying their coffee at fair-market prices has been rewarding for everyone,” Orrichio says. “I was able to shake hands with all of them, and the celebration left everyone feeling good about how it has all turned out.”
Paramount’s generosity continues to this day. Following the gift of goats, the company has donated machinery to improve production and boost farmers’ income. And this year, Paramount launched a fund for the farmers’ children to attend college and to support coffee industry internships when they graduate. Paramount has also given generously to MSU’s Pearl Rwanda Coffee Fund, which supports Clay’s work.
Thanks to Clay’s dedication, Rwanda’s success is spilling over into neighboring countries. In Burundi, where Clay escaped to safety 20 years ago, the Rwandan model has been adopted. Clay’s leadership has led to higher-quality coffee and markets for the mountainous nation’s top-growing regions, and he’s coordinated the efforts of government agencies and local farmers to replicate Rwanda’s success, according to Orrichio.
While Clay is too humble to accept outpourings of praise, many people are raising glasses, ahem, cups to toast his work. Other accolades for his work come in the form of national coffee competitions. In these contests, members of Rwanda’s—and now Burundi’s—co-ops are scoring on the presidential level, the highest possible score.
One Rwandan toasting Clay is Alfred Bizoza, a professor at the University of Rwanda, who has participated in a number of research projects with Clay.
“Every time I meet with Dan, it’s like I’m sitting in the agriculture development section of the Library of Rwanda,” Bizoza praises. “His life is like scientific gold that we still have more to extract for current and future generations.”
So, to Dan Clay, many Rwandans join Bizoza in raising their cups—filled with award-winning java—to thank him for his dedication.
This year marks 20 years since the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi, in which an estimated one million Rwandans perished.
In January, Rwanda launched Kwibuka20, a series of activities to raise awareness and prepare the world for the 20th commemoration. A national period of mourning started April 7, the date the genocide began two decades ago.