Relaymedia

Coffee Allows Christian Groups to Bring Jobs, Gospel to Uganda

( [email protected] ) May 21, 2007 12:39 PM EDT

FRANKLIN PARK, Pa. (AP) - Thirty workers at a Ugandan coffee farm thousands of miles from here plant the seeds of a venture that allows a group of western Pennsylvania Christians to bring jobs and the Gospel to one of Africa's poorest countries.

The nonprofit Christian East African and Equatorial Development Trust, which runs Ugandan Gold Coffee, is a network of Americans, Ugandans, coffee shops and distributors who plant, harvest, blend and sell coffee grown on a 36-acre farm in Uganda's Bunyoro-Kitara region, a former kingdom that has strong Anglican roots.

The venture has created more than two dozen jobs in an area where about 60 percent of people are unemployed. Profits are returned to Uganda to help meet basic needs. This year, the money went to dig 11 water wells.

"We wanted to create jobs over there, we wanted to create self-sustaining income," said Worth Helms, a retired insurance broker who stores boxes of the coffee in his suburban Pittsburgh home. "We wanted to teach people how to manage an entity like this."

Christians, Muslims and animists can use the wells or anything else that is the product of the coffee farm's profits, though the nonprofit has chosen a location for its work that is largely Christian. An added plus to the venture is bringing Christianity to more people, Helms said.

Today, the coffee can be purchased at two Pennsylvania coffee shops and one in Ohio. In addition, the Helms family sells the coffee online, and even turned their garage into a mini-packaging plant before Christmas to fill all the gift orders.

Jessica Buteraba, the Ugandan supervisor of the farm, makes $38 per month, high by Ugandan standards. The job has allowed her to build a new house with solar panels and pay school fees for her five children.

"The farm is different because ... it provides jobs, not just donations," improving the lives of 30 full-time workers and 100 migrants hired during the six-week harvest season, Buteraba said in a telephone interview.

A landlocked country of 24.4 million people in eastern Africa, Uganda is one of the poorest countries in the world, with an estimated per capita income of $300 per year. The country's work force has been decimated by the effects of the AIDS epidemic that has ravaged sub-Saharan Africa, with some 1.9 million children having lost one or both parents to the disease.

That number, along with the poverty Westerners see in Uganda, has helped attract Christian groups not only to Uganda, but to other countries in Africa - viewed by many evangelicals as the last frontier for spreading Christianity.

"There is the wide-based understanding that Christianity is growing there and that it will grow even more with charitable help from the United States and Canada," said Candy Gunther-Brown, an associate professor of religious students at Indiana University.

Most of the organizations - from the renowned World Vision to smaller ones, such as Mechanicsburg-based Global Awakening - donate food, clothing and other perishables. Missions assist in constructing homes, digging wells, teaching children and in spreading the word of Jesus, Gunther-Brown said.

But what makes the Pittsburgh-based Ugandan Gold enterprise so unusual is that the coffee farm gets most of its revenues from sales, not from donations, said Chris Scheitle, a Penn State doctoral candidate who is doing his dissertation on Christian nonprofits.

Ugandan Gold is also different from fair-trade enterprises concerned with paying workers fair wages. Helms said his coffee company is more successful at getting revenue back into Uganda - sending back $6.25 from every $8 pound bag sold in the United States, five times more than the average fair-trade business.

"The miracle ... is that all these people could come together and work and have the best-managed and -run farm," said Thad Cox, a businessman from Dallas who has acted as the farm's foreman since its establishment in 1999.

Sylvia Nannyonga-Tamusuza, 38, a Ugandan who got her doctorate in ethnomusicology from the University of Pittsburgh and works closely with the Pittsburgh-based group that runs Ugandan Gold, said the coffee farm is more helpful to Uganda than the traditional charitable model.

Missionary work should be "about enhancing people's capacity to sustain through their own lives," Nannyonga-Tamusuza said. "It means that whatever is created, it needs to be thought about so that people can manage it. They need to empower them, otherwise we perpetuate dependency."

Helms first visited Uganda in 1999. Upon his return, Helms, his wife, Janet, and four others decided they wanted to start a long-term business there. Coffee was chosen because it makes up 80 percent of Uganda's export revenue, he said.

"If you had asked me in 1998, would I be starting a business in Uganda in 1999, I would have said you were crazy," Helms said.

© 2007 AP Wire and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.