Wednesday, November 8, 2023

113. A Tale of Two Trees: Moplaco Advocates for Sustainability and Resilience in Ethiopia

Nov. 8, 2023

Moplaco representatives at IWCA
reception: Axumawit, Heleanna, Aisha

At the end of October I had the amazing opportunity to spend several days over the span of two weeks with leaders and staff of Moplaco Trading in Ethiopia. It is a remarkable company run by a team of remarkable people, (which is not surprising since great employees are the foundation of any company that achieves success.) The Moplaco staff is led by Heleanna Georgalis, who is a force in specialty Ethiopian coffee, and a wise and skilled international businesswoman.

One aspect that impressed me was Moplaco's unique advocacy for sustainability and resilience via their outspoken and clearly articulated statements on "the good" and "the bad" in Ethiopia's agro-forestry realm. I had expected cheers for Ethiopia's five UNESCO biospheres and promotions extolling the virtues of forest coffee, but Moplaco by-passes all that with two clear messages I have to admit I had not heard before:

1. Eucalyptus tree farming is bad for coffee, bad for coffee farmers and therefore bad for Ethiopia.

2. False banana is a "miracle tree" that is good for coffee, good for coffee farmers and should be encouraged in coffee areas where its virtues hold true.

Eucalyptus: I first heard Heleanna, Moplaco's CEO, mention the issue of coffee farmers switching from coffee to eucalyptus tree farming in a radio interview she gave to BBC in September 2023. She said her company had created and promoted a short animated video to try to galvanize and educate coffee farmers to resist the quick cash that eucalyptus promises, only to find out that the long term brings tragic loss of soil fertility for any and all crops, including the eucalyptus trees. I found the striking and well-made video on Moplaco's instagram feed.  [Click to watch.] It got me on board.

The short and memorable video was played at the IWCA convention for the ~ 300 guests at the Skylight Hotel. I believe the reaction of most guests was the same as mine: "I didn't realize this was an issue." The next day during a small group discussion with Heleanna, she elaborated on the issue, sharing that the eucalyptus tree itself does not threaten long-term sustainabilty, it's the inability to manage a eucalyptus forest properly. Farmers are driven to over-plant by the promise of cash returns and buyers are not self-regulating their purchases.

Eucalyptus was introduced into Ethiopia around 1900 by the great Emperor Menelik II who was looking for a fast growing tree that could provide fire-wood for Addis Ababa’s fast growing population. It now infests most of the landscape of the country pushing out native species, poisoning the undergrowth, sucking up all the soil moisture and leaving the dehydrated ground exposed to the torrential rains which will then remove the top-soil and begin to dig ravines into the base clay. You can see it all over.

I got to see the eucalyptus threat with my own eyes during a short trip in the Sidamo region while driving to a coffee farm. The road went by acres of land cleared and left with eucalyptus stumps as far as the eye could see. Next to it, acre after acre of eucalyptus trees, waiting for harvest. In contrast, on the coffee farms in the mountains of Sidamo Nansebo, we walked through hills of healthy coffee trees growing organically under the shade of tall trees which have been there for hundreds of years. Coffee was also shaded by the "tree hero" - the false banana tree.

The False Banana, also known as Enset, is one of those wonders of nature where every part of it provides something the community needs. For example, I learned in grade school that eskimos use every part of a whale after it is caught. Nothing goes to waste. The same is true with the false banana, except it provides benefits during its life and "after", when it is cut down. While it grows, its roots hold together the soil and help to prevent erosion and its shade provides an ideal microclimate for coffee. 

The false banana is a close relative of the banana, but is grown and consumed only in one part of Ethiopia. It's also found in Uganda and Philippines. It's taller and fatter than a banana tree and gives no bananas (which gives rise to its English language name “the false banana”). The lucky Ethiopians who know it, use it to make porridge and bread and have a huge advantage for food security. Research suggests the crop could be grown over a much larger range in Africa. "It's got some really unusual traits that make it absolutely unique as a crop,"  said researcher Dr James Borrell, of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew."You plant it at any time, you harvest it at any time and it's perennial."

The banana-like fruit of the plant is inedible, but the starchy stems and roots are fermented and used to make porridge and bread, called "Kocho" which I got to see and taste during my visit to the Nansebo coffee farm. After 4 - 6 months (!) of fermentation in the ground, the hearty food is wrapped in a false banana leaf and sold to eager customers who come to the farm gate to buy. 

Why isn't the false banana tree spreading everywhere? At least part of the answer lies in culture. Kocho is seen as a “country food” even “backwards” or “primitive” by many Ethiopians. City people are inclined towards injera, the pancake like t’eff based common staple which is found across Ethiopia. T’eff is another indigenous, endemic crop, but has extremely low energy content, is labor intensive to produce and is not at all robust to droughts. Kocho on the other hand is disdained in the same way the English used to look down on potatoes as “Irish food.”

The enset plant is highly drought resistant. It is said to survive up to seven years without rain. [2] So what you have in a stand of Enset is a food bank that can last for 7 years!

But wait, there's more and it's coffee specific. Enset acts as a wet-nurse to help coffee grow. When it’s about a year old a coffee seedling is planted near the base of the Enset and it provides water to the coffee seedling. Enset is full of water and it shares with the coffee through a mycorrhizal association. In time, the coffee trees replace the false banana trees in parts of the field. Enset matures in about 3 years. 

The coffee seedling will grow for 2 years in the shade of the enset. As it approaches fruit bearing age the Enset is removed. It can be used for food and fibre, fed to animals, moved and re-planted in another place or used to make seedlings. When the stump is buried in the ground again with a healthy feeding of manure under it, it explodes into a patch up to 50 little Enset seedlings!

The false banana tree is a plant that has been in Ethiopia since pre-history. It is a plant which provides complete food security, is great for the land and coffee cultivation and gives useful products to people who know how to harvest its fruits.

"We need to diversify the plants we use globally as a species because all our eggs are in a very small basket at the moment," said Dr Borrell.



To learn more about Heleanna Georgalis and her life story, take a listen to the Sep. 26, 2023 interview by BBC journalist Kim Chakanetsa on the BBC UK program, "The Conversation." Click here. 

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

112. For-Profit Solutions for Producers

 The Women In Coffee Project extended their webinar series on "Wealth for Women in Coffee" with this week's panel discussion on "For-Profit Solutions" for improving producer prosperity.

The panelists were Phyllis Johnson, founder of BD Imports, Jeanine Niyonzima-Aroian, founder of JNP Coffee and me, Ruth Ann Church, founder of Artisan Coffee Imports. The moderator, Amaris Gutierrez-Ray, is the founder of Women in Coffee Project and the lead roaster and coffee buyer at Joe Coffee in New York City.

Each of the three panelists addressed at least one specific pro-women activity that their for-profit company continues as part of the mission. 

1. Ruth Ann shared described how Artisan was started in 2009 buys and markets the women's coffee, which encourages the cooperatives to support the women and helps them have more visibility. For example, Artisan has the president of the women's group sign the contract, which many of them have never done. Having a woman in the meetings where contracts are signed between the cooperative and a buyer has important symbolism. Often, women would not be seen in such meetings. 

Ruth Ann also shared about the $.136/lb premium that Artisan pays. This is called an unconditional cash transfer (UCT) in development circles. UTCs have been proven to be effective tools for development, especially when given to women, compared to other forms of development aid such as building a school or a health clinic. The reason is that with cash, a woman has the freedom to apply the money where it's most needed. If the family most needs to buy food, she uses the money that way. If she decides it will go to school fees or a new cement floor for the home, that is also possible.

2. Jeanine shared exciting on-the-ground achievements of JNP Coffee in Burundi, (also founded in 2009) such as increasing the quality over the years to gain higher prices to such an extent that the men in the communities are asking how they can join the IWCA Burundi chapter! Many of them now participate enthusiastically and they receive the premiums and good prices from JNP also.

Jeanine also shared the impressive story of how impactful micro-savings and micro-credit programs have been. JNP helped the women start a micro-savings program when they came to her asking for financial help to build their own washing station. Four years later, they have saved the money they need themselves, and they are now the pround owners of a washing station!

3. Phyllis summarized her experiences and truly inspired everyone on the call with her comments. Phyllis started BD Imports in 1999 with importing coffee from Kenya. Since then she has imported from Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and now she is focused on Brazilian imports and sourcing from racial minority producers there.

Her watch-word to the group was to "keep a big tent with you." In other words, understand that it is a village of people who help us along the way in the coffee industry. No one is a singular hero or heroine. 

Phyllis wants to change the negative connotation and definition of the word "middleman" in coffee. She emphasizes to roasters that if it wasn't for the "women in the middle" there wouldn't be coffee! You just don't hear about them very often. "The work that's happening in the middle is wholesome work. It's the work we need to be doing, so women are doing it."

To bring it to a close, Amaris, the moderator, reflected what everyone was thinking after Phyllis' stirring talk: "I think I've been to coffee church!"

Hopefully, the panel gave those who listened on Oct. 2 and those who can catch the YouTube Recording, inspiration to continue pursuing for-profit solutions in coffee to benefit producers.

Saturday, September 2, 2023

111. The Missing Piece in Cost of Production

 Sep. 2023 - Learning about the DIASCA Project

Rwandan coffee harvest - at what cost?
As some of the largest coffee companies in the world intensify their interest in ESG (Environment, Sustainability and Governance) goals, multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) like the DIASCA project are stepping up to solve long-term issues. One of the thorniest data issues in sustainability is not just how to gather data to estimate cost of production (CoP) of coffee for a given nation, but how to replicate the same method on an annual, or other regular basis. For us at Artisan Coffee Imports, the issue of consistently repeating CoP estimates is "the missing piece" in almost every attempt to estimate CoP of coffee.

Field research is expensive.

The problem:
 Updating a COP estimate and replicating the estimation method on an annual, 2 year or even 5 year basis is incredibly important. The day a report comes out with an estimate of CoP, it is already aged, and soon will be so out-of-date it is barely useful. The largest cost component of CoP is labor. Labor rates are notorious for changing year to year. CoP is almost always converted from a local currency basis to USD/lb, so foreign exchange rate fluctutaion as probably the next biggest factor. In some countries, inputs like fertilizer are another large component of CoP, and as readers may know, chemical fertilizer costs have spiked up significantly over the past two years. In countnries like Rwanda where organic matter such as mulch is a major cost to farmers, costs have also risen exponentially. Five years ago a farmer could gather enough mulch in near-by fields. Nowadays, it's common for farmers to rent a truck and driver, travel to another district, pay a different farmer for the mulch and spend one or more days of their own time to make this transaction happen.

Potential Solution: The Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA) is the

DIASCA is a multi-stakeholder
initiative funded by GIZ.

technical workstream (TWS) leader for a new effort to develop a rapid CoP estimating method that can be adapted easily to almost all coffee-producing countries. Their efforts are one part of the larger project of the International Coffee Organization (ICO) to address living income. The larger project's acronym of DIASCA stands for Digital Integration of Agricultural Supply Chains Alliance. The purpose of DIASCA is to make digital traceability more efficient by helping all actors in the supply chain "speak the same language." To do this, COSA is proceeding with the careful and difficult work of facilitating parties in different countries and many different organizations to agree on the most important variables to measure, AND they are simultaneously testing new methods for obtaing metrics of those variables that will greatly reduce the cost of field research. 

Lars Kahnert, GIZ

Artisan Coffee Imports is proud to be participating in the roundtable discussions to develop the economic model and supporting metrics to produce a reliable and repeatable CoP estimate that will then be a key component of the DIASCA project's larger Living Income estimates. 

Indicator lists and flow-chart models are still in process! We can't share them with you today, but soon there will be early results to share. (Watch this space.) It is challenging and rewarding with colleagues from esteemed organiztions across the globe, COSA being one of them, as we work towards this important industry goal.

Daniel Mbithi, Kenya Coffee Exchange, 
gives insight on Kenya's project.

Thursday, June 1, 2023

110. Dukundekawa Musasa Achieves ISO 9001 certification

Dukundekawa Musasa Achieves ISO 9001 certification

Ruth talks with Ernest
In June 2022, Ruth was visiting the cooperative Dukundekawa Musasa in the Northern Province of Rwanda. Ernest Nshimiyimana, the Managing Director, mentioned that he planned to have the cooperative’s operations certified to the ISO 9001 standard by the end of 2023. In April 2023, they accomplished this goal! They have become one of only two coffee cooperatives in Rwanda to achieve this internationally recognized quality standard. 

Nshimiyimana commented on the new achievement, "Every single day, we’re learning, creating and refining. This is one more objective proof to our staff, partners, clients and the outside world that customer satisfaction is at the core of our business. We are farmers. Buy from a farmer and enjoy the perfections."

Organizations use the ISO 9001:2015 standard to demonstrate the ability to consistently provide products and services that meet customer and regulatory requirements. It is the most popular standard in the ISO 9000 series and the only standard in the series to which organizations can certify.

Artisan is impressed by this accomplishment in the area of quality and organizational management. Up until this time, we have only heard of one other coffee producing group, Daterra Estate in Brazil, that has understood the value of quality systems and international standards well enough to pursue this challenging standard. They achieved ISO 14001, which is the international standard that provides a framework for an effective environmental management system (EMS). It provides a processes an organization can follow, rather than establishing environmental performance requirements. 

Achieving a certification, any certification, is the first and hardest step, but continuing to maintain a certification is the next difficult phase.

Dukundekawa's ISO 9001:2015 certificate - issued 13 Apr 2023

What is ISO?

ISO is the International Organization for Standardization. It is a worldwide federation of national standards bodies (ISO member bodies) based in Geneva Switzerland. It aims at developing common international standards in many areas. Its purpose is to facilitate International trade by providing a single set of standards that people would recognize and respect. It specifies the requirements for a Quality Management System (QMS) where an organization needs to demonstrate its ability to consistency and aims to enhance customer satisfaction through effective application of Quality systems.