Actress and philanthropist Grace Hightower De Niro never intended to get into the coffee industry. That changed, however, after she heard the Rwandan President Paul Kagame speak at a small gathering in 2012. Already greatly moved by the film Hotel Rwanda, about that country’s genocide in 1994, Grace was further stirred by the president’s words and decided to visit it.
She was inspired by the people she met there. “I felt a compassion and synergy with the people of Rwanda,” she explains, “and a need to do something. But it wasn’t a need to do charity – I felt the need to create some kind of opening where Rwandans could do and be for themselves. I’d visited some of their coffee farms while I was there and discovered that they were small, family-owned lots that did everything manually. And the coffee was exceptional.”
Coffee of Grace was born of a desire not just to share the exceptional coffee of Rwanda with the Western world, but also to share the spirit of its people. “I specifically set out to source from those co-ops that had women in the business,” says Grace, “but I also wanted the Rwandans to be able to receive what was proper and appropriate for their product. It can be very challenging for small farmers to get a fair price, so I decided to deal with them directly. I was – and still am – willing to pay above the market price because the product is wonderful and it’s fair to the farmers.”
In addition to dealing directly and personally with the farmers, Coffee of Grace also strives to never use pesticides or chemicals, making it an environmentally friendly company as well as a socially conscious one. It now sources from other countries, too, and supplies many high-end hotels and restaurants in America, including every US Nobu location. At the centre of it all, however, remain Grace’s compassion, empathy and desire to make a difference.
“My vision is to open up cafés and train people from different communities to move into the service industry,” she explains. “I want to help create jobs and help people take their lives into their own hands – because that’s the way the world should be working.”