Tag Archives: fair trade

Building the bumpy road towards sustainability


Look! I dressed up and everything!

I was recently invited to speak at the Engineers Without Borders fundraising Gala at the Royal Saskatchewan Hotel. This was a little intimidating: very posh hotel, 150 people all in formal dress, paying a lot of money to hear me waffle on…. and me knowing very little about engineering! They knew I was the Official Local Coffee Geek though, so somehow I had to link coffee knowledge to engineers, along the general theme of “Building the Future”. This is what I came up with!

(Be warned, I had to speak for 20 minutes. Long Post Klaxon!)

What has coffee got to do with Engineering?

Well, the coffee was the first commodity and food industry to become Fairtrade certified. The Fairtrade Foundation was set up to help farmers who were living in poverty as a result of the crash in the global prices of coffee. The Fairtrade movement guarantees a minimum price for farmers to help stabilize the industry and to guarantee at least a minimum income from the crop of coffee. Furthermore, when international coffee buyers negotiate a contract under the Fairtrade scheme, they agree to pay not only a fair price for the coffee, but also an additional ‘social premium’ – around 10cents per pound of coffee. This social premium goes to the coffee cooperatives, and is used to fund projects that benefit the coffee farming community a whole. These projects can be anything from building schools for the local children, or irrigation and clean water projects to investing in new coffee processing technology at the cooperative’s coffee mill. This is where engineers and development workers are crucial to the coffee communities. Fairtrade schemes just provide the money, they don’t often get involved in the actual building!

I am going to talk about coffee farming in Nicaragua because this is where I did a lot of my own fieldwork. Nicaragua is a developing country, and nearly a third of its GDP comes from its coffee industry. The vast amajority of Nicaraguan coffee farms are less than 3 hectares in size, and are also located in remote, hard to reach areas. High quality coffee needs high altitude – over 800metres above sea level, and a very humid, warm climate and very fertile soil. Some regions of Nicaragua in the Northern highlands, in the cloudforests and on the side of volcanoes provide near-perfect coffee-growing conditions. A great deal of Nicaraguan coffee is grown organically too, in an effort to preserve the cloudforest biodiversity, so the coffee plants are grown in amongst other plants and trees, with no chemical fertilizers or pesticides used. This technique means the coffee tastes great and fetches higher prices for the farmers, but it also creates a great many infrastructure problems.

Small coffee farms are generally grouped together into cooperatives, in fact, the Fairtrade Foundation insists on them, and only gives Fairtrade Certification status to recognised, democratically based cooperatives. The cooperatives process the coffee from hundreds, sometimes thousands of farms. The coffee production process is very complex – it’s not just a case of picking it off the tree and roasting it. The farmers pick the coffee by hand, then depulp it, (meaning, take the fruit off it) on their own farm, meaning that each farmer has to have their own depulper machine (either handcranked or diesel powered). The coffee beans are then washed to remove the sticky fruit muscelage. The coffee beans then have to be dried out so that they lose at least 10% of their moisture, before they are transported to the central processing mills operated by the cooperative. At the processing mill, the coffee is “trilled” in a huge machine which essentially removes the now-brittle parchment like layer covering the beans. Then they are dried out further, spread out on huge concrete patios in the sun and turned regularly, and finally they are meticulously sorted to remove low quality, defective beans, first by hand, then by a very clever complicated machine, which detects the beans’ weigh, size, shape, density, and colour, and grades the crop accordingly. Only then can it be sold to international buyers.

In recent years, the coffee commodity price has recovered well, and the price of it on the global markets has far exceeded the Fairtrade guaranteed minimum. But to get the very best prices, farmers have to produce the very best quality coffee – and customers are getting more and more discerning. The quality can be affected by any number of climatic and environmental factors, and much like wine, there are good and bad years for coffee, and variations between coffee grown in Nicaragua and coffee grown in Ethiopia, for instance. Some variation in quality can be controlled by the farmers, and their skills and most significantly, the access they have to some resources has a huge bearing on the coffee’s quality.  This is where the Fairtrade social premium comes in.

In order to preserve the coffee’s quality, certain parts of the production process have to be performed within certain time frames. On the farm, the fruit has to be removed from the beans within 24 hours, otherwise it can start to ferment, which damages the flavour of the coffee. Similarly, the beans must be transported to the cooperative’s processing mill as soon as possible, so that the beans can be dried out quickly and farmers can minimize the risk of damage from unexpected rain or from pests whilst the coffee is on the farm.

Transporting coffee to the cooperative processing mill is not as simple as it sounds. As mentioned previously, the farms are usually halfway up mountains and in tropical cloudforests. In many parts of Nicaragua, irrigations is a huge problem too: in winter, it is too dry and the ground cracks or turns to sand, and landslides are common. In summer, areas can flood and roads can be cut off entirely by mudslides. If there are actual roads, they are usually unpaved, steep and tightly curled around the mountains, and can be virtually impassable without a large and powerful 4×4 vehicle – which are well beyond the budgets of the farmers. With hundreds of farms spread out over large areas, the cooperative cannot practically manage coffee collections themselves, so the farmers have to transport their coffee by their own means. I did see one farmer negotiating a steep mountain track with a 100lb sack of coffee beans strapped to the back of his little 125cc motorbike, but otherwise, they are forced to use the rural bus service, that is, very old yellow school buses donated from the United States, which serve as the only form of public transport. As you can imagine, neither is a particularly ideal option, but the risk of damaging the coffee crop – that often represents the entire annual income for the farming families – is too great, and so they always find a way!

Another big issue in Nicaraguan coffee regions is that of water pollution. Washing the sticky fruit mucilage off coffee beans on the farms requires a source of clean running water, and quite a lot of it too. Whereas most farmers do have access to this at least, supplies are still limited and washing the coffee has its own set of problems.

In neighbouring Costa Rica, farmers are required by law to purify and reuse water on coffee farms, which is far easier to achieve when Costa Rican farmers have the resources to purify water already installed on the farms. In Nicaragua however, farmers cannot afford this sort of technology, and the cooperatives are not in a position to implement it either. Water containing coffee mucilage is extremely acidic, and if it is left to just run off the farms and soak into the earth, it can strip important nutrients from the soil, which potentially damages the following year’s crop, as well as any other plants in the vicinity. In the worst case scenario, run-off water can enter the water table and exacerbate existing flooding, and also enter the water supply intended for human consumption.

Maintaining and enhancing coffee’s quality is paramount to the farmers’ livelihoods, as the best, most sustainable prices are paid for the highest quality coffee. However, the quality of the crop depends a great deal on the farmer’s ability to manage the logistics of processing coffee beans, and on his access to resources and technology.

The Fairtrade social premium paid to the cooperatives provides the financial resources to aid the farmers’ often precarious situation, but in practical terms, a lot of the work needs to be developed by skilled, knowledgeable engineers. If farmers cannot afford 4×4 trucks, then mountain roads must be improved and maintained so that transporting coffee is made easier and more efficient. To avoid pollution, irrigation needs to be properly managed and developed, and the farmers must be provided with the technology (and technical know-how) to purify and reuse their water supplies. None of these problems are insurmountable but they do require the help of skilled infrastructure experts, and most importantly, engineers who actually understand the coffee industry, and who can see what needs to be done to help the farmers and to improve the quality of the coffee we all take for granted.


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Posted by on April 15, 2013 in Uncategorized


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A positive little Meme

I survived the Viva.

So, I can more-or-less claim DOCTOR-hood!
Not quite the bestest bestest result I could have hoped for but it’ll do for now. They did like the thesis, and the viva exam went a lot better than I’d expected. It was lovely to meet Eric Laurie finally, whose stuff I’ve been quoting on and off for the past few years! And it wasn’t actually an interrogation, just quite an intense chat. Can’t say I enjoyed the experience but it certainly wasn’t as bad as I’d feared.

But, inevitably, I have a few corrections to do, and because I’m emigrating and everything, they decided to be helpful and give me a year to do all these minor revisions. Which means I am not completely shot of it yet! gah!

More disappointingly, it means I was not technically awarded the doctorate on the day. Close but no cappuccino. They were very complimentry about it, saying it was an enjoyable read, and interestingly, that I could get my Ethics chapter published as a standalone paper, without too much editing. This surprised me because I wasn’t actually that pleased with that chapter, but I am sorely tempted to do it just because it is such a controversial topic. The comments I received on this blog alone are testament to that!

My revisions are not too bad either – setting out my arguments more clearly at the beginning of each chapter, yet more bloody references about ‘gender divisions of labour’ in the Skills section, even down to putting subheadings in my literature review.  Under normal circumstances it wouldn’t take too long at all, and if I can find a babysitter occasionally, I would probably manage it in 3 months anyway! But given that Miri is trying to climb on the keyboard and watch Cookie Monster sing Lady Gaga on Youtube as I type this blog, trying to concentrate on these sorts of edits is virtually impossible!!

But, it’s so bloody close.  I shall stay positive.


And now I need to change her nappy. Gotta go, dear reader(s)! I shall leave you with this:

My favourite little meme of the week

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Posted by on January 31, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Colorado Cynic-Friendly Coffee. (Certification Free, since 2010)

I have a fan! This is a nice feeling. I don’t have many fans. I always remember a mate’s classic comment when we were doing our show at Durham theatre: How’s the audience? I asked. “Oh, she’s fine, thanks.” was the response….
We were talking Demotivation Posters last night too.


A woman approached me at lunch time today, and asked if I had a blog about coffee. She’d seen my name badge and recognised it from this site. I am flattered! Her name is Kate, and she’s an Anthropology PhD student at Colorado university, studying coffee in Costa Rica! I am not the only academic at this conference, this is a huge relief. (I am still feeling out of place but have since decided to ignore these insecurities…). Of course she knew a few of the farms that I’d been to, had similar views on the touristyness of some of the larger ones (Cafe Britt, for example) and had even been to Cafe Cristina. And, she’s pretty cynical about Fairtrade too. AND, she reads this blog. Woopedoo! I’ve found a friend! 🙂

I was sitting with Andy and Mark from yesterday, and of course, they are from the same area as Kate… I say again, the world is too small. I was impressed Andy made it at all today actually. He said he’d stayed at the Gala til 1am and was pretty wrecked. He did bow out after lunch for a nap, however. Wimp. I wasn’t particularly awake either this morning, despite leaving so early last night, and the morning presentations just seemed to pass me by uneventfully. That was until the session on Women in Coffee. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this bit – and the first presentation was exactly what I had feared: a video with lots of MEN in suits from important, large coffee companies explaining why it was such a good idea to employ women in their businesses. The statistic that 51% of the world population are women and that “we [who exactly?] should utilise this valuable resource” made me want to do rude things to the big screens. Patronising caca del toro, if you ask me. Which nobody did, fortunately. The session was saved by a woman from Costa Rica representing a very successful and inspiring women’s cooperative, dealing not only in coffee but in ecotourism in one of the poorest areas of the country. Then, there was an Indian woman who started out as one of the country’s first female cuppers. She was a truly excellent speaker and got a standing ovation after her talk.

Then came the session that really incensed our little group. Certification, and lots of talks about ‘sustainability’. Environmental sustainability, sustainable development, social sustainability – in particular, getting young people interested in farming coffee, economic sustainability – through certification and differentiation. But not one single person ever attempted to explain what they actually meant by “sustainable.” The academic within me (maybe the Cheese is an academic already?) was screaming “define your terms!!!” Had this been a university conference, these presentations would have got ripped to shreds. I am so jaded nowadays, it seems. The question remains, however; what exactly are they trying to sustain? We were also repetitively told that of world coffee production, only 5% was “certified” coffee, yet the demand for the stuff was growing every year, and certification was a means of differentition, and differentiation could lead to further economic sustainability. But what does “certified” mean? Certified for what? We concluded that it really just meant anything with a label on it; no-one ‘differentiated’ between Fairtrade (of differing forms) ‘organic’ (again with different definitions), bird-friendly, shade grown, altitude-grown…. etc etc. The problem with this, is that if demand for certification really is growing – due to equally vague notions of “ethical consumption” and “consumer awareness” – then it is in the interests of the retailer to stick as many labels on the coffee as possible. The presentations implied that it didn’t seem to matter what the certifications are actually for, especially since they tell you nothing about what the coffee really tastes like. I’ve already shown how Nestle are pushing their raw coffee via a “Green” label – and of course, it’s all 100% arabica (guaranteed). It may well have been, in a former life, but you might as well say the jar it comes in is made with 100% genuine sand.

certificationTo this end, we started dreaming up our own certification labels. Mark came up with “Dolphin friendly” coffee (of course – I challenge you to prove otherwise!) and for the health conscious – 100% Gluten Free coffee. We could also have “lo-sodium arabica” for the American market. I suggested “Cynic Friendly” coffee (no cynics were harmed in the making of this product), and for Kate and I, “Academically Sustainable” (well, it’s keeping us gainfully employed for the time being!). The all-round favourite though was “Guaranteed 100% Certification Free”. I even started doodling little rosettes to demonstrate this unique coffee characteristic. I may try and put them on cups for Doctor Coffee’s Cafe, just to see if anyone notices.

Another fantastic lunch, with the pool looking even more tempting, and soon it was time for the end of conference summaries and the official closing speeches. By this time, Andy had reappeared from his siesta, just in time to help me search out the spare chocolate cake in the coffee break. I tried the same “estoy comiendo para dos!” trick as yesterday, and managed to snaffle three (small) pieces of the stuff and a cappuccino. Suddenly, as I was stuffing my face, a large crowd of black-suited men came marching past, chased by several dozen people with huge video cameras. El Presidente was in the middle of them! Doh, doh doh and double DOH. If anyone sees any footage of his excellence Señor Colom and this conference, look out for me with a large mouthful of chocolate in the background!!! Andy nearly pissed himself laughing at me, which didn’t help matters at all. This particular president was this time joined by the President of El Salvador, Señor Mauricio Funes, who unlike his “good friend” Colom, actually had some interesting things to say.

el presidente

President Mauricio Funes

El Salvador’s coffee industry is slowly recovering, after the previous conservative ‘government’ suggested that, as a country, they ought to turn towards manufacturing to improve their economy. Lots of people gave up farming, but the plan didn’t work, and El Salvador ended up even more impoverished.  Lorena later described Funes as a gorilla (methinks, ‘guerrilla’ but I appreciated the sentiment). He was a former left-leaning journalist and had his own TV show; CNN describe him as Marxist, (but then, that means very very little) but otherwise I don’t really know enough about El Salvadorean politics to pass judgement!

It has been such an intense few days that somehow that finale seemed a bit underwhelming, so after an argument with the ATM machine (“WHY won’t you give me money, you stoooooooooopid object???”)  I went for some really classy, greasy tacos with Kate (we accidently lost Mark and Andy, sadly). Tacontento – love it. Completely artificial but lovely, smokey chilli sauce smothering Unidentifiable Meat, wrapped in the ubiquitous tortillas, and about $3. A fitting antidote to 5* luxury. I rang Carl when I got back (Lovely Man sat up til nearly 1am waiting for me to call!). I was after an early night since I’ve got another horrendous flight to negotiate tomorrow. However, packing all my new Guatemalan treasures proved difficult. Yes, I did buy some stuff in Antigua, but I deliberately left room for that. But I seem to have generated an entire backpack’s worth of Stuff from this conference – samples of Mexican coffee, at least half a dozen pens, a thermos mug, and folder after folder of glossy brochures, booklets, information sheets alongside the aforementioned Mahoosive Ringbinder. Carl also demanded I brought him back on of the litre bottles of beer – which I object to since I can’t help him drink it. I got it all packed eventually, but with rather creative interpretation of the term “hand luggage” – ie: hands, both arms and occasionally teeth…

I really don’t want to go home. 😦

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Posted by on March 4, 2010 in Uncategorized


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The Media’s take on Fairtrade….

I’ve just had a little brush with the media… ooh! Fame! A chance for some sort of critique of Fairtrade to be aired in public?

Not likely!!!

Dear *****,
I work in the University’s Media Team. I am just trying to find an  academic whose research covers Fairtrade products. I know you work in the area of food, and wondered if you’d done anything in this area?

Basically, its Fairtrade Fortnight in a couple of weeks time, and I’d like to see if we have any stories we could promote during this week, or
any experts we would put forward for comment.

Do let me know if this is something you’d be interested in.
Best wishes


Dear *****:

Thanks for your message.  One of my final year postgrads, Annabel Townsend, has written about fair trade coffee, based on her fieldwork in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.  She has a lot of interesting things to say about Fair Trade and ethical consumption issues.  She also runs a coffee cart, selling FT products, called Doctor Coffee.


Dear Annabel,
Further to ****’s email below, would you be interested in working with the Media Team on a press story connected to Fairtrade? We are putting
together a news release containing information on what the University is doing for Fairtrade fortnight. It would also be good to include some
comments from someone who works in that area, and possibly put you forward as an expert to talk to the media if they are interested in following up the story.

Is this something you’d be willing to do? Please feel free to give me a  call on the below number to discuss further if you’d like.


Dear ******,
Good to hear from you. I’d be happy to get involved in this if I can! I wouldn’t say I’m an ‘expert’ but I am actually pretty critical of Fairtrade nowadays,
the more I find out from my research, the more I realise how many flaws there are in the system. (To correct *****, I don’t actually stock Fairtrade on my
coffee cart any more – and tend to spend quite a bit of time explaining exactly why to my customers!). I feel like there aren’t many critiques of fairtrade that get reported in the media, so this could be very interesting!
If I can be any use to you then please email back or give me a ring – I’m happy to meet with you
whenever is convenient.

Dear Annabel,

Thanks for getting back to me so soon – this does sound really interesting. Just in terms of Fairtrade Fortnight, unfortunately, I
think if we included your research alongside some of the Union events which are taking place, we might find we have quite contradictory
messages as the events are looking to promote fairtrade.

I think, therefore, it might be best to concentrate on the events during the Fortnight. I could always come back to you if an opportunity arises
at a later date, for us to do some publicity around your research.

Best wishes

HMMM… Thoughts, anyone??


Posted by on January 28, 2010 in Uncategorized


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Debunking Fair Trade – again.

Interesting chats with a newly-found coffee academic the other day made me realise – I’ve never yet written about Fair Trade coffee on here. Sure I’ve mentioned it quite a bit in passing, but I think the reason why I’ve not tackled the subject properly is because I am not entirely sure what I think about it.

Get past all the emotive gumpf, and Fair Trade is actually a pretty simple concept. It is a price guarantee: workers on Fair Trade cooperative farms can never receive any less than the Fair Trade rate of $1.26 per pound of coffee they produce. It is the bear minimum that can be paid. On top of this, the label also commands a $0.10 per pound ‘social premium’ which goes to various development projects in the communities affected. Inside a coooperative, all members get to vote on how this money is spent. Apparently.

Given that in the past two decades, the global price of coffee has fallen below the cost of production, guaranteeing the minimum price is a great help – and since this price is set before the coffee is harvested, it is a reassurance, a return on the investment. It is also theoretically egalitarian; if everyone in the coop gets paid the same, there shouldn’t be any power struggles within the cooperative, and better still, the whole group gets to decide how to spend the social premium on projects that in turn, benefit the whole community. I have no problem with any of this.
There is obviously some flaws, however. Firstly, the Fair Trade Foundation do not certify individual farms, only cooperatives. There are many advantages of joining a cooperative anyway, but for those few independent farmers, this means that their own prices are never guaranteed, and there is no incentive to go it alone, to make your own profit or to encourage any competition. Look at me, good little capitalist…. That again, may not always be a bad thing. Certainly left-leaning Nicaragua has a long history of cooperative working and communal living, which suits this trade model. However, coffee growing is not restricted to Latin America.In parts of Africa, coffee growing operates on a tribal basis, on land shared amongst vast extended families. These too, do not get Fair Trade status, apparently because they lack the democratic element required for the social premium system. Which begs the question: Who are the Fair Trade Foundation to dictate how third world farmers should organise themselves?

Fair Trade is a price guarantee; however, it does not, and has never claimed to be a living wage. In real terms, the minimum the farmers can expect is $126 for a 100lb sack of coffee. This sounds a lot, until you realise that some farmers (like Bernabe in La Corona, Nicaragua where I stayed) are only producing 15-20 sacks a year. At the Fair Trade price, this means he could only get $1890 a year to support his family of twelve. This is not sustainable. Sure the cooperative uses its Fair Trade money to invest in community schools, electricity supply, clean water and so on, but realistically, these families still have to eat!

My biggest concern about Fair Trade however, is the aspect of coffee quality, this slippery concept which seems to affect every possible area of coffee production and retail. In the past few years, the global price of coffee has increased again, and the average is now $1.40 per pound. This alone makes the Fair Trade price irrelevant. First World buyers from big, international importing companies can and will pay considerably more for what they judge to be excellent quality coffee. I visited farms, even tiny, impoverished farms, who were selling coffee at $1.80, $2 a pound, entirely because it was really good stuff. But these people weren’t always rich, because they were only producing such small amounts of this coffee. This excellent quality coffee, when sold in the UK would not have the Fair Trade label on it however, because it was not sold at the Fair Trade price. I was always very cynical for example, about Caffe Nero’s claim that they don;t have the Fair Trade logo because they pay “better than fair trade prices” for their coffee. Now I am starting to realise what that actually means.

I have always been a horribly good little Guardian-reading ‘ethically-aware’ consumer, and always bought Fair Trade coffee unquestioningly. And to be fair, most of it was pretty good in my uneducated, non-gourmet opinion. I am not a coffee cupper. However, the Fair Trade label, and for that matter, the organic, Rainforest Alliance or Bird Friendly labels tell you absolutely nothing about what is inside that bag of coffee – only how it is grown, not what it tastes like. What is actually happening, somewhere along my tangled commodity fishnets, is that good quality coffee is sold at good prices, and marketed minus Fair Trade label. Then, the farmers in Fair Trade certified cooperatives are selling all the lower quality coffee that can’t be sold for high prices, off to Fair Trade buyers, meaning that the coffee with the Fair Trade logo is potentially of far lower quality than the non-labelled stuff.

By buying Fair Trade unquestioningly, we are therefore sending a message back to the international coffee buyers that there is a higher demand for this stuff. They of course, are keen to pay the lowest price they can for their coffee, and so are demanding more, lower quality but Fair Trade priced coffee from the farmers. Even though this price is guaranteed, it still potentially screws the farmers, because they could get a lot more money for higher quality coffee – if people would actually buy it at the other end of the chain. But we don’t, because we believe that anything that’s not Fair Trade must therefore be Un-Fair Trade. We are inadvertantly driving down the price the farmers receive, and also, driving down the quality of the coffee we consume.

(Obvious example of this: McDonald’s new McCafe’s -uuuuuuuuurgh- are promoting the hell out of serving you Fair Trade, 100% Arabica Latin American coffee. To me, this immedietely screams: “we’re gonna pay the bear minimum we can, steal as much of Starbucks’ market as we can, and still claim ‘ethics'”)

On the other end of the scale, the really, really bad coffee is still ‘wasted’ in a sense. Even though Fair Trade guarantees a minimum price, it does not guarantee a buyer. If the coffee is truly awful, the farmer may be stuck with no buyer at all, if the buyers are not willing to pay the Fair Trade minimum. Those locked into a Fair Trade certification contract cannot legally sell coffee for less than the $1.26, and if they can’t find a buyer willing to pay this price, their year’s crop ends up as chicken feed.

The problem seems to lie in the consumer awareness in this, and other consuming countries, which can in turn be blamed on the marketing and labelling we see in the supermarkets or coffee shops. There is little to no price differentiation any more in regards to the coffee’s quality. Fair Trade still usually costs a little more than non-fair trade, (this extra is NOT passed on to the farmer) but from the consumers point of view, we can’t see which coffee was bought for $1.80 a pound, and which was bought for less than the Fair Trade price. We either play it safe and buy Fair Trade, or we are forced to trust the ethics of the brand, and believe that when they say it’s ‘ethically sourced’ and excellent quality, it actually is.

I don’t have the answers to this. I can’t advocate buying solely Fair Trade coffee, because it may not be beneficial any more. I think the best solution is to remember that coffee is a very difficult, unpredictable, resource- and labour-intensive commodity to produce, that it is only produced in developing countries, and that it has to travel half way round the world before it gets to you. Therefore, it is always going to be expensive. Accept that, and then pay a good price for the sort of coffee you actually like drinking – ignore the guilt-trip labelling and just enjoy! 


Posted by on June 4, 2009 in Uncategorized


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The coffee process – on a tiny Farm near La Corona, Nicaragua

From experiences on Finca El Ranchita, 2km outside the village of La Corona, Matagalpa.

The farm is owned by Bernabe Cano Salgada, he lives with his wife Maximina, one son, one daughter, one daughter-in-law, one neice and seven grandchildren, although he has another son and daughter and more grandchildren living elsewhere as well.
The farm is 5 manzanas (a manzana is 1.73 acres), 2 manzanas are coffee, the rest is maize and chiltoma (a type of chilli) crops and pasture for their 12 cows. There are also quite a few chickens.

The coffee is all organic, no fertilizer or pesticides are used. It is also grown under shade of banana, orange and avocado trees and some remaining natural forest. The farm lies at an altitude of about 800m above sea level, and is irrigated from the Penas Blancas river that runs through the Yasica Sur mountain range.
The coffee is entirely arabica, a mixture of caturra and bourbon varieties.

Harvest season for the coffee is mid november to mid december. All the picking is done by hand, with baskets tied round the waist to hold the cherries. The coffee trees are tall, some over 8ft, and occasionally the trees have to be half pulled over to reach the cherries at the top. (i am not much below 6ft so i was actually very useful in this respect!) Harvesting takes a month, even with such a small crop because not all the cherries become ripe at the same time, and so each tree has to be picked repetitively until all the fruit are mature.

Bernabe and his daughter in law, Antoña, seem to do the majority of the harvesting by themselves, working ten hour days. Maximina works in the house, and their son Leonardo looks after the maize crop. Antoña’s 4 children all try and help pick coffee too, but only the eldest, 12 year old Lucy, can actually work effectively, (when she is not at school) the others (all under ten) can’t reach the trees!

After picking, the coffee has to be depulped (that is, removing the fruit flesh from the beans) the same day. First the cherries are tipped into a tub of clean water. Those that float are bad – either with bugs in (making air holes) or sometimes with only one bean inside the cherry, not two. These bad beans are scooped off the top, and composted.

The depulping machine mixes the cherries with just enough water to soften the fruit, and then simply presses the fruit until the hard beans in the centre squash out. The beans will sink and the fruit floats. The beans are then let out the bottom of the machine, and the cherry pulp removed from the top. Bernabe drains the fruit pulp and then feeds it all in to his worm farm where is is broken down into great compost.

The depulped beans, still in their muscelage, are left to ferment. Early harvested beans ferment for 18-24 hours, those later in the harvest for 36-48 hours. This has to be carefully monitored as over- or under- fermenting can ruin the quality of a whole batch. Generally, the longer it ferments, the sweeter the flavour, but it can easily get too sweet and taste alcoholic!

After fermentation, the beans are washed again, in running water. Any flesh remaining will float and can be removed and composted. The water also carries away the muscelage called Miel, or honey (it does actually taste sweet). The run-off water is cloudy and called ‘agua de miel’. On this farm is was just left to drain into the soil- although it’s acidity cannot be good for the earth. Bernabe did not seem bothered about this.

The beans are then dried on a large mesh sheets supported on wooden frames, so the beans are always kept a few inches off the ground. They are turned over every 20 minutes so they dry evenly. Drying at this stage reduces the water content of the beans to about 40-45%. In good weather (not guaranteed in the mountains) drying only takes 2 hours, but they have to be very careful because it can rain very suddenly and unexpectedly, and rained on beans are ruined beans.

Once dry, they are sorted. This can take several hours. Bernabe (and often as not, anyone else who is around) has to go through and meticulously pick out the bad beans that have survived the other processes. Broken beans, those with chipped parchment, those with small holes as a signs of broca bugs. It is boring, time consuming, slightly hypnotic and requires a lot of concentration and good eyesight. However, this is what makes good quality – one bad beans can spoil 30 good ones. And you need about 50 beans to make one espresso. The beneficio will check and if there are too many, he will not be able to sell that sack.

Technically, the bad beans picked out at this stage end up either as worm or chicken food, although Bernabe said occasionally the family keep them, toast them over the fire and use that coffee for family breakfast. I tried it to see if I could tell the difference knowing I was drinking low quality stuff. However, they all insist on heaping so much sugar into it that it was impossible to tell. It smelt amazing as it was roasting though.

The finished coffee is packed into waterproofed sacks of 100lb each (some farms use 60lb bags instead which seems to be more conventional) and the trip is made to the beneficio (processing plant) which for this co-operative is a two hour journey, the otherside of Matagalpa. We hitched a lift clinging on to the back of a neighbour’s truck who was also going to the city. After that we had to get ourselves and 100lb of coffee on a bus for the remainder of the trip. Bernabe’s family do not own a vehicle, and as the beneficio require the coffee to be as fresh as possible, this trip has to be negotiated once a week during harvest season.

Bernabe can get $180 a sack for his coffee (thus, ‘better than fair trade’ price of $126, although the cooperative is fairtrade certified) as it usually achieves 80-85 points on the SCAA’s cupping scale (making it a “speciality” coffee), but the journey to the mill alone, without a lift, will cost him $2.30 a week on top of the ongoing costs of running the farm. The sheer amount of manual work and skill that go into this process is incomparable with the income it commands, particularly with a family of thirteen to feed. Bernabe and Antoña effectively work for $1.80 an hour, for 200 hours a year during the harvest season, and have to make that income last for the other 11 months, feeding their enormous family, maintaining the farm, paying bills and supplemented only by income from their other small crops, and the money their children send from the cities to help support the grandchildren.

On a personal note, it really made me feel terrible for working at Caffe Nero for so long. Sure their coffees are expensive, but for a £2.30 latte, the two espressos in it costs the company 4p. The amount farmers like Bernabe receive from each latte we drink in the UK comes to a fraction of a penny. I gave the family as much as i could for my stay there – the equivalent of what would have paid staying at a hotel and eating in a restaurant for a week. I also gave the kids a present of 30 cordobas each – about a pound. Best fiver i’ve ever spent – that buys them all a notebook for school and chocolate bars for a week.
I hope my reader(s) are dutifully feeling first world/middle class guilt now. And please don’t even contemplate buying Nescafe instant now you’ve read this. Muchas gracias.


Posted by on November 26, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Reconceptualising” coffee?

I am not in a writing mood today, having just finished four pages of ‘Bureaucratese’ or “well-written bollocks” for this damn upgrade… so. A few pics for your entertainment:

A Cappucino from Nero - the liquid was found about 2 inches down!

A Cappucino from Nero - the liquid was found about 2 inches down!

Cappuccino from Gusto Italiano - shiny, pretty and perfect!

Cappuccino from Gusto Italiano - shiny, pretty and perfect!

A few differences there, non?

Visual fieldwork maybe… a lot simpler than trying to describe these differences! And then of course, there is the far darker side the the little brown beans:

Black Gold is a very powerful film, I recommend it to anyone who has even a passing interest in coffee and world well-being! If that doesn’t affect you, this might:

Work out not only how much of the price of your branded coffee goes to the farmer, but also how much you personally spend on coffee a year. Quite frightening in my case!


Posted by on July 9, 2008 in Uncategorized


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