If you would like more than 8 samples, please contact a trader directly.
Between our 2022 import and the 2023 harvest in Brazil, the market shifted. A year ago, in August 2022, the C-market price peaked just below 240; by the end of harvest a year later in August 2023, the index price had collapsed to just over 150—nearly a 40% decline. Higher prices allow farmers to commit a smaller portion of their farm to the commodity contracts that they need to cover monthly overhead and operating expenses; commensurately, lower prices require a larger portion of one’s harvest to secure this financing, leaving less to sell as specialty.
With this context as backdrop, a group of coffee producers in Cerrado organized under the banner of Aequitas to upend consumer expectations about the quality of coffee from Brazil and put forward a new narrative on the innovation coming from the world’s largest exporter of Arabica. In order to change minds in the market, however, this group is starting closer to home with educational campaigns aimed at showing family and neighbors the value of what they produce. Using all of the knowledge, infrastructure and enthusiasm at their disposal, these producers are banded together through their curiosity and common mission to make their community a preeminent partner for North American high specialty roasters. To do this, they must first win over family and neighbors to produce mind-changing lots. And they must contend with the commercial realities and expectations of coffee from Brazil—both in terms of price and quality. This tension between Brazil’s legacy and Aequitas members’ aspirations for the future of specialty coffee from Brazil sits at the center of Crop to Cup’s sourcing plan for 2023. To bridge the duality of needs for both producers and roasters, we have been working closely with Yuki Minami and her team at Aequitas to set new standards, share new knowledge, and bring entirely new categories of coffees to export.
Crop to Cup is actively building volume and booking for our 2023 import from Brazil; if you’d like to make a lot reservation or learn more, contact your trader.
Coffee came to Brazil nearly three hundred years before anyone at Crop to Cup was even born.
By 1727, coffee was growing in Brazil, but commercial production didn’t begin in earnest in Brazil until after the country’s independence in 1822. After that, Brazil built virtually its entire economy on coffee, clearing massive tracts of land and rainforest for coffee plantations. Coffee exports grew, and by 1850 Brazil was the largest coffee exporter in the world—which it remains today.
Like in Indonesia and Haiti, the coffee agro-economy of Brazil was made possible only through the enslavement of indigenous people and Africans brought to Brazil by Portuguese colonizers. By the time Brazil outlawed slavery in 1888, more than four million human beings had been captured and transported to Brazil from Africa.
To meet the labor demands of the large coffee estates across the coffee growing regions of Brazil—Minas Gerais, São Paulo and Paraná—the government encouraged immigration – specifically from East Asia.
In Japan, coffee was initially seen as a luxury import. After the trade reforms in kaizei-yakusho went into effect in 1866, tariffs on coffee reduced dramatically, but still: a decade later, the price for 1kg of coffee was equivalent to that of 75kg of rice. In 1908—twenty years after the abolition of slavery in Brazil—a ship named Kasatu Maru arrived in Brazil, carrying aboard 165 families from Japan, who, like many families from Italy and Spain, immigrated to work in the coffee fields.
The venture, organized by Ryo Mizuno in exchange for 7,125 bags of 70kg of coffee from the government of São Paulo, led to a change in Japanese law after intervention by statesman Shigenobu Okuma, who declared that “The coffee produced by Japanese emigrants in Brazil should be treated as a quasi domestic product. Because coffee obtained through the efforts of Mizuno increase consumption of sugar, this business will bring happiness to Japan in the future.”
In the first seven years of this emigration project, nearly 15,000 Japanese people arrived in Brazil to work in the coffee fields. World War I led to an acceleration and by 1940, there were 164,000 Japanese in Brazil—75% in São Paolo, the most concentrated area of coffee production in the country.
Outside Minas Gerais, in São Gotardo, a family immigrated from Japan in the 1920s to work on coffee farms. Four generations and nearly a century later, in 2017, Yuki Minami—whose great-grandparents immigrated to Cerrado to work in the coffee fields—founded Aequitas Coffee with the hopes of connecting coffee from her family and community in São Gottard to specialty roasters. Aequitas—our exclusive partner and raison d’etre in Brazil—is built on the desire for fairness and transparency in coffee through meaningful relationships. In Yuki’s words: “Aequitas is the Roman goddess of equity. But she was also a goddess that meant justice, transparency and fairness. And this is what I wanted to do, I wanted to promote a fair trade for producers.”
Though Brazil is seen by much of the world as a behemoth of commodity production, Aequitas represents a new generation of coffee producers whose focus is on quality and the opportunities opened up when one begins producing for specialty. Yuki and her contemporaries are the first generation of coffee farmers from this region to attend university then return to the farm and are assembling an array of expertise from genetics to processing to operations, cupping, roasting and everything in-between.
Harvest in Cerrado began on time in mid-May, shortly after Yuki and a contingent of Aequitas producers returned from the U.S. for SCA Expo and a tour of the U.S. specialty industry branded as the “Aequitas Coffee Experience.” The winter in Cerrado, which coincides with harvest and the final stages of cherry maturation, was dry as usual, with hotter-than-usual temperatures and occasional light rain—uncommon during harvest but not expected to impact quality. The volume of production is greater than last year, affording a larger commensurate share of coffee of the highest quality even in spite of weather-related impacts.
In June, Aequitas producers throughout Cerrado met for harvest planning ahead of their 2023 export. Overall, Aequitas members expect around 30% of volume to be exported as specialty quality (83/84+) with a few members reducing their production to focus exclusively on 85+ quality coffee. For volume lots closer to the lower end of specialty (84 points), prices will track with the c-market, but for top lots and microlots—where initial evaluations indicate a plethora of 86-87 point cups—prices will remain stable compared to last year owing to the labor, time and selection that is required to produce these exceptional coffees.
The strength of the Brazilian Real, which impacts costs and represents another risk at time of export due to currency exchange, remains stable or slightly stronger than the same period of 2022; inflation jumped in Brazil in July 2023 ahead of export, but remained far below last year’s levels.
Crop to Cup has worked exclusively with Aequitas as our export and sourcing partner in Brazil since 2017. Throughout harvest, our quality lab in Brooklyn calibrated with Aequitas’ lab, expediting the process of separation and selection of lots for booking or entry into regional competitions. With the lab, Aequitas is able to provide rapid feedback and technical recommendations for producers such as the evaluation of quality for: new cultivars; processing experiments; and microlot separations. With its lab in town fully operational for the 2023 harvest, Aequitas expanded their support of producers in their network.
At the start of harvest, Yuki solicited interest from producers throughout Cerrado (Campos Altos, Carmo do Paranaíba, São Gotardo, Ibiá, Rio Paranaíba and Patrocínio) for participation in a new program that in June began with harvest planning and then, in July, visited fourteen producers during harvest to check in on their post-harvest infrastructure, evaluate post-harvest processing practices, techniques, challenges, and experiments. Of the producers Aequitas visited, eleven had contracted post-harvest consulting services, twelve were using or had used unconventional processing (processes other than natural or pulped natural) in an effort to incrementally improve cup complexity, and all already produced some coffee for specialty markets but needed access to a calibrated cupping lab to accelerate feedback and knowledge transfer.
Aequitas organized an event, Aequitas Sharing Knowledge, to create space for knowledge exchange between buyers and producers and orient around market expectations and shifting demands. In attendance were different actors from the value chain: producers, cooperatives, a university professor, and bank institutions that finance Aequitas.
To further differentiate coffee coming through the Aequitas network from commodity specialty coffee, Aequitas developed and implemented a code of conduct and ethics for its partners, providing transparency for buyers and suppliers about Aequitas and its network. The code of conduct requires that all of its suppliers abide by Brazilian laws and includes a focus on environmental and conservation issues and serves as a checklist for postharvest practices, environmental and social issues.
In September,Yuki’s team received their first round of samples from members. Yuki’s reflection on Aequitas’ first cupping of the year / quality preview: In Yuki’s words, “Although those lots are quite fresh, we could taste a variety of flavor profiles: classic Cerrado and on top of it berries, stone fruits, tropical fruits, floral, and spices from natural, pulped natural and fermentation processing. We had the presence of some lots that are on the edge—some will love it, others wouldn’t choose those coffees at all. The lot that stood out the most was a Paraiso microlot from Coopadap Experimental farm that cupped an average of 87.25.”
These notes came out of Aequitas’ new cupping lab, led by a competent cupper and long-time ally named Maxwell. This is the center of outreach and education on With the investments Aequitas members have made in post-harvest processing, with and a focus on production of specialty microlots but also on helping members to convert larger tracts of their farm to specialty production , initial quality expectations for our 2023 import are high particularly for microlot separations. The goal, then, is not just to raise the ceiling but also to bring up the floor of how many coffees a farm can manage to produce at 85+ levels.
We are working with Aequitas to build a pipeline for more standard qualities from Brazil through these same supply chains so as to provide an ethically-aligned alternative to commodity specialty imports for more price-sensitive or volume-based needs.
Below are additional updates from the Aequitas lab.
Marcelo Assis (Bioma Cafe)
A perennial partner for Aequitas and Crop to Cup since 2018, Marcelo Assis Nogueira has shifted the focus of his entire production on microlots after having made significant investments in infrastructure through last year’s harvest. “It was a record for us here ,” Marcelo reported, “not in volume, but in quality.” For 2023, nearly 88% of his entire production is scoring 85+; this is higher than the expected average of 30% scoring 84+ from most Aequitas members, which is itself an exception within the region. Marcelo hopes that by next year he will have an optical sorter at his dry mill to be able to manage all levels of processing, separation and preparation himself and ensure full traceability through his farm.
While they didn’t invest in infrastructure for this year, like many Aequitas members, the Minami family invested in training for the 2023 harvest, bringing a postharvest processing consultant to their farm to develop alternative protocols for coffee processing. They prepared two larger lots for specialty, each grown and processed with a particular profile in mind. One sample is labeled as tropical fruits and the other one as berries. There are two microlot offers coming as well – an experimental aerobic fermentation lot that aimed at tropical and stone fruits in the cup, as well as the return of the pineapple fermentation which has been scaled up using an improved process.
Sao Luiz is known for producing the best pulped naturals in the region. They are expanding on this focus, but also taking a deeper look at post-harvest processing. “This year we are very excited because we have done some microlots for the first time with fermentation,” Ana Branco told us. “We have a lot of coffee to offer.” While this year Fausto do Espirito Santo Velloso and family will sell most of their coffee through the local cooperative, the 7-year Aequitas members plan to install a washing station and de-pulper for next year and will be able to offer more pulped naturals. For 2023, Sao Luiz provided post-harvest processing services to neighbors. These samples are inbound to Crop to Cup’s offices, but the Aequitas lab reported that initial samples are “the trustworthy, consistent, clean cup and sweet coffees that we are used to receiving from Ana and her team.”
Edu Leandro (Cafe Melo)
Edu also received a post-harvest process consultant at his farm and is interested in exploring the use of native and wild microorganisms to drive fermentation. One of the new processes the team explored this year involved modifying a cylindrical sieve setup to separate a coffee by size and maturation level without using water to specify process based on the starting material. For Edu and Cafe Melo, 2023 is a learning year; 100% of their production experienced some sort of designed fermentation protocol. They executed dozens of processing styles, focusing on natural processes of overripe fruits (la pasa), which are normally processed for commodity outlets but hold high quality potential if processed using specialty production techniques. “We are so excited,” Edu reported, “it was a great crop for us.”
Coopadap Experimental farm
One of the standouts of our 2022 import from Brazil was an experimental lot from the Coopadap experimental farm. Ahead of 2023, the group—led by Diego Bernades for 15 years—built a laboratory to develop the expertise needed to recommend the best cultivars and technical knowledge to members of the cooperative. To bolster their knowledge and recommendations, the lab collaborates with different research institutions across the country, keeping Cerrado part of the exploration and development of knowledge related to coffee productivity, resistance and quality. This year, the farm had a small production in order to focus on the production of specialty microlots. The Coopadap farm employed a post-harvest processing consultant to experiment with mapping cultivars with targeted processing and drying practices to achieve predictable quality.
A new member of Aequitas for 2023, Eduardo’s family owns one of the biggest coffee nurseries in Brazil and is locally famous for developing cutting edge cultivars. Their sophistication with cultivars extends to processing; they perform quality mapping across processing styles, and have won regional awards for cup quality. Like other Aequitas members, Eduardo and his family have started receiving post-harvest consulting this year for their own farm. Talking about this year, Eduardo told us, “I’m proud, to be honest, because we got some coffees that are hard to find. It was a great year.”
Ernesto and his son Cassio joined Aequitas in 2022 with a negligible percentage of their production scoring above 84 points. But they were eager to make use of the education Aequitas had to offer, and invested in moving their family business into specialty. According to Yuki, this has paid off in the cup: “While in 2022, 40% of their samples were 84+ this year this percentage reached 55%. Also, postharvest defects have decreased as well. Maxwell mentioned that it became a balanced and trustworthy coffee.”
Two weeks before we arrived for our visit to Rwanda ahead of our 2023 import, the Agriculture Ministry suspended its 2016 regulation requiring that coffee growers sell cherry to collectors within their designated zone. The change, which allows farmers to sell their cherry anywhere in the country without restrictions, coupled with a March regulation from the National Agricultural Export Development Board requiring that cherry be sold at a fixed price of RWF 410 per kilo rather than above a minimum price, aligns with government strategic plans to enhance quality, increase production, and improve collaboration between farmers and exporters—all in the interest of growing coffee exports.
The zoning change arrived too late for most of the country’s growers, who had completed harvest earlier this year due to April rains—but in Kinini Village, the elevation and unique microclimate at the edge of the Albertine Rift, peak harvest had just begun.
Kinini is, in many ways, an outlier; quality from the village is higher than other parts of Rwanda, harvest is reliably later, and in a year when competition for cherry is increased due to lower production nationally and the change in zoning rules, Kinini’s production remained strong. The unusual relationship between Kinini and its surrounding community—one where Kinini provided seedlings and three years of pay to develop the local coffee industry in exchange for an agreement to sell cherry to Kinini once production began—results not only in mutual investment in quality but also stability. Where others face stiff competition for cherry, Kinini continues to receive cherry from the cooperatives surrounding the washing station.
In 2022, during our first visit to Kinini since before the pandemic, we took the opportunity to dive deeper into the operations of Kinini, calibrate with their quality lab and meet cooperative groups who sell cherry to the Kinini washing station. During our time with Jackie, Malcolm and Kinini, we worked together to identify areas where Crop to Cup could continue to support Kinini—and talked about where Kinini hoped to make improvements. Some of those improvements—like sealing and waterproofing their warehouse and adding humidity monitoring; and changing from rainwater to mountain water for washing their coffee—were implemented ahead of our next visit in 2023. Others—like deeper collaboration and support of the cooperatives and exploration of lot separation by cooperative—were efforts we targeted for the 2023 harvest and beyond.
The long term goal shared by Kinini and Crop to Cup is to market separations of coffee from individual groups of producers, such as the six cooperatives of women farmers we met during our visit in 2022. In order to meet this goal in a country that does not currently have a practice or system for this type of separation, we began by separating just four of the groups for the purpose of training staff to handle, sort, tag, store and cup each separation. While these separations are not marketed separately—the purpose of this exercise was to develop competencies and systems to enable more target separations by cooperatives in future harvests.
Additionally, we expanded the number of harvest period samplings from three (early-peak, peak, and late-peak harvest) to thirty; this created what were essentially day lots, enabling the quality lab at Kinini to evaluate collections individually and aggregate the best into a quality-focused blend for Crop to Cup—as well as affording Kinini the ability to discover where quality is occurring, observe the practices of that cooperative, and replicate it elsewhere. As part of our visit, we calibrated with the quality lab and spent time with Kinini’s roasting staff, providing support and instruction for optimizing the sample roasts they achieved with their Arc S sample roaster, bolstering the team’s ability to differentiate lots and identify separations of the highest qualities.
To focus more directly on agronomic improvements, Kinini is promoting two projects: vermicomposting and home planting. While the trees around the station produce high-quality coffee, yields are low. Rather than focusing on additional plantings alone in an effort to increase production and income for farmers, Kinini hopes that by planting coffee closer to where growers live, the attention given to those trees in the form of pruning and agronomic management will improve their yields; this program stems from the observation that those farmers with trees near their houses—and those trees mulched with compost and coffee husk, such as those nearest to the washing station—have greater productivity.
For 2023, Kinini implemented cherry flotation at all collection sites in addition to the wet mill, resulting in more uniform collections and higher quality. They successfully paid off their final bank loan—part of their 2022 goals—freeing cashflow for other work.
Internally, Kinini made investments in staff, hiring a new cupper, elevating a new quality manager, promoting pickers into field workers, bringing former union cherry collectors on staff to collect cherry for Kinini, and contracting an agronomist, as well as organizing casual laborers—100% of whom are women—into a cooperative. Collectively, this restructuring will: ensure that Kinini has the workforce it needs; protect the most vulnerable members of the labor force through organization; and provide farmers with support.
We anticipate that our 2023 import from Kinini will be smaller than previous years, will include both washed and natural processed lots, and will be priced slightly higher than last year.
During our visit, we drew samples from the warehouse and beds to cup in our quality lab in Brooklyn. Qualities of those samples were excellent—and with the moisture meter and water activity meters Crop to Cup provided, we expect that quality will hold up through shipping and arrival later this year.
>> Kinini Village Cooperative 2023 Washed
Cantaloupe, caramel, sparkling cola, brown sugar, chocolate fudge, lemon, vanilla, pluot, lime
Our work in Rwanda also includes yearly purchasing from Nova, a woman-led and woman farmer focused exporter established on the notion of commercialization of coffee as a mechanism to create economic opportunity and foster social improvements. For 2023, besides building out a cupping lab, Nova established a coffee school and are in the process of adding a playground for the children of the women who work at the washing station.
While there are three different cooperatives that deliver their cherries to the Nova Washing Station, we focus on coffees grown by the 80-member women’s group called Dukorere Kawa Bukure Women’s Cooperative. We target peak harvest collections and cup through intensive lot separation to choose the best natural process coffees over the course of the entire harvest season.
Qualities of naturals from Dukorere Kawa Bukere were down this year, but an anaerobic lot from Nova jumped off the table during our cupping at NAEB in Kigali. We anticipate our purchasing from Nova will be smaller; roasters interested in contracting coffee from this community should reach out to their trader.
>> Nova Lot 1 2023 Anaerobic
Black cherry, rose, jackfruit, lemon verbena, rhubarb, lingonberry
Ahead of the 2023 harvest, we published our Mexico Pre-Harvest Plan, outlining our strategy for the coming import season and reflecting on lessons learned from previous imports.
Central to our strategy is a new program for 2023—Good Coffee Program (GCP)—a new quality-incentive and transparent pricing program built to provide:
While the coffee trade in Mexico operates with a lack of national structure and a high level of opacity due to difficulty accessing communities of producers directly, GCP aims to create an environment where smallholders are incentivized to participate in specialty export. Through GCP, producers are able to receive feedback on their coffee; receive a transparent, progressive pricing offer higher than the local market with premiums paid for quality; and get paid quickly.
We believe that this program will be transformational: producers whose access to specialty markets was previously restricted due to geography or finances can now compete for the business of long-term, relationship-motivated buyers who pay far above local prices. We aspire to impact entire communities and build a sustainable mechanism for discovery and aggregation of specialty coffees from lesser-explored producing regions within Mexico.
Based on its proximity, it would be easy to assume that of everywhere we work, Mexico should be the easiest. Yet, despite sharing a border and deep connections to the U.S., Mexico remains one of the most complex places we work. Our work there dates back to 2013—but the history of coffee in Mexico goes back centuries.
A straight line connects colonialism to modern coffee production in Mexico, and the legacy of that history creates challenges unique to Mexico.
First introduced by Spanish colonizers in the 18th century, coffee in Mexico initially grew on large plantations owned by Europeans and worked by Mexican laborers. Following Mexican independence, wealthy landowners wielded “modernization” as a rationale to abolish communal and corporate land rights, stripping indigenous communities of their lands to form large estates. Agrarian land reforms following the Mexican Revolution began a process of redistribution of land from those larger private estates back to smallholders through the ejido system, which established communal land areas dedicated to agricultural production.
In 1973, to promote coffee production on these newly created lands, the Mexican government established The Mexican Coffee Institute (Instituto Mexicano del Café, or INMECAFE), providing technical assistance, equipment, transportation and credit so that coffee producers could deliver their coffee to the international market. By the end of INMECAFE’s first decade, coffee was the largest agricultural export in Mexico, accounting for 35% of all agricultural exports.
As part of his neoliberal policies, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari abolished INMECAFE in 1989, the same year that the International Coffee Agreement collapsed—exposing smallholders to price volatility and leaving them without access to credit or government assistance—and in 1991 ended ejido land reform policies, again forcing smallholders to abandon lands they’d farmed, dispersing many into remote or mountainous areas.
After the ICA collapsed, so too did prices for coffee; the Coordination of Coffee Grower Organizations estimates that as a result of the ensuing coffee crisis, Mexican coffee growers would have lost 65% of their potential revenues since the start of the crisis. As a result, 71% of coffee growers stopped using fertilizers, 40% reduced pruning, and 75% stopped investing in control of pests, leading to lower qualities, yields and resiliency ahead of the coffee leaf rust outbreak in Latin America in 2012.
In response, many of the coffee growers in Mexico—who today number more than 500,000, 85% of whom are indigenous and with 95% growing coffee on fewer than 3 hectares of land—organized into informal cooperatives or otherwise collaborated to mitigate their risk and attempt to access the best price for their coffee.
Mexico offers unique opportunities for quality with many of its farms planted with decades-old root stock of lower-yielding traditional varieties like Bourbon and Typica and an increased interest domestically in specialty coffee, leading to experimentation and innovation in coffee processing. Today, Mexico is the seventh largest coffee exporter in the world—and the largest exporter of organic coffee.
But we’re not coffee hunters or coyotes just buying the best lots from blinded tables in Oaxaca City. To overcome our greatest challenges working in Mexico—aggregation of coffee into lots of exportable size and qualities—Crop to Cup is committed to working through communities, allowing us to build mutual relationships and networks of trust.
Crop to Cup’s ‘Good Coffee Program’ publishes a price to be paid for coffees by their cup quality, drawing a direct and consistent line between quality and price for all involved.
Because quality is not always assessed transparently, Denso Coffee Services was engaged as a Mexico-based impartial quality lab charged with the extra responsibility of providing context on cupping and suggestions on practices which could improve quality over an iterative six round, twelve week harvest-spanning period.
The State of Puebla organized producing communities through on-the-ground agronomists into working groups called ‘escuelas de campo’. Through this structure, feedback is put into practice; these organizations enable coffees to be mobilized for sampling and collection and communities to collaborate on storage and transportation to get their coffees the final kilometers to the mill.
Crop to Cup brought on staff two local agents, Israel Paz and his wife Joz Cortes—both of whom are skilled, calibrated cuppers with deep connections to producer communities in Mexico—to oversee GCP.
Israel and Joz worked together not only to evaluate quality and turn around feedback more rapidly at their own Arc roaster outfitted lab in Puebla, but also helped with discovery of new producer relationships through their networks. As producers submitted samples and completed an information-gathering survey, the coffees were milled, graded and cupped by Israel and Joz; cupping feedback was delivered to producers; contract offers were made for those coffees that met the requirements of the program; and an invitation to participate in further rounds was extended to all.
We leveraged contacts throughout Mexico and long-standing relationships with parchment collectors to solicit participation in the program and, as in years past, used radio broadcasts to promote the GCP and communicate daily prices to smallholders living in difficult-to-reach and remote regions.
Producers from relationships central to Crop to Cup’s work in Mexico—like Coro/Red 5 de Diciembre and smallholders from the informal cooperative led by Joaquin Santana in Lachao—as well as new relationships emerging from our participation as the only international buyer in last year’s Pride of Puebla competition contributed coffee to GCP. Through GCP, we also expanded our work with one of our newer supply-chains in Oaxaca—Terra Coffeas—with whom we worked in 2022. Rather than relying on conventional cooperatives, Terra Coffeas operates by organizing smallholder coffee producers into informal cooperatives of 25-30 families to aggregate lots into exportable volumes, create market access, cultivate quality, and deliver premiums based on that quality.
Through the harvest, we saw producer participants from early rounds deliver parchment in subsequent rounds as they took advantage of the feedback they received through GCP to refine their practices, improve the cup quality, and receive premiums upon delivery of their higher-quality coffees.
The topography and diversity of languages and cultural traditions in Mexico can create obstacles for communication. Access to specialty markets often passes through intermediaries—for example, coyotes who purchase coffee from communities of smallholders, offering immediate payment though perhaps lower prices than a grower might receive in a more competitive environment. Quick payment is crucial for the financial security of coffee producers; since coffee offers only one harvest per year with a long tail of expenditure that extends beyond the timeline of harvest, with a producer making necessary investments in equipment, inputs, labor and transportation to ensure success the following year. Without rapid payment, a producer may—if it is available at all—rely on expensive financing, but with costs rising in an inflationary economy and the traditional commodity index price on the C-market stagnating for much of 2022-2023, this would expose smallholders to risk.
With GCP, we introduced a transparent pricing model with premiums over a base price calculated based on cup quality and payment turned around within two weeks of delivery of a representative sample. We updated the base price every two weeks based on local market pricing to ensure that the prices paid through GCP were always higher than prices offered by coyotes or coyote Qs. Using radio, we broadcast pricing weekly to overcome topographical and geographic challenges quickly and maximize distribution of pricing communications.
For coffees scoring higher than 86 points at our lab in Puebla, we offered progressively increasing premiums, beginning 10% above and capping out at 150% above base price for coffees scoring 89+. This progressive premium model was designed to ensure that coffees were kept separated to maximize their value as export coffee as well as to incentivize smallholders to deliver samples to us rather than testing the price offer elsewhere. Because we communicated the price expectations transparently, offered quality feedback, and paid quickly, we hoped to receive coffee from the smallholders returning over multiple rounds of submissions.
We use a relationship and impact model of purchasing. This means we aim to: work as closely and directly with suppliers as possible; buy from those same producers each year; and provide support, financing or other resources to those partners based on the year’s commitments, toward improving both financial security and coffee quality. Like everywhere Crop to Cup operates, in Mexico we work to build transparent and traceable supply chains formed around relationships and community impact. Across Oaxaca, Chiapas, Guerrero, Veracruz and Puebla, we collaborate with teams of skilled cuppers, agronomists and logistics professionals who have the local knowledge, relationships, and experience to guide us toward impactful, scalable and sustainable projects designed to create more equitable economic conditions for coffee growers and their communities.
Over our last few years of imports, we’ve collected physical data from each coffee to best understand how to mitigate the risk of coffee fading prior to arrival. Based on that data, we now require coffees to have a moisture content of 10.0-11.0% (measured on a calibrated Draminsky moisture meter) and water activity of less than 0.55 (measured using an Extech). This way, when coffees arrive—even if they do arrive late—they will still taste fresh and vibrant.
At the beginning of harvest, we communicated this drying standard to our suppliers and partners. In order to give our partners the best possible opportunity for success, we:
All of the samples in our 2023 import from Mexico GCP met this standard.
Every coffee purchased through GCP has been evaluated at least twice—first by our team in Puebla led by Israel Paz and Joz Cortes—and then by our quality team in Brooklyn. We calibrated with the Puebla lab at the start of and throughout the harvest—as well as prior to final contracting.
In total, Israel spent nearly a month—27.5 full days—in the field in support of GCP over the three months of harvest. Joz led the cupping process in Puebla, evaluating 11 rounds of samples. Through the five periods of submissions to GCP, we cupped 193 samples from producers in Veracruz, Oaxaca, Guerrero and Puebla, ultimately contracting coffees from 137 producers. Of those, 43 came from existing relationships in Lachao; only 4 coffees submitted did not meet moisture content requirements.
The highest scoring lot scored an average score of 87.88 between the two evaluating labs and came from Puebla, a region not well-known or established internationally for specialty coffee. The average score of submissions was 85.91 and median was 85.88; standard deviation for score was 0.90 with a variance of 0.82. Compared with the base price—calculated weekly against the internal market reference price—Crop to Cup paid an average premium of 15 pesos per kg above local specialty reference prices through GCP. Expressed in USD per pound of green coffee, this average premium translates to $0.51 per pound over local market prices, or a difference of 20%.
Our import will be separated into collections of community lots—scoring 84-85.5 points—as well as single-farmer microlots scoring 86-87.5 points separated based on their performance in GCP cuppings and lot size.
If you’d like to book any of these coffees, reach out to your trader at Crop to Cup
Red de Huitzmaloc Nahuatl, Puebla, Sierra Negra
Fortino Olivares is one of the many producers who has, despite declines in production and prices, carried on the legacy of coffee farming inherited from his ancestors since he was 10 years old. His home of Huitzmaloc, a small town belonging to the Nahuatl ethnic group in the mountains of Sierra Negra, decades ago was recognized for having the best coffees in the region, with varieties such as Typica, Bourbon and Caturra brought from Veracruz.
When others lost hope during the pricing crisis of the 1990s and abandoned their farms as coffee prices plummeted below $1.00 per kg, Don Fortino’s father persisted; he expanded his plantations to teach his son Fortino the love and dedication to coffee. Now, at the age of 63, Don Fortino has 5 children to whom he has passed on his love for coffee and the dream that this profession will be passed down to his grandchildren.
Ricardo Cayetano and Fabian Cayetano
Born in a small town in the highest mountains of the Sierra Negra, Ricardo Cayetano is the son of coffee farmers. He spent his youth learning about coffee production, helping his parents with harvest and the maintenance of their farm. Unaware that Huitzmaloc was regarded as producing the best coffee in Puebla, his family sold their coffee to coyotes, receiving low prices—which Ricardo would ride 20km with a mule to exchange for groceries for his family to sell in their community to generate income.
When he got married in 1991, Ricardo moved to Mexico City, returning to his birthplace in 2000 to dedicate himself to the family’s farm. It was the midst of the coffee price crisis; to support their family while coffee prices were low, he and his wife opened a small diner. Ricardo was part of organizational movements among producers to move toward quality-driven production and in 2012 pursued organic certification to obtain a better price from export but struggled to find market access and tools to improve coffee quality and continued to sell to the local market.
In 2020, Ricardo, with his sister, brother-in-law and son Fabian—who graduated as an agronomist engineer a year earlier—formed a business called Mixtla Coffee to resume coffee cultivation as well as sell roasted coffee. With training provided by the Rural Development Secretariat, Don Ricardo participated in the first edition of the Pride of Puebla quality contest in 2020, with his coffee scoring among the best coffees in the state. In 2022, the family reinvested in their production and washing station by adding two drying tunnels.
Red de la Cumbre Nahuatl, Puebla, Sierra Negra
Ipanteptl is an organization of 15 smallholders of Nahuatl and Mazateco indigenous background in the communities of La Cumbre, Ojo de Agua and La Guacamaya in the Sierra Negra of Puebla who organized more than 20 years ago to improve their quality and income in the wake of the price crisis and losing over 80% of their production to coffee leaf rust. Until 2017, the organization grew rapidly to 80 producer families by delivering higher prices to producers through its focus on producing and marketing certified organic and fair trade coffees.
Administrative faults jeopardize the income of the group’s members and after the cooperative lost the confidence of the community it was dissolved. In 2018, the group, whose members had returned to commercializing their coffee on the local market, reintegrated with the support of older and younger generations as a small cooperative with the aim of resuming production for the export market. With many of the group having renovated their farms with the Gesha variety and receiving the training provided by the Secretariat of Rural Development, Ipanteptl is positioned well to produce exceptional coffee; in 2021, members of the group participated in the Pride of Puebla contest.
Red de Ojo de Agua Mazatec y Nahuatl, Puebla, Sierra Negra
Originally from a Nahuatl community located in the Sierra Negra of Puebla, Felix Arce has been a coffee producer for more than 20 years—a trade he inherited from his grandfather and parents, who were early members of the Ipantepetl cooperative. When he was young, Felix Arce and his brothers helped their parents in the maintenance of their plot, carrying out activities related to cutting, pruning, nutrition and harvesting.
Later, Felix chose coffee growing as his main trade to support his family and established himself as one of the best producers in the area for both quality and volume. Like his parents, he was part of the Ipantpetl organization and participated in the renovation of roya-stricken coffee plantations with newer, higher-quality and resistant cultivars. Because of his previous knowledge of good practices in organic production, Felix was part of the field schools of the Secretary of Rural Development, and in 2020 was a beneficiary of drying equipment. In 2021, he participated in the Pride of Puebla cup quality contest, positioning himself among the best coffees in the region. In the 2023 contest, his Gesha honey process was among the 30 best coffees from the State of Puebla with an SCA score of 87.85.
Red de San Miguel Eloxochitlan Nahuatl, Puebla, Sierra Negra
Miguel Alva Hernández
In 2017, a group of young producers of the Nahuatl community decided to form a small group with the aim of improving their income through the renovation of coffee plantations. Before coffee, to support their families, members would migrate each year to the border to work in agriculture—staying for months at a time to work in the fields, often receiving less pay than they were owed.
By investing their savings to renovate 50-year old coffee plantations they inherited from their parents and grandparents with the rust-resistant Costa Rica 95 cultivar, these young people hoped to generate enough income to improve their quality of life and support their families without having to migrate north each year.
In 2020, the group joined the equipment program by the Rural Development Secretariat, where they were able to obtain mowers, pulpers, and drying tunnels as well as participate in the field school, where they received processing training. In 2021, they participated in the Puebla of Pride quality competition for the first time. In 2022, their coffees scored among the 30 best in the competition.
By 2023, this small group of young people who years ago had no knowledge of coffee production occupied 6 of the 10 best lots in the competition with coffees scoring as high as 90.25 points. Today, as a result of their investment in their coffee production, these young people no longer separate from their families to migrate for income.
Fermin Temoxtle Rodriguez
Fermin Temoxtle Rodriguez began growing coffee at the age of 34 as a way to create opportunity and greater income for himself and his family. Before coffee, Fermin—born to indigenous parents in San Miguel Eloxochitlan, the municipality with the highest concentration of poverty in Puebla and one of the twelve poorest in Mexico—worked in the asparagus fields of Baja California as a migrant worker, leaving home for 3-5 months each year during the harvest.
The work was grueling; most of his days were spent crouching in the fields while temperatures routinelya exceeded 110ºF. Some years, he wasn’t able to make much—but what he did earn, he saved.
Opportunity presented itself when a group of friends told him about a coffee plantation renovation project in Puebla. Fermin joined 17 other people between the ages of 20 and 40 in replanting the farm with Costa Rica 95, a cultivar they were told was resistant to coffee leaf rust and would adapt to the area. In 2017, on his then- 1 hectare plot on the farm, at 1,650 meters above sea level, he planted 3,300 trees. In 2018, he planted an additional quarter hectare with 1,100 Obatã trees—making him the only producer locally with the cultivar. Each day during the harvest, Fermin leaves home at 6am to walk an hour to his plot and returns at 9pm at night, overseeing 5 men and 5 women that he employs to collect and process cherry—generating additional jobs and income for indigenous families in his community.
In 2021, he trained in anaerobic fermentation and processing practices taught by the Secretary of Rural Development and subsequently used honey processing for coffees he submitted to the Pride of Puebla competition that year. He continued training to improve his coffee fermentation, nutrition and storage techniques and again participated in 2022.
In 2023, Fermin again participated in the Pride of Puebla competition, submitting a 72-hour anaerobic dry processed coffee which earned a score of 90.25 and placement as the best coffee in the state of Puebla.
Mercedes Galvez Andrés
The daughter of parents of Nahuatl indigenous origin from Macuiltepec in the municipality of San Miguel Eloxochitlán,, Mercedes Galvez Andrés, at the age of 27, established a 1/4 hectare coffee plot with Anacafe 14 plants. Leaving behind her job as a teacher in an indigenous school with the aim of generating more income to improve her quality of life, together with her husband, Fermin Temoxtle Rodriguez, Mercedes joined a group of 17 Nahuatl people from her community in renovating a coffee plantation. A year later, she added 1,200 Obatã plants to her plot.
In pursuit of improving the quality of her production, Mercedes joined the field school of the Rural Development Secretariat of the government of Puebla in 2021, where she trained in agricultural and processing practices. That same year, she was encouraged to participate in the Pride of Puebla competition and submitted for the first time, and in 2022 competed again, with her coffee scoring in the top 10 lots.
With an enthusiasm and passion for coffee, Mercedes continues to train in fermentation, nutrition, and storage issues, and again in the 2023 participated in the Pride of Puebla competition with honey processed Anacafe 14 and Obatã lots, again placing in the top 10 of lots participating in the auction.
Joining other young people in renovating a coffee plantation, Bernabé Herrera established a half-hectare plot of Costa Rica 95 variety coffee in San Miguel Eloxochitlán in 2017 as a way to improve the quality of life for himself, his wife and their 5-year old son. Before coffee, he, like many others in his community, would migrate to the north of the country for work in agriculture, being apart from his family for 3-5 months each year. In 2022, he continued renovations of the farm with Obatã trees to obtain better cup quality. Through his farm management, Bernabé has created employment for 5 women who, with him, help with selective picking, processing, and drying.
In 2022, Bernabé participated in the Pride of Puebla cup competition for the first time, achieving a score of 85 for the coffee he submitted; in 2023, he continued training and improving his processing and resubmitted to the competition, scoring in the top 10 lots submitted and achieving a score of 87.47 for his coffee.
Red de Cafeticultores 5 de Diciembre La Cañada, Oaxaca
The Red 5 de Diciembre network is the largest organization of producers in the La Cañada, and itself made up by 13 first-level organizations to represent 1,300 small indigenous producers. They formed as an independant group on the 5th of December, 2014, after La Roya devestated crops in region and chased away international buyers. Over the past six years this group has been working to improve selective harvesting, specialty processing, and marketing of these higher value lots. They’ve succeeded in growing membership and obtaining organic certification, but it was not until 2020 that they were able to achieve and significant premiums for exporting specialty. This was the year they partnered with the cupping team at Ensembles de Café, who worked with this group to separate out their very best and set the model for years to come.
If you’d like to book any of these coffees, reach out to your trader at Crop to Cup. Availability is very limited; lots will be booked first come, first served.
Before Covid, we would invite buyers to Brooklyn every winter to taste through offer samples from Ethiopia. We’d present 30 or 40 coffees across tables at the Wythe Hotel or some other venue, hoping we planned enough water and coffee and time to get through them all and provide a meaningful glimpse at the coming year’s imports.
Our aim for these cupping events was to build community around the coffees and thus help build volume toward our import. Inevitably, though, as well thought-out and planned as they were, cupping in that context—with that many coffees, and with that many buyers present, and a limited amount of time—is challenging. And with limited sample material of each coffee available, even if you were interested in contracting a coffee and wanted to re-cup it in your own lab, there wouldn’t be enough PSS to go around.
During our most recent visit to Ethiopia, in the midst of harvest in December, we reflected on the lessons we’d learned from previous imports and some of the lingering problems we hoped to solve—and dreamed of a better way to present our partners’ coffees. So we put together a tasting kit—a complete picture of the coffees from Ethiopia we’ve already approved, sent to milling in Addis, and booked for shipping—our way to do that.
There may still be tasting kits available—reach out to your trader for more information.
Ethiopia’s 2022-2023 harvest was one defined by economic pressures: inflation, a shortage of foreign currency, and cherry prices that exceeded last year’s already high prices by more than 200%. A paradox of coffee production is that higher prices tend to lead to lower qualities, the effects of which have been observed by some buyers who have noted that quality from Ethiopia has apparently not lived up to expectations over the last few years.
It’s our ambition and our belief that the coffees on our offer sheet will change your mind—and that you’ll think about coffees from Ethiopia differently as we head into the 2023 import. We hope you enjoy tasting through these samples. If you like any of them, you can book them immediately—first come, first served—by reaching out to your trader (note that for many, only extremely limited quantities are available).
These coffees are already on their way—we expect to receive the first landed lots by the end of May.
Tag us on Instagram (@croptocup) during your cupping or drop us a line afterward to let us know what you thought of this tasting experience.
If you’d like to book any of these coffees, reach out to your trader at Crop to Cup. Many of these coffees are available in very limited quantities and will be contracted first come, first served.
Few places in the world offer the quality and diversity of flavor profiles of Ethiopia, the birthplace of Arabica coffee. Coffee is Ethiopia’s main export commodity and critically important to the country’s economy, with approximately 4 million smallholders growing more than 95% of the country’s coffee. Despite its importance, lack of financing opportunities, the liquidity of other cash crops such as khat, and economic disruption are pressuring growers to abandon coffee cultivation, creating an opportunity for specialty actors to work at community-level.
Over our nine years working there, Ethiopia’s coffee export system has changed from a largely opaque, centralized system with nearly all coffee flowing through the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange to a more liberalized model allowing growers and private washing stations to, once again as before ECX, self-export their coffee and engage directly with buyers.
Our earlier relationships were with unions and cooperatives within those unions as well as larger single-farmer estates in the West, who, thanks to a government program started to protect remaining forestlands through commercial coffee agroforestry, were able to hold export licenses. The ECX system, while intended to provide a standardized minimum price for coffee across the country, made traceability and transparency challenging if not impossible through its system of aggregation and auctions. By purchasing through these two channels we were able to develop relationships directly with producers and producer groups with traceability and transparency.
In 2018, after the government relaxed its export regulations and once again allowed private washing stations to export the coffee they processed and also allowed smaller growers to self-export, we expanded our work, establishing relationships with both private washing stations and individual smallholders.
For our 2023 import, we focused on cultivating and growing relationships with individual smallholder-exporters as well as cooperatives who have taken the step to break away from unions and self-export. By eliminating layers of bureaucracy, we are able to ensure the premiums we pay impact the communities of the people producing the coffee, collaborate on processing experiments and lot separations, and grow our impact through projects executed by our roaster-supported working groups.
Sourcing Philosophy & Green Quality Standards
We use a relationship and impact model of purchasing. This means we aim to: work as closely and directly with suppliers as possible; buy from those same producers each year; and provide support, financing or other resources to those partners based on the year’s commitments, toward improving both financial security and coffee quality.
Like everywhere Crop to Cup operates, in Ethiopia we work to build transparent and traceable supply chains formed around relationships and community impact. Prior to the export laws changing in 2017 it was not possible for smallholders to export directly; after the market liberalization, we were able to engage a broader network of suppliers—so while you’ll see many names on this offer sheet that are returning from previous years, there are a number of new partners, too.
Over our last few years of imports, we’ve collected physical data from each coffee to best understand how to mitigate the risk of coffee fading prior to arrival. Based on that data, we now require coffees to have a moisture content of 10.0-11.0% (measured on a calibrated Draminsky moisture meter) and water activity of less than 0.55 (measured using an Extech RH390). This way, when coffees arrive—even if they do arrive late—they will still taste fresh and vibrant.
At the beginning of harvest, we communicated this drying standard to our suppliers and partners. In order to give our partners the best possible opportunity for success, we:
All of the samples on our offer sheet met this standard.
Every coffee on this Ethiopia Grade 1 offer sheet has been evaluated at least twice by our team in Addis Ababa led by Q-graders Moata Raya and Ansha Yassin. We calibrated with the Addis lab at the start of and throughout the harvest—as well as prior to final contracting.
Ethiopia Sourcing Team
MAYA BLUESTONE rose through Crop to Cup having seen all sides of the company. Maya is more than just a Q-grader: she’s the beating heart of the team, ensuring that we always center our values and mission in our sourcing work, even as we work with our partners to continually increase quality.
CHRISTOPHER FERAN is the newest member of the Crop to Cup team, a “lapsed Q-grader” who comes with a decade of sourcing and buying experience as well as deep knowledge of roasting. He previously operated a multi-unit roaster-retailer and also works as an independent consultant.
BEN HEINS is a Q-grader with deep experience in Ethiopia dating back to Crop to Cup’s first Ethiopian import, Ben’s experience in coffee emerged from his background in sales. Ben leads the sales team at Crop to Cup and is uniquely positioned to push the sourcing team to “meet the moment” with roaster needs and industry bellwethers.
TAYLOR MORK is Crop to Cup’s co-founder whose roots in coffee date back to his time living in Uganda, where he and C2C co-founder Jake saw the potential of specialty coffee to transform the local economy. Fourteen years later, Taylor runs sourcing operations for Ethiopia from our Brooklyn HQ and quality lab, where he also oversees logistics.
MOATA RAYA is a trained agronomist and Q-grader who runs our in-country sourcing operations out of his lab in Addis. Before joining the Crop to Cup team, Moata worked as a technician for Technoserve, helping to establish and train some of the most well known cooperatives and washing stations in Agaro.
Roasting & Cupping Standards
We roast on an Arc S sample roaster and approach the roast hoping to avoid both underdeveloped or roasty character to present the coffees as transparently and cleanly as possible. Our roasts fall into standard roast durations, approximately 8 minutes per batch with 1:10 of development and a final roast color targeting a ground Agtron score of 73.
Our tasting kit was presented randomized and blinded. By presenting coffees agnostic of region, process and producer type, the diversity of Ethiopian coffees is properly contextualized and allowed to shine without any projections, preconceived notions, or bias. Blinding the samples is the only way to truly give every coffee a fair shake.
We also included two packets of Third Wave Water classic for this tasting; we prefer to use it at half strength to provide the best balance of total hardness and buffer.
For cupping, we use and recommend a 1:17 ratio and pour with water at 99ºC. We look for a strength of 1.3% TDS by 12:00 into the extraction; you may need to adjust your grind accordingly. Using a Compak PK1 Lab, our burrs are set to 390um spacing from burr touch.
If you’d like to book any of these coffees, reach out to your trader at Crop to Cup
Rashad Ababulgu, Mustefa Abasadi and Abo Hussein
On our way back to Jimma from visiting producers in Gera, Moata’s phones were ringing constantly. A few of those calls came in from Rashad Ababulgu and Mustefa Abasadi, two coffee farmers located near to the Biftu Gudina Cooperative who had, for years, been selling cherry to Duromina. It was starting to get dark and we had a way left to go, so instead of taking a detour, we arranged to meet them on the side of the road a few kilometers from their farms. Both had received drying materials and support through USAID, gotten export licenses and in the last year had sold coffee for export destined for Korea—and had friends in their community, other smallholders like Abo Hussein, who were similarly positioned to begin direct export. As the direct export market continues to develop in Ethiopia, we’re eager to seek out and deepen relationships with all-star producers who, for years, have contributed coffee to some of the cooperatives best known for quality. With their own export licenses, they’re able to capture higher prices and market their coffee and brand year-over-year to returning buyers like Crop to Cup.
Musa Abalulesa and Mustefa Abalulesa
Musa Abulelessa and his brother Mustefa operate two farms together outside of Beshasha in Agaro, called Koye and Chanko. Before the undergrowth was cleared for coffee, Musa and Mustefa’s jungle parcel at 2,100 meters elevation was a hideout for their father, Abalulesa, a guerilla fighting the oppressive military government of the time called The Derg. Failing to capture him and having lost soldiers in their attempts, the government offered the local community a bounty for Abalulesa’s capture. With his health deteriorating and near death, Abalulessa turned to an old friend and, as thanks for nursing him through his final months, told him to tell the government he had killed him, thus benefiting from the bounty. Abalulessa died in 1977—when Musa was just two years old—and as part of a subsequent amnesty and reconciliation program, the government gave land to the brothers and their mother, which Abalulesa’s sons now farm.
Crop to Cup was Musa’s first direct sale customer in 2016—and Mustefa’s the following year. With the premiums they’ve earned, Musa and Mustefa have begun to renovate their farms using seedlings from their nursery; built new drying beds; purchased shade cloth; and built a larger warehouse. Mustefa has built a dry mill in Agaro aimed at providing feedback to smallholders to help them understand the potential value of their coffee and assist in faster export—and thus, faster payment. Musa and Mustefa also operate a seed production business, selling seeds to the local government seed banks. Musa’s own production is supplemented by his purchase of cherry from 21 outgrowers—all of whom, like his own farm, are certified organic.
After visiting with smallholders and single farmers around Yirgacheffe, we got picked up in a truck driven by Tagel Alemayehu, the owner of Olkai coffee—a former race circuit driver, whose efficiency as a driver is only matched by his humility and warmth. Over dinner at Aragesh Lodge, (in addition to teasing him about his car’s sound system—which sounded as awful as his reflexes were quick), we got to know Tagel better. For Tagel, coffee runs deep: He’d grown up in Bule Hora, the son of a local coffee trader who built the first washing station there and installed the first Pinhalense dry huller in Ethiopia. Starting in 2004, he worked as washing station manager at one of first specialty natural stations in Guji, and founded Olkai in 2018 as the government export regulations opened. Olkai is a family business; his wife works as the export manager. Tagel and Olkai operate a half dozen washing stations in the south dotting many of the most sought-after regions for quality in Guji, Bule Hora and Sidama. Tagel’s ties to the community were forged over 20 years of collecting cherry from these regions. Community members later sold land to make space for him to operate a washing station in their community, and many stopped us along our journey out of Hambella to say hello to Tagel and chat.
The de-facto leader and organizer of a collective of independent smallholder farmer-exporters around Bensa, we’ve been buying Bekele Balacho since 2019—Crop to Cup was his first direct export customer. A family man—he has 11 children with his two wives—Bekele operates his farms and drying stations with the help of his family. His son, Beleteno, who graduated this year from Hawassa University with an economics degree, manages his Hora Ganet farm (which means “Spring Paradise”). Between his farm in Bombe and a smaller, 5 hectare farm in Kokose (with its own drying station), Bekele purchases cherry from more than 100 smallholders, producing a total of 1.5 containers of coffee. Like many collectors in Ethiopia, his bottleneck, with cherry prices as high as they are, is financing. Bekele is a connector and a consummate professional—an ideal partner, willing to engage with every idea for improving his coffee and helping his community. During our visit, Bekele expanded his shaded drying area to cover nearly his entire station, protecting the natural process coffees—traditional, anaerobic and lactic styles—he produced there, and verifying their final moisture content with a moisture meter.
We stopped by Basha’s Bombe drying station on our second day in Bensa in December. Basha’s father—also a community man who with Basha built a church for the community at their site in Bombe—was once a manager for a co-op in Bombe that supplied coffee to the Sidama Union. Before the government made it possible for smallholders to obtain export licenses, both he and his father sold their cherry to the cooperative. Basha now has his own export license and grows coffee (primarily 74158, known locally as “Walega”) in semi-forested plots on 12 hectares in addition to operating collection sites in Bombe, Shantawane, and Kokose—collecting cherry from producers growing coffee as high as 2300 masl. While cherry prices were high this year, Basha maintained a practice we didn’t see everywhere: delivering a second payment to the 126 producers he bought cherry from once the coffee sold. Like most smallholders around Bensa, Basha exclusively produces dry processes—which includes experiments with anaerobic styles of fermentation—and practices cherry flotation before drying his coffee slowly on raised beds (with some preparations drying under shade). This is our first import from Basha.
Just minutes from the gates of the famous Nano Challa cooperative, Kefyalew Deressa’s Genji washing station sits tucked at the edge of the Belete-Gera forest. Kefyalew’s start in coffee came somewhat unexpectedly. While working as a server at Central Jimma Hotel (our hotel of choice while traveling in the West), a representative for Penagos took an interest in him and, toward the end of their conversation, offered him a job as a Penagos technician. He took the job and worked for Technoserve, helping them install and service Penagos ecopulpers across the country and, over time, began to communicate directly with Penagos—eventually becoming the company’s exclusive distributor in Ethiopia. Kefyalew continues to distribute Penagos equipment as well as Draminsky moisture meters and plastic material used for covering raised beds. He bought his washing station in Gera three years ago, installed a Penagos ecopulper, and began production by purchasing cherry from some 250 smallholders. His outgrower program continues even as his own farm, planted with variety 74110, has begun to produce. At Gera Genji, Kefyalew produces washed coffee and naturals, and is experimenting with anaerobic style coffees. This is our second import from Gera Genji.
A former footballer for the local district team, Neja Fadil built his washing station in Uraga in 2017 after working for several years as a coffee collector on commission for other washing stations. The Neja Fadil wet mill has registered about 250 farmers who are located in the villages surrounding the wet mill (in Tobitu Tuta kebele). Growing at altitudes above 2,000 meters, coffee from this region—and in particular, directly surrounding the washing station—is young, only recently having been planted and quickly developing a reputation for quality. As is becoming increasingly common at private washing stations in Ethiopia, Neja’s station is currently expanding registration of farmer suppliers and launching agronomy trainings to expand quality control to the farm level. While we’ve been buying coffee from Neja since 2019, we didn’t have his coffee as part of our 2022 import from Ethiopia; with domestic prices as high as they were, Neja chose to sell coffee to the local market, reinvesting his profits in starting a tire importing business and securing financing to build his own dry mill at a second drying station, which will exclusively produce naturals. We’re thrilled to have his coffee back on our offer sheet for 2023.
The former secretary of the Nano Challa cooperative, Wandamu (whose name means “brother”) now exports coffee from his 11 hectare farm in Gera under his father’s export license. Like many of the higher-quality producers in the West, Wandamu grows variety 74110 under the canopy of Gera’s montane forests. Wandamu, who has four children, comes from an agricultural family—he and his father began to grow coffee 10 years ago after previously growing teff and sorghum. Wandamu is a driven and motivated producers, actively soliciting support and training from local experts—including Moata—and investing in his farm by purchasing USAID-style shade for all of his raised beds and material for performing anaerobic fermentation. All of his coffee is floated, sorted and dried in cherry under shade for 20-22 days.
Last year, we imported coffee from Gemedech Fulasa for the first time. In the Gedeo culture, land inheritance typically passes to male children. But Mrs. Gemedech is an only child, so when her father passed away in 2011, she inherited his 4.5 hectare coffee farm, which sits at a wildly high elevation of 2050 meters. These days, Gemedech shines as one of the few woman coffee farmers—and one of the farmers producing the highest quality—in Yirgacheffe. A mix of Wolisho, Dega and Kurume landraces grow in a regenerative agroforestry at Mrs. Gemedech’s farm under the canopy of fruit and food staples. Fallen leaves and coffee pulp hauled from local mills are the main source of compost. Enset trees across the farm collect water from the rainy season inside their trunks and release it to the ground during the dry season. This helps the soils retain moisture all year round. According to Gemedech, she does not use inorganic fertilizers or pesticides, and, since she processes her harvest using the natural/sundried process, her environmental waste and impact are minimal. By exporting directly through her own export license, Mrs. Gemedech is able to receive 88% of the FOB export price, resulting in substantially increased income compared to the conventional model of selling cherry through the Ethiopia commodity exchange or private washing stations. During our visit in December, she shared with us that she’s expanded her cherry collection efforts to increase her exports—and has separated the coffee from her neighbors from her own into different lots.
The story of Tariku Kare is one of the success that sometimes follows when hard work and perseverance collide with opportunity. Tariku was born in Bombe and, at 15 years old, began working as a cherry sorter for a local cooperative. He worked his way up—first receiving a promotion to wash coffee in the channels, and then when a man from Awassa opened a washing station in Nansebo, Tariku was tapped to manage. Market disruptions led that owner to bankruptcy, so Tariku and 17 other workers at the washing station formed a company and took it over—with Tariku managing. Later, he opened a new washing station by himself—this one, in Arsi—to supply coffee to the international market. Once the mill in Nansebo was stabilized and had enough producers contributing cherry reliably, Tariku returned to his hometown of Bombe and built a washing station there. At his sites, Tariku pays a premium over local prices for ripe red cherry and works hard to incentivize farmers to deliver cherry to his washing stations each year.
Once renowned for its quality, coffee from Adado has fallen out of favor with buyers in recent years due to the emergence of higher elevation farms with newer plantings in other parts of Yirgacheffe and Guji. On our way back from Uraga to Urgalem, we stopped in Bule to meet a friend of one of the producers we’d visited earlier in the week. Walking along a road cut into the side of the mountains, through dense tropical plantings, we arrived at the drying station of Fikadu Legge, a smallholder who just this harvest received his export license. Fikadu was raised in the nearby town of Dilla and after moving to Adado, began bringing bread from Dilla to sell locally. Eventually, he was able to buy land to grow coffee—he has been producing coffee for 3 years—and works with his wife and children through the harvest. Most of the coffee he produces comes from his own small farm which he processes and separates from cherry he collects from just 5-10 of his neighbors. He told us, “I focus on the coffee. I know the farmers who focus on quality and fertilize well and buy it in a traceable way.” After receiving quality training from the government, Fikadu uses best-practices for natural processing, such as floating cherry and drying slowly—over 15-20 days—on raised beds.
Sitting atop a ridge at 2300 MASL in Bombe, Nguisse Nare’s 10 hectare farm “Setame” is planted with variety 74158 intercropped with taro and sweet potato. With his two other farms—one in Kokose, one in Tiburo—he produces natural and anaerobic coffees using his own cherry as well as cherry collected from around 60 of his neighbors. When we visited in December, we spoke with Thomas Tosha, the farm manager at Setame, as well as Demisse Turuma, the Industry Manager (the term of choice for the resident postharvest processing expert) while touring Nguisse’s drying station and farm. Over a traditional meal of enset, we learned that Nguisse bought the farm four years ago, with a strict focus on quality. He floats his cherry before drying them slowly on raised beds over 20 days.
Crop to Cup has been the exclusive U.S. importer of coffee from Kossa Geshe since Abdulwahid Sherif’s first export in 2016. His farm, in the highlands of the Kebena Forest in Limu and established in 2009 as part of a government program to protect Ethiopia’s remaining forests—of which just 2% remained at the time—is known for producing clean, fruit-forward naturals. Abdu’s rise was meteoric: just two years after he took over the farm, his coffee which won a Good Food Award and placed in the AFCA Taste of Harvest. It goes without saying that quality is continually on his mind. Crop to Cup doesn’t normally work with estates, but Abdul has been an exception, especially because of the support he provides to his outgrower neighbors. Abdu is a man of action and a man of his word, which also makes him a great partner—and when he says he will make a change, investment or improvement, it’s not uncommon to find that he’s already begun to implement it by the time our time visiting with him has ended. During our visit, we saw Abdu’s relentless spirit push forward ahead of our 2023 import as he undertook new initiatives to ensure proper ripeness selection and sorting of cherry—including for the outgrowers he buys from—and expanded his raised bed capacity, built shade netting over some of the drying space, universally used tarps for patio-dried cherry, and oversaw organic certification for all of the outgrowers he buys from. All the while, Abdu demonstrated his commitment to social progress, continuing his investments in his community—building access to potable water, dormitories and toilets for farm workers, a school on the farm for children younger than the first grade, and a transparent ledger system for employee wages.
Bekele Utute’s brother-in-law manages his farm in Kokose, which was the 5th place winner in the Cup of Excellence in 2021—a lot named after his nephew, Samuel, who manages Bekele’s Kokose drying station. At his farm, he grows primarily 74158, common to the quality-focused farms around Bensa. Like at his other drying station near Dembe—where he was born into a family of coffee growers—Bekele produces dry processed coffee at his Kokose site, which he purchased in 2019. He used to sell coffee to local suppliers before obtaining his export license in 2021, exclusively producing dry processed coffees (traditional naturals and anaerobics) for export to the U.S. and Korean specialty markets. This is our first import from Bekele Utute.
Melese Wolde’s farm in Shantawane developed a reputation for quality after winning a competition through one of the major specialty importers twice—an importer who never, in the end, showed up to buy the coffee. Melese is a farmer through and through, he told us, as we stood in his warehouse to avoid the rain, his coffee sleeping protected under plastic tarpaulins on his raised beds. He said would have happily continued to sell his farm’s cherry to private washing stations if the government had not given him the ability to get his own export license—which he did, in 2018. His son, the oldest of his six children, helps him and runs the harvest.
One of the newer cooperatives within the Kata Meduga union, Kenissa was founded in 2018 and processes and markets coffee for its 305-310 members who grow coffee in Agaro. We visited Kenissa with Asnake, the Kata Meduga Union boss, in December. As we walked down from the top of the Technoserve-funded mill—at over 2,100 masl—the cooperative’s attention to detail was immediately evident: a worker scrubbed the tank used to hold water for washing to ensure cleanliness, and just a few meters away, raised beds held parchment draped with shade cloth, individually labeled with the collection and processing, ensuring traceability from cherry through final milling. The details matter, and at Kenissa, they show up in coffee. Most of Kenissa’s members grow variety 74110, with some still having a small amount of 74177. The young cooperative’s leadership is unusually committed to its success: former members who have secured their own export licenses to market their coffee directly continue to serve on its board or in management roles to help their community, understanding the cooperative’s value for improving the incomes and livelihoods of its members. This is our first import from Kenissa.
Geta Bore Cooperative
The most remote of the Kata Meduga cooperatives, Geta Bore is also the smallest, with 232 members who grow Metu Bishari Selection varieties (primarily 74110 but also 74112, 74140, 74148, and 74165) at the highest elevations in Gomma woreda, up to 2200 meters above sea level. Sitting 8km south of the well-known Biftu Gudina cooperative, members of the Geta Bore cooperative used to deliver their cherry to Biftu Gudina or other nearby washing stations but in 2018 formed their own cooperative to reduce the difficulty and cost of transporting fresh cherry as well as to have a stronger role in the cooperative governance structure. Now, Geta Bore farmers can now more easily access training services from Kata Muduga, and through the Union’s model they receive both a cash payment upon cherry delivery plus a 2nd payment after coffee export. This is our third year importing coffee from Geta Bore.
If you’d like to book any of these coffees, reach out to your trader at Crop to Cup. Many of these coffees are available in very limited quantities and will be contracted first come, first served.
In our 2023 Tanzania Pre-Harvest Plan, we wrote about what we’d learned from our partners in Mwika North, and the resulting strategy to shift support towards coffee processed at a cooperatives’ Central Processing Units rather than the more traditional, and widely common method of processing coffee at home, then delivering parchment to the cooperative.
In Mwika, we observed cherry collections came in with higher premiums paid to members, predictably higher uniformity, quality and shelf stability as compared to corresponding HP coffee. We found that other investments made more of an impact as well; interventions such as shade cloth go further in a CPU where they can impact all of the community’s coffee in aggregate.
On average, we’ve seen cup scores come in 1-1.5 points higher from CPU versus HP coffee, but more, that CPU coffee has better water activity readings, and less of a tendency to fade. This gets to the root of the drying issues which have come to characterize some of Tanzania’s coffees over the past decade, and gives us more confidence to buy more qualities, which we are expecting them to retain for more time.
With this in mind, we’ve been looking for other Kilimanjaro cooperatives who might be willing to dust-off an old pulper or invest in a new central processing unit. The best new opportunity to present itself came through the Kilimanjaro Smallholder Revival Project (KSRP).
Originally subsidized by a European company and supported by our partners at Taylor Winch, KSRP aimed to reverse a trend that began with the collapse of the strength of the Kilimanjaro Native Cooperative Union (KNCU) following the nationalization and subsequent re-independence of the Union and liberalization of of the coffee industry in the 1990s. Without the support of a strong union, cooperatives collapsed as private exporters worked to secure coffee by buying it directly from cooperative members.
Smallholder coffee from Kilimanjaro—where coffee had grown since 1835—used to account for over half of Tanzania’s Arabica; by 2020 it was less than one-fifth. Old trees, aging farmers, and low premiums contributed to this decline—as did regulations supporting the growth of estates. In response, a European company funded, with the support of the local coffee community, a revitalization effort—the Kilimanjaro Smallholder Revival Project—aimed at engaging the next generation of smallholders on Kilimanjaro, and in doing so, preserving the practices, cultivars and profiles that first made Tanzanian coffee renowned.
The project and its German partners identified 9 AMCOSs to solicit for participation in the project then worked with them to secure organic certification and guaranteed premiums to promote quality and re-engage farmers; provided SL-28 seedlings, which were the cultivar that made coffee from Kilimanjaro famous; and established a youth corps to train the next generation of coffee producers.
We signed up to back cherry premiums for KSRP member groups who had the capacity and interest to collect and process cherries; specifically Marangu West, Lukani Lossa and Mrimbo Uuwo. Most of the volume would come from the six other cooperatives, and overall, come in as HP parchment—and therefore likely below the 85pt quality standard for Crop to Cup purchases. But the broader KRSP network and its backers lined-up a buyer in Europe for the coffee who, at the last minute, backed out—creating an opportunity for Crop to Cup to get involved in the project with the help of Taylor Winch.
For 2023, we were able to separate these coffees, which were collected in full container loads, by AMCOS. We hope, over the next few years, to work with partners to improve qualities and separations coming from their CPUs.
The best hotel in Iganga – smudging the line between mishap and miracle
The best hotel has holes in the floors, holes around the fixtures and an unexpected hole in the sink. There are holes in the bed covers, around outlets and in the ceiling where the light should be. The window itself is actually just a hole with a frame stuck somewhat inside of it – you don’t open this window, no, you simply remove the frame from its hole as instructed when sitting in an airplane exit row.
But a hole in a wall is still most of a wall between you and the town of Iganga, which doesn’t even get credit for being on my top ten least favorite places to be. In fact, while I lived there at one time, it’s a city I rarely talk about and would never recommend – to anyone really – ever except for the six unfortunates who I brought with me to sample the city’s finest.
The last 18 hours had taken a toll on us all, and we needed the day to stop –the only reason Iganga counted as a good idea. In the end the tally included five cars, our luggage, a birthday, some vacay, and over a decade of goodwill.
But in exchange we got a few flavorful vignettes, drank champagne coffee with new friends, hosted an impromptu dance party at a street-side squeeze, ignored a kayak competition and learned a few lessons we’ll not easily forget.
If the devil is in the details then maybe we should be looking for miracles in the cracks. It’s what happened here anyways.
At Crop to Cup Coffee Importers we subscribe to the mantra of ‘trust, and verify’. These are the two legs on which relationships stand. And any good partnership needs two legs to get off the ground, to stand up to the winds of change, and to move forward year over year.
With trust, verification becomes an easy ritual. Without it, verification becomes an adversarial audit. With verification, trust is built step by step. But without checks there can be no balance.
This is a story of our oldest relationship – with a group called Bulaago in Mt. Elgon. A place where trust runs deep like the rudder of a tall ship, allowing us to ignore the holes in this old sail.
Looking back, I should not have been so surprised that the boat capsized.
Bulaago Coffee Farmers Association – Jan 2019
“The rains are coming, and we have to go now”. It was true, that rain was threatening, but that wasn’t the real reason we cut the meeting short. It is January of 2019 and I’m up visiting the Bulaago Coffee Farmers Association (BUCOFA) in Mt. Elgon, Uganda.
It started well, with greetings and introductions, gifts exchanged of passion fruit for branded bags that proudly printed “Bulaago coffee”. So far so good – with 14 years under our belt, this visit was meant to be routine, a repeat of our annual to bi-annual visit. But then the storm came.
“You are lost”, started one farmer. Not surprising – this is a common way of saying ‘we missed you’. But then “you have been gone now for over two years, why haven’t you bought our coffee?” This bristled, as I pointed to the sales report which showed what we bought, how much more we’d need, and what we’d done to market their coffee over the past year. I pointed to the guest book that showed my last visit in November of 2017, complete with signature and the comment ‘your coffee is as sweet as your hospitality – thank you for sharing both’. This wasn’t what I expected – things were getting interesting. I moved closer, curious as to where this would go next.
Straight down was where. “Our store has been empty now for two years. We have been on our own, and while we are glad that (Mr. X) brought you here, we only found out yesterday you were coming, and I wonder – why are you here?”
Mr. X was the son of the village elder, a muzee (respected man), and a long-time friend. He had known about our visit for months, but apparently had not told anyone until the day before.
Just earlier that day we had paid Mr. X to rent chairs and a tent, for food and for a truck to bring all of this up-mountain. And then another payment for another truck when that first one failed. But on arrival, it was clear that there were no chairs, no tent, no food, and no truck. This money had been eaten.
So how did such a good thing go so wrong?
Looking back the reasons are clear, and I know better. So, the blame is on me.
First, I’d accidentally chosen to visit on a market day, a day when the average farmer moves down mountain to sell non-coffee goods. This left only politicians and board members to attend our meeting.
Secondly, I’d been lax, negligent. I’d not seen any meeting minutes from BUCOFA in over a year and hadn’t asked for them. Yet minutes were the only way we knew that messages got down to the farmer.
You see there is no cell reception up here, and no one with a smartphone either. So, WhatsApp conversations and emails got printed down mountain in the town of Mbale, and brought up to be read during the group’s meetings. While there were elected positions for treasurer, secretary, and chairmen, effectively the power went through those who could afford to move between the mountain and Mbale. And, as it turned out, this was really just one individual. You guessed it, Mr. X.
Thirdly, I’d failed to adjust to some seemingly unconnected changes. For example, X’s father had fallen ill the year prior; when he moved down mountain, his son stepped into the role of village elder giving him influence without oversight and an invitation to take advantage if times ever got tough for him.
Zooming out to the macro, another change is that – for the first time – cherry prices beat parchment prices on the mountain. This was due to competition amongst washing stations that started sending trucks through Bulaago with cash in hand.
Versus the BUCOFA store, which could only pay once a week. Once a week our purchasing partner would bring a truck up to collect from the stores with cash to payout. Weekly can’t compete with cash on delivery. Even if second and third payments made selling to BUCOFA more profitable, these payments are delayed. The result was that BUCOFA could not compete for volumes from its own members.
So, three seasons ago, BUCOFA decided to close their store and mobilize coffee to one of four collection points set up by our purchasing partner. All Bulaago coffee was kept separate, and for two years we enjoyed unprecedented quality and traceability. Volumes and quality were up – we had come to celebrate, and to encourage even more participation.
But this also meant that BUCOFA, as an organization, was no longer relevant. They no longer needed to meet as regularly, or at all, and so went the way of all other Ugandan cooperatives …
Farmers in Uganda, even members of Coops, can sell to anyone, and they often do. Some coffee goes to pay school fees, to help out a relative or to cover debts from the offseason. Some go to that nice buyer you met last week in the market, and some to your brother’s wife’s father just to keep him happy. Sometimes buyers can approach a cooperative and pay a finder fee to buy from their primary societies. Then the next year they’ll cut out the coop as an unnecessary middle-man.
And the cooperative model – which pays less upfront and more of a profit share on the back –fails to compete. It’s a system that was brought by the British, but which had not worked since liberalization in ‘96. In this way coops and associations across Uganda have weakened and failed year over year, leaving places like Mt. Elgon a mountain of individual farmers, and not groups.
BUCOFA was set up as a primary society along the traditional cooperative model. So, it seems, we had been hanging on to an old way of doing things. Coops and primary societies are officially dead – and so was BUCOFA they day they closed their store.
Two years passed, and I found myself meeting with a corpse of a cooperative.
“The rain is coming, and I need to get your customers down to safety”. This was how I ended our meeting, trying to save some face, and to buy some time while I worked all of this through.
As we piled into the van I encouraged BUCOFA to meet as a group, to talk, and decide what they wanted to do. In a typical zombie move, showing that they truly did not get it, they approached some of the roasters to ask if they could sell their coffee to them directly. Which would have been fine, if it was possible, but it was not possible, and in this context it was not fine.
On our drive down mountain I ran this through my mind, struggling to the conclusion that BUCOFA was no more. This had been our oldest relationship in coffee – the first group for whom we had bought drying trays and moisture meters, helped to open a bank account and maintain a truck. It was difficult to say goodbye, and impossible to give up. There are still so many good farmers, and so much good coffee, that it wasn’t fair for a few committee members to ruin over a decade’s worth of efforts.
So, I wondered, if not a primary society then what would come next? How can we communicate with and coordinate the efforts of nearly 400 farmers if they are not organized?
The answers didn’t come that day, but neither did the rains. We got down mountain starving, but safe. Our luggage, however, had moved on to Iganga. It looks like this long odd day was about to get a little longer.
You see, before Bulaago, on our way up mountain we had all three of our vans overheat. It was hot, but all three, at once – come on! We ferried some folk up mountain using a pick-up, and others stayed behind to hitch.
I was one of those left behind to hitch. It was in this crack in our schedule that we found our first little miracle. While we sat around a group of kids came up to talk. While we were talking the shyest one started rubbing my friend’s arm. Now my friend has a hairy arm, so I motioned for him to pull down the neck of his shirt to show the kid what chest hair looked like.
He did, and the effect was as expected. Tremendous. Never had these kids seen so much body hair! Next, one of the bolder kids asked my friend to remove his sunglasses. Which he did, revealing green eyes to equally tremendous effect. The kid then said something simple that simply stuck with me.
“You are not simple’. No, my friend, he is not simple. And neither is coffee.
I have a brother who invokes the word ‘sonder’ as a reminder that everyone’s life is as complex as your own. It’s a nice reminder, and an interesting word*, but in this place and time I was thinking that some days are more complex than others.
This day, for example, was one that I couldn’t quite write off. For every bad turn we found something good. Being without cars in Kapchorwa let us spend all morning with a group called Zukuka Bora. While we didn’t get to set up shop in Bulaago we had all the equipment to help Zukuka Bora host their first cupping, which came to be a high point of the trip. They’re experimenting; we didn’t love the honey process, but were pleasantly confused by the coffee fermented using Champaign yeast.
Then, later that day, we got a private tour of Uganda’s largest washing station. Yes, we had to rent a mutatu to get there, ours having broken down, and yes we were held at the gate by an irate guard, angry at us for showing up after hours. And yes, the car did refuse to start – at first – when we were trying to leave. But in the cracks we got to know Deus, their washing station manager, including an interesting discussion about scaling up drying for natural and honey-processed lots.
Yes, we missed lunch with farmers in Bulaago. But were able to reconnect with an impressive young farmerpreneur named Dison. And yes, I just made a frakenword of ‘farmer’ and ‘entrepreneur’**. Expect a separate blog on him, but I like seeing young independents like Zukuka and Dison as a growing alternative to the large mills, and our best chance at getting truly top lot coffees from this mountain.
Leaving Bulaago we chased our luggage to the greatest hotel in Iganga; and even this haul had a hidden gem in store.
This is where we introduce Clare, the heroine of our story and a true delight to have in the world of coffee. Her job is quality and promotions for the Uganda Coffee Development Authority – she’s the one behind Uganda’s Barista competitions, and who coordinates their participation in AFCA’s Taste of Harvest auction. She’s a Q-grader, R-cupper and trainer extraordinaire.
More, she was the one responsible for getting us out of the day’s car mess and past the angry guard. She coordinated the reconnect with Dison, and felt the brunt of the Bulaago fail. And today was her birthday.
So the plan was to spring for a nice hotel and a bottle of red wine for her once we got to Jinja.
However, with the day so delayed it was already night, and us chasing our luggage to Iganga, this plan was no longer a possibility. So, instead, we stopped by a roadside cellphone shop turned bar. These juke joints are called Kafundas, which means ‘the squeeze’ because of how tightly they pack in people, DJs, and a pool table.
Buying beer for the group I looked up and to the far left of the bar. On the back of the top shelf sat a forgotten bottle, covered in dust. It was either sherry, or port oh, maybe – and tis would be a rarity – red wine. Red wine is all that Clare takes (no beer for her), and despite a few fancy hotels we hadn’t found a sip so far this trip. But here it was, hidden in the back of this loud-ass can be Kafunda, a dusty little miracle.
A miracle that blossomed as we navigated price (there was none so we had to make one up), glass (okay, I could buy a glass no problem – okay, this can be included in the price) and then – how to open the bottle without a corkscrew. And which climaxed with three grown men competing to see who could pull the cork using a nail – most attempts to pull the cork out using a nail led to smacking your own face. Which got them angry enough to try harder, leading to a harder smack, which got them angry enough to try faster. Until the next person stepped in to take over.
I ended up pushing the cork in, of course, and passing it around while dancing outside the Kafunda. So, in the end, Clare has something nice by which to remember her birthday.
A nice stop, but the day continued. We boarded back into the cars for the final leg to Iganga.
I heard a wilderness survival instruction say ‘all bleeding will stop. The question is what you are doing when it does’. I’ve applied this my life – ‘meetings will end, the question is how,’ or if I’m going through something unpleasant ‘It’s not when or if, but how I get through this’. For me the phrase ‘all bleeding stops’ is a reminder of ‘lets make the most’ with ‘manage against the curve’ and ‘this too shall change’.
I bring it up here as a way to skip over my night at the best hotel in Iganga. We got through the night, and on to Jinja the next morning.
Jinja, the source of the Nile, and where we’d intended to spend the night before. We arrived too late to get on the water, but sat as sun set, looking over it, ignoring the kayak competition that was going on below, and toasting to the last 24 hours.
As the kayakers came up to the bar the band began to play, and I retreated to my tent for a little decompression. Just me and the monkeys, a beautiful view and a pint of beer. That’s where it came to me, the last little miracle of the day – a new way of looking at our work in Bulaago.
Bulaago Coffee Farmers Association (BUCOFA) was modeled after a Primary Society in a Cooperative. Primary Societies are one way, the old way, of centralizing a large coffee catch-basin. But if a centralized committee was no longer the way of the mountain, what would a decentralized model look like?
And was where an old memory brings back VSLAs to save the day.
Village Saving and Loan Associations (VSLA) to Address Bulaago Challenges
VSLAs (Village Saving and Loan Associations) are pretty unique to Uganda. Picture a lock-box with three keys, each given to members who live on far sides of the community. They can include 8 to 40 farmers who pool their incomes to lend out to members at an interest rate of around 10% (exceptional – especially when compared to traditional bank loans at 24% – 36%). They are like SACCOs or savings groups found in other countries, but without external regulation. Plus, Uganda has a long tradition of these community-level savings groups who have flourished far from the banking grid.
There are VSLAs in place throughout Bulaago, and they already serve as a nexus for some types of training. The idea I had was that perhaps they could also serve as a means of mobilizing coffee, organizing community lots and facilitating communication without needing a central body. I checked this idea out by a few friends in the area who agreed VSLAs are strong, they meet monthly with full participation – including many women – and that they could be engaged to get more active in coffee.
The next miracle was waiting on the other end of one of these phone calls. I learned that USAID-funded nonprofits are actively supporting community savings groups through training and capacity building – allowing us to piggy-back on these efforts to strengthen VSLAs in Bulaago. In fact, plans for this are already in motion and we expect meetings to begin by end of March 2019.
I’m still sitting at my tent overlooking the Nile when the next Tetris piece drops into place. VSLAs can be combined with an idea imported from other parts – Youth Teams. Youth Teams are trained groups of unemployed men and women, 18 – 24 years old, who provide services to their community at a fee. If you can connect Youth Teams to VSLAs you now have a means of organizing coffee, improving quality, administering premiums and financing it all.
And so this is the 2019 – 2020 plan for Bulaago. We are free from the baggage of BUCOFA, and up one significantly ally in Clare who has agreed to help us in setting this program up. First step is a survey of VSLAs in Bulaago. With this we will have an entirely new way of communicating with and mobilizing coffee from farmers we’ve known now for over years.
I once read a t-shirt that said ‘never a bad day’. Feels hokey to me. But if you change it to read ‘never a bad day, only complex ones’ I’ll consider it.
I expect Clare’s survey and the VSLA program in Bulaago to progress day by day, with some days being more complex than others. I expect there to be more complex days for me as well, as we explore this new way of working. I’ll be in more direct touch with more farmers, for example, with a lot more that we could do in terms of mobile money, reinvested premiums, lot separation and quality improvement. But while I’m glad for what came out of the day described here, I don’t ever again expect to spend another night in Iganga. If I do then that means I’ve messed up again.
But if you so happen to find yourself in Iganga please let me know – I can recommend the very best hotel.
*The word Sonder doesn’t appear in English dictionaries, but seems to be a Saxon word that traveled through German (set apart) and French (to probe). The Saxon roots are interesting (to me at least) and can be found in the first response to the quora inquiry here. Today its use is tied to the Dictionary of Obscure Shadows which states:
Sonder n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries, and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk. – Dictionary of Obscure Shadows
**or is that a portmanteau?
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Kilimanjaro Reaches New Heights
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