Ember Hero: Amyie Kao Makes Water from Coffee

Story by James Pearson 

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.

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.

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.

Posted on October 6, 2014 and filed under Ember Hero.