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Why Coffee Should Not Be Cheap

My grandfather was probably the first independent roaster to buy direct from African farmers in Tanzania, and to sell single-origin coffees from individual farms and became one of the most respected people in the coffee industry. He travelled to Mount Kilimanjaro in 1960, absconding from an organised trip to Kenya to take a bus to Moshi, Tanzania to meet the farmers of the Kilimanjaro Native Cooperative Union. He, my aunt and my dad made regular trips over the following years and we made many friends with locals, not necessarily all to do directly with the coffee industry.

I remember therefore very vividly when at 18 I travelled to Tanzania for the first time. Having arrived in Arusha in the dark evening I had seen very little from the back of the car on the way from the airport being tired after the long flight.  

We stayed with a British couple working for an economic development aid agency in their colonial era bungalow behind walls and gates with a watchman and surrounded by a large garden scented from unseen flowers with aromas far more intense than I had ever experienced. It was only on the first morning when we were driven into town to go to the bank that I really saw Africa. Our hosts in the front were chatting away describing everything but I could only stare in silence at the red soil, the shabby buildings, the brightly dressed locals, and of course the poverty. This was a massive shock, mainly because I could not just see it but smell it. Open sewers ran down the roads where food was being sold or even cooked on the pavement and some people had terrible disabilities. I suddenly realised how far from home I was and what also hit me was that everything going on there was utterly irrelevant to these people, and because I was there too, was utterly irrelevant and trivial to me. These people were living life on the edge, basically surviving, or not surviving.

We visited coffee farms, both on Kilimanjaro and Meru. At this point in 1980s Tanzania’s coffee industry was nationalised which meant that many of the farms were managed by ‘good party people’ and not necessarily those who had experience in coffee cultivation. Some farms had been abandoned, trees left unattended gone to seed or dying. The border with Kenya was closed and a fuel shortage led to massive queues at the petrol stations. When petrol arrived, priority was given to lorries, buses, and taxis. Taxi drivers could earn more money by selling petrol to private owners instead of using it to drive their taxis. Yet despite these problems, there were those people we met that were striving to produce good coffee regardless. The KNCU had been established 50 years or more earlier and was still going. The contrast between the farms owned by Africans and by Europeans was stark. We went to one farm where the British owners were living in what to me felt like the 1930s, a weird post-colonial life, of cocktail parties, afternoon teas with African servants, and even dressing in old-fashioned clothes. It was so far removed from the England I knew. The workers on the farm looked poor, and they were not treated with any respect. The whole atmosphere was unpleasant, harking back to a period of Empire, the whites ruled, the Africans were considered incapable of being trusted.

This was a farm from which we had bought some coffee, not the usual Chagga which comes from African run farms.

What a contrast this was to my recent visit to CoopeDota in Costa Rica. Established in 1960 the cooperative consists of 900 coffee farmers, many very small who work together in the beautiful mountains around Santa Maria de Dota in the central highlands. The harvest was in full swing when I arrived on the 3rd January, clearly evident from the bright red cherries gathered on the branches of the coffee trees.

The mood at the Dota mill in the centre of the small town was joyful as the farmers arrived in their small tipper trucks, some with sacks of cherries, others with the cherries loose in the back, piled almost up to the edge, and a spade stuck in the top like a fork in a slice of cake.

Each truck was greeted with smiles and waves by the guys measuring and receiving the cherries. As the general manager Luiz Madrigal showed us round, he too waved and greeted the farmers, all of which he knew personally.

The cooperative not only processed all the coffee ready for export. They support the farmers financially and were the first in the world to achieve carbon-neutral status. 80% of all the power they use in the mill is solar. They recycle everything, including the parchment, a dry husk on the outside of the pulped cherries, which they use as fuel for the drying machines they had specially adapted. They also roast and supply coffee to the whole of Costa Rica’s domestic market and re-invest the profits to provide more financial help back to the farmers and pay premiums based on quality and not quantity. All water used in the washing process is recycled and provided to local farms of all types, and they make their own compost from the coffee waste for local distribution.

I came away feeling very positive and happy to know we were buying their coffee and playing a small but important part in their success.  

They face a lot of challenges, not just the Covid pandemic and the shortage of shipping containers but the way the climate has changed.

They could always rely on a steady rainy and dry season but now each year is variable with sometimes rains too early or late and more changeable weather patterns. There is a constant battle to protect the trees from diseases, some of which can devastate an entire crop.

Whatever the future may hold one thing is certain, the desire for coffee will continue. It has become an essential daily drink for billions of people every day. For the industry to thrive everyone from the farmers, the pickers, the processes, the shippers, the importers and the roasters all need to make enough money to make ends meet. But if the farmers don’t make enough to survive the effect on the region is devastating which is to no one’s benefit, and especially to the consumer.

We also recently started using a Brazilian coffee as a basis for many of our blends from Fazenda Monte Alto. The farm is in Minas Gerais, a hilly region where coffee must still be hand-picked, providing more work on the farm. The same family has run it for nine generations, and recently they have made many improvements to the farm and the processing, making efficiencies and reducing environmental impacts. They also fund local projects, including a library, and playground, offer computer-science courses and partnered with a local project to teach biodiversity and conservation to young people. We hope to be visiting ourselves soon to make face-to-face contact.

When my grandfather began, he could only dream of visiting and sourcing coffee from such farms, but even then, he knew that this was the future for a sustainable business. Now I believe that there can be little excuse to sell any coffee from untraceable sources. For us each bean is precious; so many people have worked so hard to get that bean to our door so we are careful with them, and I encourage you to do the same, take time over making your coffee, and at least once or twice think about the hardworking people who grew it. For there can be no future unless everyone benefits.


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