SAN LEANDRO It didn't take long for Pete Rogers to figure out his purpose in life once he started working at his family's gourmet coffee business, Rogers Family Co.
He was on a trip to Guatemala in 1986 with a wealthy coffee exporter as the company's coffee buyer and still a UC Berkeley student to check out some farms, when he noticed the dire living conditions of the workers there.
Sitting in the man's Land Rover, plush leather seats and all, Rogers asked the question that would forever change the way he and his family's company would do business: "Do you do anything to help these guys out?"
"No," the man replied. "They have their business and I have mine."
"So I went to a bar, got a napkin and immediately wrote down everything I wanted to see changed," Rogers said.
Ever since, San Leandro-based Rogers Family Co. at 1933 Davis St., Suite 308 has been buying directly from Central and South American coffee growers and boosting the living conditions in Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua and other countries through its independent charitable foundation, Community Aid.
A year ago, the company through Pete Rogers' direction decided to take its business and largesse to another poverty-stricken region of the world, Africa, starting with one of the continent's most resilient countries: Rwanda.
Already it has proven a success. And by continuing to implement some of the same coffee-growing practices the company has used to help build up other countries, Rogers said, the company is looking to take its new organic coffee operation in Rwanda to new heights and a new terrain.
"With Rwanda, we're going to start going to New Guinea and Tanzania," he said, "and this will inevitably help more countries in Africa."
Rwanda is most remembered for the genocide that took place in 1994, which gained worldwide attention after it left more than 1 million people dead.
Over the past several years, the Rwandan government has been able to turn things completely around by bringing together the two main groups involved in the conflict, the Tutsis and the Hutus.
What Rwanda is not well-known for, however, is its coffee.
The central African country's coffee crop is produced by thousands of very small farms, but for a long time it was sold only as a low-grade commercial export because farmers produced so many variations.
It wasn't until the international community began to focus its attention on Rwanda after the genocide that its coffee industry began to flourish.
With the help of a U.S. Agency for International Development initiative to streamline the coffee farmers' fermentation process, Rwandan farms have been able to produce extremely high-quality organic coffee and attract global attention. Starbucks was the first company to establish an operation in the country.
In just one year since Rogers launched his company's operation in Rwanda, he already has gained a lot of respect from within the global coffee industry.
Although Starbucks has established several programs that benefit the farmers who supply its coffee, Rogers has been able to maintain that direct link with the growers his family's company is known for.
"Just the people Pete Rogers is working with, he's impacting at least 15,000 households," Philip Schluter, managing director of Schluter SA, said in a telephone interview. Schluter is a family-owned company based in Geneva, Switzerland, that has been in the coffee business in Africa since 1858.
Still, Rogers said, the business the company has been able to produce out of Rwanda doesn't compare to the connections the company now has with the farmers there.
"It's about learning how to give," he said. "It's something I've learned how to do."
The project in Rwanda is just part of his family's longstanding mission to find coffee that is both socially responsible and environmentally friendly to its growers and the farms they harvest.
Even before Rogers first visited Guatemala and saw the appalling living conditions of workers, his parents, Jon B. Rogers and Barbara Rogers who founded the company in 1979 instilled in him and his siblings the importance of giving back to others.
But Pete Rogers said he knows there's a greater purpose in the work he does as well.
One day, when he's finished with the coffee business, his hope is that his four children and all his siblings' children will keep the family's mission alive so they can build relationships with the next generation of coffee farmers and continue the tradition of giving.