Java Enabled: Coffee Farmers in the Mist, Pt. 2

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Zach Dyer is a writer living in Saint Louis. He did his thesis research on coffee farmers in Southern Mexico. Since then, he has visited coffee plantations in Costa Rica and Mexico as well as roasters and cafés across the U.S. He blogs about coffee for Gut Check every Wednesday.

In last week's article, I discussed how Sustainable Harvest, a coffee importer based in Portland, Oregon, is helping the Kanyovu cooperative in Kigoma, Tanzania. Thanks to a grant from the Lemelson Foundation, Sustainable Harvest is working to make coffee a sustainable solution for both the wildlife and the farmers in the region.

Since 2007, Sustainable Harvest has been working in Kigoma with farmers and administrators to make the cooperative a model for success across Tanzania. One of Sustainable Harvest's first hurdles was convincing farmers that there was a better way to grow coffee. Living on dollars a day, farmers in Kigoma have an incredibly small margin of error. If the methods prescribed by Sustainable Harvest didn't yield a crop, they would be left with nothing....

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Photo courtesy Sustainable Harvest staff
Farmers taking part in a coffee tasting
When I asked Genevieve Edens, one of Sustainable Harvest's Tanzania office members, if the cooperative was fair trade or organic, she said that these were long term goals. However, farmers have been using synthetic fertilizers for years now, and the government actively encourages their continued use through subsidies.

Organic conversation is difficult from another angle, too: output. "Going organic means in the first three years the farmer would see a 50 percent drop in production," Edens says. There are options to subsidize these low-yield years but considering the farmers' razor thin margins it would be a hard pill to swallow.

The size of the Kanyovu cooperative also makes going organic difficult. "With 4,000 members, even if your coffee is organic," notes Edens, "and you neighbor's isn't, none of the coffee can be counted as organic."

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Photo courtesy Sustainable Harvest staff
Farmers being trained on the Penagos machine
Even though Kigoma sits on the edge of Lake Tanganyika, fresh water is a scarcity in the region, especially in the dry season. Edens described how women in Kigmoa often travel long distances on foot to fill as little as a single bucket of water. Considering the effort and scarcity of the water in the dry season, a water intensive process to depulp coffee is unsustainable. To address the scarcity of water in Kigoma, Sustainable Harvest introduced a water efficient technology known as the Penagos machine.

Noting the tight margins that the Kanyovu cooperative lives by, Edens said that the farmers were slow to come around to the new technology. However, the higher quality and speed of the Penagos machine made believers of the community. Today, there are eight central washing facilities in several villages that provide water for the Penagos machines, as well as drinking and bathing water.

The disconnect between producers and their product once it goes to market is hardly a new problem for coffee growers. To address this problem, Sustainable Harvest is providing a new technology to help producers track their product and improve sourcing: the EZ pass. Believe it or not, the same radio-frequency technology that pays your toll automatically as you drive through the EZ-pass lane can also be used to track coffee.

Last year, with technical assistance from Sustainable Harvest, Kanyovu farmers developed a database to track their coffee from harvest to market through the radio-frequency tags. "It doesn't sound like much at first," Edens explains, "but think about how important it is for a cooperative to know how much coffee they have at one time and where it is."

Next year, Sustainable Harvest will expand the system to include specific roasters that purchase Kanyovu's coffee. As single-source coffee gains popularity, the system will further develop direct relationships between farmers and specialty roasters around the world.

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Photo courtesy Sustainable Harvest staff
Sorting ripe coffee cherries at a washing station
Increasing the famer's technical education and quality of coffee are key steps to a more successful coffee business, but the cooperative still has to grapple with the mundane (but germane) business of contracts. In the past, confusion over contracts and inexperience with direct export market models held the Kanyovu farmers back from maximizing their profits.

Swahili is the spoken language in Kigoma but all business and government affairs are conducted in English. To improve transparency between farmers and buyers, Edens and others taught the farmers to "decode" their English contracts. Focusing on the numbers in the contract, farmers can now understand the contracts in a rudimentary level to protect their interests despite not knowing English.

Before 2006, the Kanyovu cooperative had never sold coffee outside Tanzania's national auction. Under this system the government scores all coffee that comes in and sets its own bidding price for each category. "There's no farmer negotiation or input when it comes to setting a price for the coffee," Edens says. "This isn't a bad way to move cheap coffee, but if you've got a quality product you're going to lose out."

Sustainable Harvest initially depended on their existing export relationships, namely with Allegro coffee (a brand sold at Whole Foods), to sell Kanyovu's coffee. Allegro's interest was peaked by the story of the cooperative, an dit decided to buy some of Kanyovu's coffee. Besides buyers in the U.S., Sustainable Harvest is helping Kanyovu identify new direct buyers in Europe and South Africa.

The depth and level of assistance Sustainable Harvest has been able to commit to the Kanyovu cooperative is unique. I asked Edens what role Sustainable Harvest will take -- if any -- in the cooperative's future as their grant with the Lemelson Foundation winds down.

"In the next couple years we'll be working with the cooperative to help facilitate new relationships," she says. "Fifty percent of our profits go back to farmers in the form of quality and technical training so our involvement will scale back, but not end."

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