Hero: Amyie Kao Makes Water from Coffee

To honor Amyie, we’re donating 50% of our online sales from October 6 thru November 5 to help fund a clean water well in Rwanda. Shop here.

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Amyie Kao was getting restless. It was late one night in 2012 and her husband Daniel was under the sink, installing a filtration system in their new coffee roasting facility. He kept fiddling and adjusting and testing, inching towards optimal water to brew their coffee, for hours.

They had recently founded Mariposa Coffee Roastery together and moved the business into their first dedicated roasting space in Norman, Oklahoma, near the University of Oklahoma. Daniel started roasting coffee in college at OU, a hobby that quickly escalated to an obsession. He built his own roasters, housing one in a rented storage space a few miles away because it wasn’t allowed on campus.

As Amyie watched him tinker she thought about the importance of water in coffee—in brewing it and in growing it. In her mind, a restless and combinatorial mind, Amyie overlaid two maps. The first showed the global “coffee belt,” the region straddling the equator where coffee is grown around the world. The second was a map she had seen of the global water crisis, which showed where billions of people, many of them in sub-Saharan Africa, didn’t have access to clean drinking water. The two maps highlighted many of the same areas.

Amyie and Daniel knew that quality coffee requires attention and care from farmers, who grow and carefully handpick and process coffee cherries to produce great beans. “When we roast our coffee, our goal is to honor the hard work that’s been poured into every single coffee bean,” said Amyie. This sense of responsibility to the farmers behind their coffee is a core value of their business. Hence Daniel’s hours under the sink.

When Amyie realized that many coffee farmers live in areas where clean drinking water is scarce, it was an affront to this sense of connection and responsibility to the farmers. To learn more she contacted Water4, an Oklahoma City nonprofit that drills wells in water-scarce communities around the world.

Water4 sent Amyie some photos from Rwanda, taken in a district called Nyaruguru (Nyah-roo-guh-roo). Amyie knew the region. It’s beans won the Cup of Excellence in 2011, a competition known as the Oscars of the coffee world. She had seen a one pound bag of coffee from Nyaruguru selling for $30.

The photos showed the only water source for three villages in the district. It was a pool of brown water, an unprotected spring that surely held bacteria and parasites. “People had to hike 45 minutes down a mountain to a water source that could be contaminated,” said Amyie, “and then haul heavy jerry cans full of water back up to their village.”

The people growing $30-per-pound coffee, Amyie realized, didn’t have clean water to drink.

A Dodgy Part of Town

Making this sort of connection—between her own pursuits and larger justice issues—isn’t unusual for Amyie. After working for a U.S. Senator during college she led letter-writing campaigns for social justice, having learned that handwritten letters carry much more weight than form letters. When she was president of the Pre-Med Club at OU she gave a presentation about genocide because, to her, the connection between medicine and global justice was inescapable.

Amyie was born in Oklahoma City to Chinese parents who had owned grocery stores in Vietnam. The Vietnamese had seized nearly everything they owned during the war, and they had come to America as refugees.

Amyie Kao, Ember Hero

She grew up in what she calls a “dodgy” part of town. Years later she watched a documentary about human trafficking and saw shots of her childhood street. She says she grew up playing in her backyard a lot because the front wasn’t safe. But still she remembers it brightly. “I remember spending countless hours playing under our giant pecan tree, exploring my grandmother’s garden, and romping in the dirt,” she said.

Her parents had forgone education to work in their family business in Vietnam, so when they got to the U.S. they had few professional opportunities. They took low-wage jobs and went to night school to try to improve their situation. But “they didn’t quite make it out of the low income bracket,” Amyie said.

She remembers being six years old when her grandmother had a stroke. The family rushed to the emergency room. Amyie said the “doctors were incredible impatient with the language and cultural barriers.” The hospital staff openly discussed the family’s poverty and that they wouldn’t be able to pay the bill, thinking that no one in the family could understand them. But Amyie understood. They told the family to seek treatment elsewhere.

“Most physicians try to be kind,” she said. “And then there are some that aren’t. I felt powerless to do anything about it.”

As the family’s best English speaker Amyie often played intermediary between her family and America. She said that most people at most times have been kind to her family. But some people at some times—often important times—treated them as inferior and unimportant. And young Amyie stood in the middle, relaying the messages.

Water Made from Coffee

More people die each year because they don’t have access to clean water and sanitation than from all the violence in the world, including wars. And the women and children who usually walk long distances to fetch water miss out on time working or in school and are in danger of harassment and sexual assault.

“We had this realization that, while we’re tinkering with our water system, the very people producing our coffee might not be alive to see the next harvest.” To Amyie, the connection between coffee and water became inescapable. Honing their craft of roasting coffee wouldn’t be enough to honor the farmers growing it. She and Daniel would have to do something about water.

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They discussed it and decided to set aside a portion of their profits to build wells in coffee growing communities. “We’re a small startup,” she said, “so we had to set aside a little money each month.” After nearly two years they were able to commission Water4 to build a well in Nyaruguru.

The people in those villages now spend less time collecting and hauling water, and when they do get it, it’s clean and safe to drink. This means lower risk of disease, less vulnerability to violence, and more time spent at school or in the garden. In a place where clean water was nearly impossible to come by, a well is a small miracle.

Amyie and Daniel are setting aside money for a second well now. They want to put another well in the same area, so that if and when one needs maintenance, a common challenge, the people there still have clean water to drink.

And they’re also saving up for a trip to Rwanda to visit this place where the coffee map and the water map intersect. They want to see where their treasured coffee beans come from. They want to shake the hands of the farmers who nurture them. And they want to know, directly, the importance of water in coffee.

To honor Amyie, we’re donating 50% of our online sales from October 6 thru November 5 to help fund a well in Rwanda. Shop here.

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Lindsay Branham Helps Child Soldiers Find Home Again

 We’re giving 50% of our online sales for one month to Lindsay’s Mobile Cinema project. Shop here.Lindsay Branham, Ember Hero

Shooting was stalled, and Lindsay Branham and her team of New York filmmakers were stuck in a village in the struggling and beautiful Republic of South Sudan. Their production schedule demanded action, but local government officers were threatening to shut them down completely. They had come to film a story about an abducted child soldier returning home, not for Sundance or box office glory, but as a tool to help people in Central Africa recover from the very real abductions and violence they had endured at the hands of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

“In the shadowlands of pain and despair we find slow, dark beauty,” wrote Irish Poet John O’Donohue, in a quote Lindsay shared with me by email. “Beauty,” he continued, “triumphs over the suffering inherent in life.” In the LRA’s ongoing brutality in Central Africa, Lindsay found staggering depths of pain. She brought the film crew to capture the triumph of reconciliation and healing, of beauty, and to help it along.

The LRA is notorious for abducting children and forcing them to commit violent acts against their own families and communities. Lindsay and her partners, including the Congolese organization SAIPED, create beautiful short films that capture these traumas, and that illustrate a path to recovery. Together with techniques like role playing and community discussion, these films help people, families, and communities navigate the emotional minefield of losing their children and, sometimes, seeing theme escape and return home. She calls it the Mobile Cinema project, and she created it as part of her work with Discover the Journey, a non-profit network of media makers and storytellers that works to change the lives of children in conflict.

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“After the very last meeting, when we were told we would not be able to continue the project, I walked out to our car and finally just cried,” said Lindsay. They had already cast villagers for the film, and she felt that she was letting them down, along with their whole community.

When she got back to the village she called a community meeting with the cast to break the news. One by one, cast members expressed their sadness. Samson, the young teenage boy who’d been cast in the lead role, started to cry. His brother had been abducted by the LRA and was still missing, he said. He saw his role in the film as a way to honor his brother by helping others who’d been through his trauma.

“To make meaning from [pain] was something sacred,” said Lindsay, “and I hadn’t seen that or predicted how deeply people would want that until we were there sitting in the grass saying we were leaving.”

They had eleven days left for a shoot that needed three weeks. The next morning they flew from South Sudan to the Democratic Republic of Congo and started auditions that afternoon. “Thankfully,” said Lindsay, “the actors we ended up working with in Congo showed the same level of zeal and excitement for the vision. And it only communicated to me just how much people want to be agents in their own healing process.” They shot into early mornings and, with the help of a heroic Congolese producer and translator, finished a film about a child soldier’s tumultuous return to the home he’d been ripped away from, a film that will promote healing throughout the region.

In a conversation that spanned a number of emails and a rainy-day interview in Uganda, I asked Lindsay why it’s worth it to her to engage with such painful stories, to really care about these people and so to take on an element of their suffering.

I keep myself open to pain, and beauty in pain, because I loose my own humanity if I don’t,” said Lindsay. “If it’s the natural rhythm of life to die and live and die and live and die and live—our cells are constantly dying and being regenerated, plants are dying and being regenerated, that seems to be the cycle, the way our world functions—do we not also have to have our own souls and hearts die in order to fully live?

Shop our brand new products by December 11 and we’ll donate 50% of your purchase to support Lindsay’s work. And see Lindsay’s first Mobile Cinema film here.