Manyang Kher was three years old when he arrived at a refugee camp in Ethiopia's Gambella region. During the 13 years, the South Sudanese native lived there, he observed lots of other children die. From hunger. From cholera. From attempting to flee the camp.
“You fear every day because you may die, too,” Kher says.
Kher is one of the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan, some 20,000 Sudanese children who escaped when their villages were attacked during the 1980’s civil war and made the 1,600-kilometer-walk to Ethiopia.
Deeply affected by the camp, he has named his coffee company, 734 Coffee, after the geographical coordinates of the Gambella region: 7˚N 34˚E. Part of his larger humanitarian non profit project, Humanity Helping Sudan, 734 helps the 200,000 South Sudanese refugees still in the region.
“I know these people,” Kher says. “I speak the language; I know the struggles those refugees face every day.”
Kher is dedicating 80 percent of his coffee proceeds to helping them.
"A cup of 734 coffee can buy; this cup can buy, one fishing net,” he said.
A fishing net is a dollar. It is also a tool that can help a refugee achieve self-sufficiency.
Kher’s aim is to help refugees help themselves. He wants them to be aid-free.
“That's why we give fishing nets because they can go to the river and fish for themselves. If you build more community gardens they can grow their own food. If you also build water wells, now you create a community because they can get the water there they can grow their own food there. They can also open their own market there. 200,000 refugees is a market.”
At age 16, Kher came to the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor refugee. While he was in college in Richmond, Virginia studying international law, he started Humanity Helping Sudan to raise awareness of the refugees. Now, the group has programs, including 734 Coffee, to help empower the displaced to become self-sufficient.
Kher operates 734 Coffee out of two warehouses in Virginia, but the coffee comes from a co-op of African owned and operated farms in the Gambella region. It is roasted by local, independent coffee roasters in the U.S.
He launched the company last year, selling coffee online, at events and to coffee shops.
Megan Murphy who owns a bakery outside of Washington, serves 734 to her customers at Capital City Confectionery.
"The customers love it,” she says. “Whenever they find out about the project, about the mission, they connect right with it. The coffee tastes delicious, so it's a win-win on both sides. You get to enjoy coffee (and) at the same time be part of the bigger project."
Following the sun
When Kher’s South Sudanese village was attacked and burned in the early 1980s, he was separated from his parents, who he never saw again. He and other orphaned children followed the sun.
“Most people in my village believe that where the sun rises up, there is peace…The children go there and they just keep going.”
Kher and the others chased the sun to the refugee camp, a horrific journey.
“Thousands of boys lost their lives to hunger, dehydration, and exhaustion. Some were attacked and killed by wild animals; others drowned crossing rivers and many were caught in the crossfire of fighting forces,” the International Rescue Committee says on its website.
“Too many children died along the way," Kher summarizes.
But as he looks around his coffee warehouse, he seems to make some sense of it. “I never imagined I would be in a position to help anyone,” he says.