The G28 Summit

Gegarang, in Gayo, Sumatra was built during Indonesia's civil war.  The village was built, coffee was planted, and people were relocated there about 18 years ago.  They didn't know how to grow or produce coffee.

A group called Highland Coffee formed in order to help these people. They were concerned because Gegarang is the type of village targeted by human traffickers.  Highland Coffee Company hoped to increase the capacity of this village to make it less susceptible to the wiles and lies of traffickers who offer "job training" to children.  They then take the children and sell them onto fishing boats or into the sex trade.  Highland Coffee Company's efforts to curb this has resulted in a more secure village, and now with help from Think, an amazing source of Grade 1 Gayo Coffee.

We spent July in Sumatra with our 28 families of coffee producers who are learning to export high quality coffee. We are showing the Gegarang 28 what international buyers expect of them with the hopes that they can use this knowledge to remove themselves from the traditional model of selling coffee fruit to collectors at whatever price is offered to them.  We're using one shipping container's worth of coffee (42,000lbs), as a pilot project to show how to pick quality, ripe fruit and interact with the mill, exporter, trucking companies, and bureaucracy. We want the G28 to change from a group of coffee pickers to a proud organization that produces high quality traceable coffee on the international market. We want to increase the farmers' income and capacity for self-determination, higher education, and growth.  The village has elected a leader named Supratno to represent the 28 families producing coffee for us.

We've passed a lot of time with these families from Gegarang.  Our first trip involved showing them the math necessary to understand the benefits of quality picking.  This trip focused on word problems:

"If I pick this much coffee and this much of it is exportable and I pay the mill this much, I pay the trucking company this much, I pay the exporter this much, and Think Coffee pays me this much, how much did I really make?"  

"Did I make more than just taking whatever the collectors offered for any coffee fruit?"

"My contract says that if I pick this percentage of perfectly ripe fruit I will get paid for this percentage of it as an exportable product, but I picked this percentage of perfectly ripe fruit resulting in this percentage being un-exportable.  But I still get to sell the rest of it domestically for this much, so did I actually do better picking whatever fruit I felt like?"

These questions are hard for people to answer even when they have a lot of experience exporting high quality specialty coffee.  The people of Gegarang have learned how to understand the formulas and options available to them to make smart business decisions as a new organization. In our agreement, we have included a guarantee clause that states, yes, they will make more money with us than without. Their largest source of improved income will come as they market the rest of their high-quality coffee to other buyers around the world.

The first picking was in. The percentage of exportable coffee was too low.  But they understood. They're facing the problems a lot of us do with effecetive communication.  They are trying to establish an effective management structure that will allow for training, follow-up, and accountability.  The coffee that made the grade, we cupped.  Awesome.

We're confident that Gegarang will be able to replicate the process in coming years and attract  larger buyers than us.

Our G28 coffee will arrive in December.  We'll remind you.

Only Good News

We recently returned from Kellensoo. We have been receiving fruity and aromatic natural-processed Ethiopian Sidamo coffee from this village for several years.  Our contract pays for a library, school supplies, and feminine hygiene products.

Our price of coffee includes finances for the village to build a library.  In October, we saw that the school left the library largely unused and unstaffed.  This trip, we only got good news.  The people of Kellensoo have taken the library over from the school, hired a full-time librarian, and created a real lending system.  We're going to get them more books now that we know the library is in use.

A lack of feminine hygiene products prevented many girls from returning to school after hitting puberty.  760 girls have now received their own personal reusable materials, with instructions. And these girls are all thrilled to be in school.  The Kellensoo Girls' Club formed to distribute these kits. The Club is now organizing a kit-manufacturing company with hopes of selling kits to neighboring villages and NGOs across the continent.

This trip we brought our exporter's son Biniyam out into coffee land.  A long long ways. We're not sure he thoroughly enjoyed himself, but we thought it was important he see how far his farmers carry coffee on their backs to pay for his lifestyle.  It's important for all of us and that's why we go often:  to make sure the farmer's lifestyle gets closer to what they would prefer every year.

What we experienced during this trip to Kellensoo lead us to further believe our efforts are both valuable and necessary to the sustainability of our trade and the farmers' right to work for themselves.  Nobody needs to get rich off their backs. They should be in control. They are in control.


From the Top of a Mountain

Dylan Schultz manages Think Bleecker. He's also a musican. Find him @swampbootsmusic on Twitter. 

This was Dylan's first farm visit.

As barista and store-manager at Think Bleecker I’ve encountered and interacted with hundreds of people; coworkers, vendors, roasters, customers. These people help Think Coffee operate through their work and their patronage. But I realized that after so many years, I still hadn’t met anyone directlinvolved with the growing of our coffee. So when the offer to fly to Nicaragua with Coffee Director Matt Fury arose, I grabbed it.

Fury rented a car so we could drive all the way north from the airport in Managua to Ocotal, about a three-and-a-half hour drive (two-and-a-half on the way back as there was little traffic. Landspeed record!) We shot up through the mountains, zooming past horses and cows standing on the shoulder (in some cases in the road) and motorcycles with two, sometimes three people stacked on their backs.  

When we hit Ocotal, I was struck by the makeshift, hard-won style of the town. Even corporate logos took on a new life when re-imagined and hand painted by local storeowners. During the day the markets throbbed with people, but at night the local kids owned the streets. They raced bikes, kicked soccer balls and joked around. For the entirety of my stay in Ocotal I didn’t see a single cop, yet the streets were peaceful and alive.

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The next day we went to run numbers with Don Jaime Lovo and his wife Aldenir, who own the lush Santa Isabel farm and work closely like business partners while sharing the tenderness and mild-annoyance of a long-married couple. Jaime told us that his mother was very ill and while they prepared for her loss, his brother passed suddenly of a heart attack. They were clearly tired and deeply sad, but their warmth and hospitality knew no bounds. Aldenir showed me pictures of their children and proclaimed Brazilian soccer’s greatness (she’s originally from Brazil). Jaime introduced me to his burro, El Capitán, who loved me immediately. We shared a couple glasses of Nicaraguan rum on my last night in town.

The working conditions at Jaime’s farm continue to improve, as does Jaime’s resolve to make things better.  Working on a coffee farm is serious, hard labor, yet the workers seemed in high spirits, a testament to Jaime’s follow-through and vision. Part of the trip was to help decide what Jaime’s next plans for improvement were. He and Aldenir decided to remodel old worker housing and put in solar panels, so the workers and their families could enjoy TV and cellphone use, things that we take for granted but are hard to come by in the mountains.

Jaime was having troubles with his benificio (where he dries, processes, and exports coffee) who had been claiming that a certain percentage of his harvest wasn’t up to snuff, but wasn’t telling or showing him why. The Lovos were losing money and didn’t have any recourse. The main goal of the visit became finding a better beneficio for Jaime and Aldenir. The next day we toured a beneficio, and had an intense meeting in which Fury, Don Jaime, and Francisco, the Gerente General of the company, hashed out details and laid out terms to be considered. We even spoke to another farmer, Jorge, who gave us a tour of his beautiful farm in Dipilto, about the possibility of creating his own beneficio with Don Jaime. Jorge was a great guy, who in addition to inheriting his farm from his late father, went to school to get a degree so he could become his own agronomist. Jorge maintains high labor and environmental standards as well. I was struck by how fast things could improve when everyone was focused and motivated.  

On my last day in Nicaragua, I climbed up a mountainside, machete in hand (not for long as an accidental, self-inflicted machete wound cost me my machete privileges) pulled coffee cherry from a tree, spit-cleaned it and ate it right there. It’s amazing to stand at the top of a mountain half in Honduras, half in Nicaragua, yards away from where old contra landmines were only recently removed, eating a fruit that has sustained me in one way or another for most of my life. But at the end of the trip, my greatest memory is of the people I met, their generosity, patience, and dedication to each other and to their land.