Building Communities Carolyn Sun  | February 1, 2019

Through His Virginia Coffee Business, One of Sudan’s Lost Boys Offers Hope to a Generation of Refugees

“I don’t want to let them down,” Manyang Reath Kher says.

“Them” refers to Sudanese refugees living in camps in Gambela, Ethiopia – a plight that Kher knows intimately. He was born in Sudan and became a refugee at the age of three, along with more than 20,000 other young Sudanese boys, who fled the country to escape a bloody civil war.  Collectively, these displaced and commonly orphaned boys have become known as “The Lost Boys of Sudan.”

“They lost homes, they lost healthcare and education,” Kher says, who’d lost his father to the war and became separated from his mother and sister at the time.

He spent the next 13 years in various refugee camps in Gambela, a region along the border of Ethiopia and Sudan, “amidst horrid conditions with little to no food,” he shares. In 2005, after a five-year vetting process, Kher was able to emigrate to the U.S. and relocated to Richmond, Virginia, at the age of 17. While living in a group home, he enrolled in high school, joined track and eventually went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in international relations in 2010. After emigrating, Kher searched for ways to help the people from his refugee camp.

“When I came to America, I feel like a lot of opportunities given to me. I wanted to give back. Even if I can’t help the whole world, I feel like I can help my friends,” he says.

Today, Kher is the founder and CEO of 734 Coffee, the coffee-sales arm of Humanity Helping Sudan, an organization he founded in 2010 that offers Sudanese refugees various means of self-sufficiency. Launched in December 2016, the coffee company sources fair trade, organic coffee beans from farmers in Sudan and Ethiopia, and a portion of its profits to provide jobs and educational scholarships for Sudanese refugees in Gambela.

The numbers “734” refer to the geographical coordinates (7 degrees north, 34 degrees east) of Gambela, Ethiopia, where over 250,000 displaced Sudanese refugees have fled conflict and hunger.

“Everybody thinks that refugees want handouts — eat, eat, eat — just give them food. Let them stay there. I just want to work. I want to be somebody, not just somebody people hand things to. I just want to be somebody somewhere,” says Kher.

Opportunity starts with jobs and education, says Kher, who’d conceptualized 734 Coffee with a core group of friends he’d met while they were undergraduates at the University of Richmond. “When we were talking about sustainable businesses we could do, we realized the coffee from the [Gambela] region is known to be very good, because of the elevation and Arabica beans,” says Akandu Nwosa, marketing manager of Humanity Helping Sudan. “Also, getting coffee from that region is incentivizing farmers to hire refugees which provides them jobs and income.”

‘Every great thing requires a lot of fight’

With jobs and income, refugees can plant their own gardens, raise chickens and make their own fishing nets, explains Nwosa. Also, 734 Coffee offers need-based scholarships to Sudanese refugees through an application process with the aim is to award 150 scholarships annually, which amounts to approximately $240,000 per year for a full year of college. Kher, who has been back annually to the refugee camps, says that he sees, first-hand, the pain of those families who can’t send their kid to college, which spurs him. “Being a social entrepreneur is really hard. You have to really believe in your purpose to work that hard,” he says.

However, hard work is something Kher says he can do. When he was growing up in Gambela, he didn’t think he’d be in the position to help anyone, but the vision for 734 Coffee is not only to help, but to raise awareness and grow. “There is a possibility of us eventually going to other countries, like Kenya and Rwanda, to help refugees there,” Nwosa says, who also talks about a future in microfinancing, to help their scholars establish their own businesses.

He doesn’t expect it to be easy. Growing up in a refugee camp make it difficult to have expectations. However, something that Kher truly understands is the concept of grit and good coffee. “Every great thing that happens requires a lot of fight. But, we are not a charity,” he declares, “We make the best, grade A coffee.”