In our shops in Brooklyn, we see the emotional impact of an ice cream cone. It turns bad days into good and makes good days even better. It also brings people together and creates an opportunity for a shared, joyful experience. The idea that this impact might not be limited to the U.S., but in fact could be universal was fascinating to me, and I wanted to see what ice cream could do for the good people of Butare.
For $10, they could buy shares into the business, with Dundas and Miesen coming on as partners. Focusing on simple soft serve flavors–vanilla, chocolate, banana, passion fruit, pineapple, strawberry, coffee, black tea and sweet cream–the frozen dessert became a means to financial freedom for the women and the subject of Rob and Lisa Fruchtman’s new documentary Sweet Dreams, which opens in theaters tomorrow.
Ahead of its release, Meisen, who made three trips back and forth to Africa and spent eight weeks living in Rwanda helping get the ice cream shop up and running, filled us in over email on her experience and gave us an update on how the shop is doing today.
BB: What was it about Kiki Katese [the founder of Ingoma Nshya] and her proposal that made you want to be a part of her project?
AM: When Kiki came to us with her idea of an ice cream shop in Butare, Rwanda, I thought it was outrageous but also brilliant. What she was proposing was really quite innovative. She argued that so much of “development” work focused on the bare essentials of life. Of course, we need those! But we need more than that, and we deserve more than that, in order to not just survive but to fully live. Kiki felt that an ice cream shop would provide an opportunity for her people to rest and indulge, to reconnect with themselves and others and perhaps even to start dreaming of other possibilities. In a modest but powerful way, she argued, this experience could nourish their spirits and embolden them to make changes in their lives and communities, driving their country forward.
I was moved and inspired by her perspective. In our shops in Brooklyn, we see the emotional impact of an ice cream cone. It turns bad days into good and makes good days even better. It also brings people together and creates an opportunity for a shared, joyful experience. The idea that this impact might not be limited to the U.S., but in fact could be universal was fascinating to me, and I wanted to see what ice cream could do for the good people of Butare.
BB: When did you first go to Rwanda, and what was your impression when you arrived?
AM: When I first arrived, I was struck by the intense beauty of the country. I had never seen so many shades of green! The country is called “land of a thousand hills” for good reason, there isn’t a stretch of flat land to be found. The hills are cut into terraced farms and dotted with banana trees. And the contrast of the deep green verdure against the intense blue sky is pretty much a natural masterpiece.
Over the next several days and weeks and months,I got to know many of these women. Their stories were hard to hear and absorb. Fear, survival, grief, grit, loss, hardship–these were common themes across the stories. But remarkably, despite where they all had been in life, they also shared a tremendous sense of optimism about where they wanted to go. They wanted to learn and grow and be good to their families and explore opportunities and have fun and do all of the same things we want to do. I was moved by their courageous and hopeful views of the future and felt they would serve them well as entrepreneurs.
BB: How did safety factor into your decision to go, considering the country’s recent history of violence?
AM: Strangely, not at all. While there are a few flare-ups periodically along the Congolese border, the region I was going to was totally peaceful and safe.
BB: How has this experience changed the way you think about ice cream? About your impact as a small business owner?
AM: Of course I have always loved ice cream, but this project has given me a new admiration for what it can do (in moderation, of course!) for us. It provides a sweet, private and brief pause in our all-too-hectic and hyper-connected lives. As a business owner, this project has helped me put/keep things in perspective. Running a business, especially in New York, can be stressful. But really, what we have to cope with here is so inconsequential in comparison to what our Rwandan partners have to manage everyday. I’ve also been inspired by their bravery. Most of the women had never tried ice cream before Sweet Dreams opened. Yet, they were willing to go for this and put everything they had into the project. That takes some serious faith and guts, which is really what being successful in business is all about.
BB: How’s the cooperative/shop now?
AM: It’s doing well. Like any business, it has its good months and its not so good months. But it has broken even the past two years, which is kind of miraculous. Several of the original staff members are still there, others have moved away, had children or even started new businesses of their own (which is a GREAT sign). Over the last 3.5 years, we have trained and employed dozens of women, we’ve helped our partners care for, feed, clothe and pay school fees for well over 100 family members and we have served as a boost to the local economy. There is definitely room for growth and improvement, but I’m deeply pleased by and proud of the progress we’ve made so far.
BB: Are you still a part of it?
AM: We owned the business in partnership with the cooperative originally, but we transferred our shares to them a little over a year ago. However, we still provide technical guidance and some operational support. My colleague, Laura Romano, is there now helping to fine-tune the shop’s structure and processes a bit, and I hope to join her in Dec/Jan. Just recently, I stepped outside the day-to-day activities of my business and am now devoting myself full-time to the oversight and expansion of Blue Marble Dreams. In addition to growing the existing shop in Rwanda, we are developing plans for a second shop in Port au Prince, Haiti with our Brooklyn Flea friends, Haiti 155.
BB: For a lot of the Rwandans in Sweet Dreams, this was the first time they’d tasted ice cream. Do you remember the first time you had ice cream? How did it compare to the reaction of the women you worked with?
AM: I don’t actually remember the first time I had ice cream, and I would guess that most Americans don’t. Ice cream is ingrained in our culinary culture. But seeing some of the people in Rwanda experience ice cream for the first time was priceless. Many of them had never eaten anything so cold and initially were shocked by it. But I watched as the ice cream melted in their mouths and the shock gave way to this playful ecstasy. They laughed, they were incredulous. It was awesome to behold. And with each bite, they fell in love with ice cream and dug deeper into its simple, silly joy. I felt so privileged to share that moment with them and will never forget it.