Why Blue Marble Set Up a Soft-Serve Shop in Rwanda

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Ice cream might seem frivolous and fleeting, a nutritional light-weight that melts in minutes, but it possesses a power that can fire the imaginations of romantic idealists around the world.

So found Jennie Dundas, an actor and co-owner of Brooklyn’s beloved Blue Marble scoop shop, when she met Odile Gakire Katese, a Rwandan playwright and drummer. They two were introduced at a 2008 Sundance Institute workshop, and the exchange prompted Gakire to declare that ice cream is the missing ingredient in Rwanda’s recovery from its 1994 genocide.

Before leaving the workshop, Gakire, who goes by Kiki, suggested to Dundas the idea of opening an ice cream shop in Rwanda. She explained that it could employ women and buy local ingredients, but moreover that it could help people envision a life beyond daily needs. Kiki could use Blue Ribbon’s expertise; would they be willing to go in on such a project—despite the fact that ice cream is generally unknown in Rwanda?

Back in Brooklyn, Blue Marble co-owner Alexis Miesen was skeptical. “Why an ice cream shop?” said Miesen. “I didn’t think that’s high on a priority list of what Rwandans needed. Hospitals and schools seemed more in order.

“But Kiki made compelling argument,” recalls Miesen. “She said, ‘There’s no room to dream when survival is the only goal. You can’t just rebuild roads; you have to repair people, and show that life is good.’ I think ice cream became a symbol for her of a respite from bare essentials, that it’s all right to laugh and have something sweet and whimsical and frivolous.”

Blue Marble might be the perfect scoop shop to take on such global goals. after all, like Kiki Gakire’s epiphany, Blue Marble itself began as a vision formed under the influence of ice cream. When Alexis Miesen, who’d been screaming for ice cream since her Ohio childhood, moved to Cobble Hill, she felt the neighbor hood’s generic offerings were just “not acceptable.” So she and Dundas decided to create a shop that wouldn’t just serve better scoops—it’d be a business to better the world. Blue Marble, taking its name from one of Earth’s many monikers, opened in 2007 as a small salvo in the effort to create socially engaged businesses.

“I was disgruntled by the way the private sector responded to community—in terms of products available, the experience of employees,” and lack of social mission, says Miesen, who’d had previous careers in international development and immigrant services.

Eric Demby, co-founder of Brooklyn Flea, could walk through his backyard and into Blue Marble when the shop first opened on Atlantic Avenue. “By virtue of eating a lot of ice cream, I heard about the Rwanda idea and I said, ‘I’d like to do it, too,’” says Demby. The three formed a nonprofit called Blue Marble Dreams.

“If you looked at it as a business on paper, it didn’t make sense” says Demby. “It was like having a Rubik’s Cube, but not knowing what it’s supposed to look like at the end. But there was a sense of doing something for people who really need it, and we had the hubris to take it on.”

When word circulated among international development circles about Blue Marble Dreams, there were naysayers. One wag asked if there would be a “Tutsi-Frutsi” flavor, alluding to the Tutsi minority that was in power prior to the 1994 genocide. Another Africa-based blogger crowed about what might be the perfect NGO: “one that fights for equitable access to artisanal frozen des- serts all around the world.”

But Demby is unapologetic, noting that the concept came from Kiki Gakire, a Rwandan woman. “How could people not have ice cream?” says Demby. “[It] is a fundamental culinary pleasure!”

“I think there is a need to have a space where you can renew yourself, especially in Rwanda where people are broken,” Kiki Gakire told filmmakers who are creating a documentary about the project. “They need again to learn everything that will help them smile, even cry—to regain their sensitivity.”

When Miesen traveled to Rwanda for six weeks in early 2010, she realized that ice cream offerings would have to be altered from Blue Marble’s standard fare. “In Rwanda, cows aren’t producing lots of cream—they’re not as healthy as North American cows,” she says. Also, Rwanda’s power grid is spotty, and even a few hours without electricity spells disaster for ice cream inventory.

The solution? Soft-serve. “Soft-serve has less cream, so it fits with Rwandan cows,” says Miesen. “It has more air in it, and air is free; plus, you make it as you serve it.”

Taylor Products, one of the big American soft-serve machine manufacturers, donated a unit to Blue Marble Dreams. The machine took quite a journey from the United States to South Africa, up to Ethiopia, overland through Kenya to Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, and finally to Butare, home to Gakire and to Rwanda’s national university, where the softie workhorse was welcomed with jubilant hugs by the women who would run the shop.

The frozen confection was to be a wholly new experience, but one that riffed on a dietary staple. “Milk is an integral part of Rwandan diet and food culture,” says Miesen. “It’s not an impor- tation, but a modification of a food culture that’s already there.”

In the summer of 2010, Inzozi Nziza—or Sweet Dreams in Kinyarwanda language—opened for business. But like a first dip in a spring lake, one’s inaugural ice cream can be a shock. “A woman said, ‘Does it have to be so cold?’” says Miesen with a laugh. As planned, the outfit sourced ingredients from local dairies, beekeepers (for honey) and farmers (for such fruit toppings as pineapple, strawberry and passion fruit). They also wanted to offer a coffee flavor, since Rwanda is a noted coffee exporter, but tea is a more popular beverage among Rwandans—Miesen notes that this is in part because the best beans are sent out of the country. So Sweet Dreams has partnered with Irving Farm Coffee Roasters to procure some of the best Rwandan beans for use in the Butare shop.

As for the bottom line? “It’s up and down,” says Miesen. “When the university’s not in session, we lose a lot of business, but we’re nearly breaking even in most months.”

Eric Demby sees much overlap between his involvement in the Rwandan ice cream initiative and Brooklyn Flea. “I try to provide a platform for people’s projects, their small businesses,” says Demby. “You provide a spark; doing that is enough. and then it goes wherever it goes.

“In Rwanda and other places where there’s a need for positive experiences, not every effort has to be a home run. Ice cream can be a single.”

Dessert diplomacy. a Rwandan playwright called upon the owners of Cobble Hill’s beloved scoop shop to open an outpost—not simply to create jobs, but to help people envision a life beyond daily needs.

Photo credit:  Piper Watson.

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