Families of "Alezu Garigura" (beauty sells) Farm, Rwanda, 2018
Words by Ian Steel
What do we mean by Relationship coffee? Well, although thousands of miles away, we often have a lot in common with those back at origin. Like us, many are small family firms, choosing to focus on quality, looking to the future to build sustainability and security for future generations. Many of the places we visit are co-operatives made up of hundreds, sometimes thousands of small-holders all relying on a fair reward for a harvest safely gathered in. Some of these coffee mill owners are also family concerns doing their bit to look after their community providing schools, clinics, canteens and even housing for their army of workers.
By going to origin and visiting these farms and mills we experience first-hand the places that are doing a great job of looking after their human resources as well as their natural resources.
Farmers of the Pensativo Co-op, Nicaragua, 2018
The most exciting developments occur when we spot possibilities for innovating processes, varieties or terroir that can add value to their hard work at the beginning of the supply chain. It is sometimes a hard message to get through; that we are prepared to pay more for the good stuff, such as traceability to a particular micro-lot, or trying a honey process that takes more time and attention, or my new one – give us the later pickings that are from the higher slopes, where the cherries are packed with more complex flavours from growing slower and taking longer to ripen at the higher altitudes.
Victor Robelo, Las Nubes, Nicaragua, 2018
It is only by having these great relationships that we can progress in this way and create a more sustainable business model built on mutual trust, that can offer that most precious commodity; financial security. We have initiated relationships all over the coffee world and stuck by them for many years because we all benefit from producing higher quality. It’s in our DNA. As family firms we have made so much emotional investment in the products we produce, that we both want to make it the best that it can be.
We are only one small player doing what we can to add value to a few places and people we meet along the way on our own coffee journey. We can help to 'premiumise' these fantastic products because we operate in the Speciality sector, which is only they very tip of the coffee iceberg. Only 6% of beans make it onto the tip of this pyramid, the rest is made up of Commercial Coffee which is really suffering from deflated coffee prices at the moment, not helped by speculation and over-production. Many farmers here are unable to even cover the cost of production based on average market prices of coffee, clearly unsustainable. The only assistance that makes any real impact comes from the Corporate Social Responsibility programmes of the Big Five Mega-Corps, who can do more than governments, NGO's or even speculators to alleviate the situation. It's in their own interests after all. If prices stay too low for too long on the commodities markets, farmers will tear out their unprofitable coffee trees and plant something else or just leave altogether.
So, although our impact is tiny, it is still important when combined with all the roasters in the speciality sector pulling together in the same direction to try and influence trends within the industry. We are in such a privileged position to be working with a product that is a primary grade 1 agricultural product from developing countries and emerging economies, that is consumed on every breakfast table and on every high street in the developed world. Just like the movement for action on climate change we are not acting purely out of altruism but out of survival! This Family Business that we run will one day be handed over to my sons, so like any father protecting his clan, I am acting purely selfishly, to see my own DNA continuing to survive and thrive, a primal urge that is repeated across the coffee world!
Relationship Coffee helps us to cover three important points; Traceability, Sustainability & Seasonality. Over the years we have finessed our coffee buying to properly reflect the freshness of new crop green beans and the phasing out of past crop coffees, so that now we only stock coffees that are in that optimal window of freshness. Strong connections to our producers help keep us in the loop with developments at the farm and the mill and our importers ensure a smooth passage from origin.
Whatever the season, we find that by keeping it in the family, we get the pick of the crop.
El Salvador - Las Delicias
Sumatra - Rahmat Inara
Ethiopia - Oromia
Farmers and their families in the Village of Bankubedha
Don Mario (Bethlehem)
Colombia - Granja La Esperanza
Jaqueline Turner (Kinini AA)
Rwanda - Kinini Co-op