“It was September of 2011 when this all started. I had the pleasure of meeting President Kagame of Rwanda at an intimate gathering at a friend’s house. I had never heard anyone, in politics or not, speak so passionately about his people and his country. The simplicity he spoke was inspiring.” This led Grace Hightower De Niro to meet with the Rwandan ambassador in New York to learn more about Rwanda and its people. Of course, one of the first things to come to mind in conversations on Rwanda is the genocide only a few decades ago.
The ambassador’s wife touched Grace with this phrase… “They had to move on.” Grace had asked… “How do you move on with someone who is standing next to you who has killed your parents, or maybe your child or siblings?” The ambassador’s wife responded, “It’s simple. You either choose to live or not live.” Grace continued, “For me that stuck with me because I know that we have a great deal of challenges here in America and we think our challenges are so monumental (and some are), but nothing by comparison, with what they have gone through. It really started to make me think about my personal life and come to some realizations about living. These people really do live. They really do live in the moment.” This spurred Grace on to continue her quest. Though coffee had not been the focus of her thoughts initially, she told me, “Rwanda got into my spirit, into my soul.” A friend of hers recommended she get into coffee. “Really?” was her surprised response.
Grace continued brainstorming with the Rwandan ambassador. “He explained to me there would be a lot of benefits for education and healthcare by working with Rwandan coffee farmers.” She had never tasted Rwandan coffee and was recommended by the ambassador to try the Rwandan café in New York called “Bourbon Coffee.” Though she was not familiar with the café, her husband was.
Grace continued, “Something just stuck with me. I had seen the movie, “Hotel Rwanda,” which also stuck with me, long before my meeting the president and my heart went out. I couldn’t quite fathom, how could this happen? And the world didn’t really stop it. That got into my soul as well.”
“I came to realize that it is far more rewarding to work your land with your hands than to accept handouts. One of the things I was really impressed with was when President Kagame said he did not want his county to be dependent upon aid. He wanted trade. I like that idea. I think empowering people is the way to go. I don’t think you empower people when you give a handout.”
“My vision with the coffee project (and there is something added to it every day) is that I would like to see women and more young girls given the opportunity (not excluding males) to do business, to learn, to be educated, to have vision, to have voice.”
In the short time Coffee of Grace has been purchasing coffees and paying premium prices more than 9,000 coffee families have been impacted. “We were told by the people in Rwanda that the sale of the coffee had helped build the local school.”
Grace focused on trying to find washing stations and farmers that are providing [social] services. However, she did emphasize, “Quality comes first. It has to be quality certified by us, meaning it has to be something we would want to personally consume. All of the coffee is Q-Graded at 85 or above.”
Throughout this journey in coffee, Grace has insisted on two guiding principles: “The quality had to be really, really good. And it had to be sustainable.” When asked about expanding beyond Rwanda, Grace shared, “I am very open to working in other coffee origins and especially working with women farmers in these countries.” Her parting thought was, “I would like to achieve success, sustainability, economic investment, social awareness, and a new way of doing business while having a fabulous time. It is a little bit of fun, and a little scary.”
Grace Hightower De Niro is an American mother, philanthropist, actress and singer. As a board member of the New York Women’s Foundation and a member of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance, Grace strives to empower women and their communities to achieve meaningful and sustainable lives through their work. Grace’s love of coffee and dedication to empowering women worldwide led her to launch “Grace Hightower & Coffees of Rwanda,” with the mission of enhancing the lives of the Rwandan people by providing opportunities to market their unique products to the world. Grace also serves as a board member of the New York Fund for Public Schools, as well as a member of Ronald Perlman’s Women’s Heart Health Advisory Council. The New York Women’s Foundation and the American Cancer Society of New York City have honored her for her work and dedication. Grace resides in New York City with her husband, actor Robert De Niro, and their two children.