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To Make Coffee Sustainable

Updated: Dec 6, 2018

In late 2006, I met a “Development Specialist” from Japan. He was working with a minority group in the highlands in Vietnam and that they were growing new crops for export to Japan as a way to reduce poverty. Being familiar with the region, I asked, “Has the crop led to an increase in the nutrition levels of their children?” The blank look on his face was a giveaway; they were growing a cash crop for export to Japan. The project had nothing to do with the physical well-being of the people or for local consumption despite the nutritional value of the crop itself. Nor was the project aimed to develop local markets with a high value-added crop that is both affordable and locally available thereby supporting the increase of nutritional levels of an entire community. 

As for the influx of cash for these subsistence level farmers; what were they buying with their new found consumer power? Well, he didn’t know but that wasn’t his concern. Subsistence level farmers simply need cash to buy products on the market, end of story. That was the school of thought he had clearly graduated from, the University of Economics devoid of any social or cultural context and in absence of humanity. 

As it was with the Development Specialist, the best way to expose our blind spots we begin by asking relevant questions in their simplest forms. 

The same format of questions can be made with Fair Trade. During my inquiry in the northern mountains of the Philippines, I was pondering the development of local markets with locally produced goods inclusive of socially and culturally recognized benefits. I repeatedly asked myself, “How can Fair Trade be integrated to benefit local communities more than it does through trade with the North?”

In the most direct and simplest form I asked myself, “How can Fair Trade be localized?”

Basil and Vie Reyes have also been asking these questions. They founded Bote Central and started a new Filipino Coffee brand, Coffee Alamid. Through their efforts, they have been making Fair Trade a local concept throughout the Philippines, but not in the conventional manner. Their basic question is even more direct to the local context; "How to make coffee sustainable?

Vie explained the history, “The Philippines used to be number four exporter of coffee in the world. Then many other nations came in and the Filipino coffee died out. Filipino farmers started to cut down their coffee trees because the prices were too low. Now we are importing coffee. Farmers preferred not to work in coffee, but in vegetables and other crops; cash crops. So what we did initially, we thought the farmers need help in producing more coffee. But we were wrong. It wasn’t sustainable” 

With a sincere interest in reducing rural poverty, they generated a renewed interest in reviving the neglected coffee trees in select communities. It takes three years for a tree to produce, so it made sense that the trees left from the golden days of Filipino coffee be tapped once again as an immediately available resource. But simply putting coffee beans on the market isn’t going to do much towards poverty alleviation. 

Here is where a Fair Trade advocate will smile and think to his or herself, “Community Development through the creation of a Fair Trade Cooperative!” Well, yes, but Vie and Basil take it a step further. Admittedly, their approach is unconventional and it should be noted they are not even vaguely concerned about international markets or Fair Trade labeling. 

Vie explained, “We don’t use Fair Trade or the Fair Trade network, not yet. It is not necessarily our style of working with producers because it is complicated for them. There are only a few coffee producers here that are into Fair Trade.” Rather than focus on the abstracts of Fair Trade principles from the onset, they want to develop local markets that reflect Fair Trade in action more than words. Vie describes it as a step-by-step process. The first step is to identify and work with a community which would benefit from their approach.  

“What we are doing with the communities we are working with is that we want them to have a complete cycle. Basil is an inventor, so I told him to come up with a roasting machine and at the community site they could roast coffee. That way they could have their own coffee. So he put one together using fuzzy logic and they are computerized, fully automatic, very user friendly and can be used to roast. I am not technical but I can use this. So what we did was make it so farmers can produce their own coffee, come up with their own product. They can have their own brand and sell their own coffee in their local communities, and in the simplest form they can drink their own coffee and not buy instant coffee.”

Basil added, “We put up a roasting facility so that locals can roast their own coffee, because roasting facilities in the Philippines belong to corporations like Nestle. So, I build roasting machines for them. Easiest way to solve the problem!

Basically I built the roasting machines for farmers to earn more; they have to go for value added. The best way to value add, is to roast the coffee. Unfortunately there were no roasting machines or facilities available to the farmers. Farmers don’t need roasting machines they don’t understand at all. They just press the button, the machines sets it, and forget it. You can’t teach them the art of roasting. Roast master stuff. So I built a roasting machine and they are all over the country, testing my prototypes and at the same time they make money. Farmers can roast their own beans like in SagadaIn some cases we changed them from electricity to gas – in the rural areas, stable electricity can be hard to find. 

Why is this revolutionary or even noteworthy? To begin, over fifty percent of the coffee consumed in the Philippines is imported, and most of that is in the form of Nestle’s instant coffee. Surprisingly, instant coffee is a 10 billion Pecos (US$ 226+ million) per year market and this financial drain to the coffers of a multi-national corporation is not sustainable. It is a sad commentary when a multinational corporation enters your market and redefines the coffee culture of a traditional household industry slow roasting beans over an open flame and steeping the fine grounds through a cheesecloth filter, to that of instant powder packets. Not to mention this corporation is the same advocate for international free trade policies of GATT and the WTO which wiped out the coffee farmers nationwide as new competitors entered the fray producing ever cheaper coffee from ever poorer nations. In the race to the bottom of who can produce more for less, the Philippines lost their position in the 1980’s.  

The Reyes’ face a battle on three fronts; first is to reinvigorate the coffee growing industry; secondly, to reclaim the definition of coffee from the multi-nationals; and thirdly, to introduce the concept of Fair Trade in local markets. That includes generating a sense of ownership amongst farmers over their produce and to convince communities to consume their own produce. 

“So, we are promoting Fair Trade on the Philippine market for locals. When we think of export, we think local is better… we try to promote Fair Trade: Drink Filipino Coffee. That is my starting point. The trouble here is that people don’t patronize our own coffee. They want the imports because they think it is a lot better. We are trying to change the landscape of Filipino coffee. Revolutionize. That is how we are trying to do Fair Trade. Not necessarily by talking about Fair Trade, we let the FTOs do that... It is the spirit of Fair Trade we are going after. We want the market to understand what Fair Trade is all about; the local market. Not necessarily talking about Fair Trade, Fair Trade, Fair Trade, but for the actions. It is what is inside Fair Trade. That is how we are doing; it is really not a big job. If you tell them what Fair Trade is all about, they don’t understand. Fair Trade principles are just words. There has to be something for the people in the forest to live life better in the forest where they get their sustenance and their livelihood”

The kindred spirits.

To generate this spirit of Fair Trade, the Reyes’ speak of building relationships and incubation periods during which they introduce Fair Trade principles in a step-by-step process. 

As for my experience in meeting with Basil and Vie, it was invigorating. I learned much, but listening to a genuine story teller like Basil is a captivating experience. I asked him to share his process and he opened up; “It is easy to become a trader. It is more difficult to build a friendship. I enjoy having friends up in the mountains, but that’s another story. I spend 2-3 days when I go up there. Sometimes I just go there to relax. You know, no work, just be with the people there, enjoy the scenery, enjoy their foods, talk to them about nothing; enjoying the good air out of the hustle and bustle of the city. It is easy for me to be with them.

It takes two to three years before the social barriers are broken down. I become part of a community and the trust level and confidence level is enough to be able to transact a friendly exchange. Initially they think I am like any other buyer until I become their friend, then everything else changes. 

So it takes some time for these people to open up. We are establishing a relationship, but it takes longer for these people, unlike business, show me your money and your goods. Here we have a relationship. We don’t have contracts. We look them in the eye, shake their hand and hope for the best. It is based on trust and integrity; Fair Trade values.

Most important is the relationship. That is the idea, to make coffee sustainable.”

When I was a teenager I would go to the mountains and enjoyed nature. It all started there. It so happened that my friends were indigenous. It was the only place where you could go and the guys were dirt poor, didn’t have money and only a few things in his hut, and he boils water for me and digs up the sugar that is buried in a can so people won’t take it, and we start talking. Can’t beat that; that is why I go up. 

Basil went on to give examples of the relationships he has developed throughout the nation and the effect he has had. “In Sagada, the most expensive coffee in the Philippines is there because everybody there is roasting their coffee; you cannot get the green beans. They won’t sell because they make more by roasting them. I do get beans from Sagada because I started everything there. I developed friends, I developed relationships.

In Lagawe (in a neighboring province to Sagada), the cooperative has its own café and there is a roasting facility as well. It is theirs. They run it themselves. The concept is that there will be small Community Starbucks, CommunityBucks. What happened there is we can see signs of success, little successes. 

In Sagada you see less instant coffee in the stores, more brewed coffee and more of their own community brand. If you go there, you cannot buy green coffee beans because they can make more money selling a finished product. Farmers make more money on the local marketplace than they can by exporting raw beans. 

In the south in Jolo it is quite dangerous. I am sure you have heard about the extremism there. Here Farmers group themselves together, they put up a facility, they ask for grants and they paid for a coffee roaster. Now they are running a coffee business there and they want a second roasting machine. In the war stricken areas they have hope for the women and children. They don’t just trade bullets and armaments, but they are trading coffee. We are starting a peace movement with coffee. 

Vie stated succinctly, When we work with local growers to roast their coffees, we teach them to make a finished product that is purchased by the community. The initial costs are paid back to us over time. We have a system where the communities or the producers must be accountable, otherwise they don’t take care, they don’t see it as a tool for themselves. Generate a sense of ownership, accountability, basically running a business.”

Meeting with Vie and Basil was as transformative as it was informative, and I had to see for myself! I decided to head to the mountains to meet the cooperative in Lagawe with its own community coffee shop, and to see the coffee roaster in Sagada. My inquiry will be posted in the near future, but I can assure you that the coffee was terrific! 


Credits to MITCH TEBERG. Click HERE to view the original article.

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