Direct Trade Sucks

Relationships with many producers is too complicated to give it a title or a badge or a sticker. After all its not about words its about actions. feel free to judge me on them.

So the last blog post here was about my sourcing visit to Bolivia. I planned to continue the blog post whilst doing the same task in Colombia, but a last minute change of plan from one of my hosts threw it all in the air.

The farmer had decided, after months of our joint planning, that he would now be out of the country.

After arranging expensive flights and hotels, having confirmed it was all okay, I was left stuck in Colombia for 3 days with nothing to do. As it turns out another exporter was kind enough to spend some of that time letting me cup with them, and I think we found some stonking coffees that we bought once we got back and will be showcasing later this year. But I was left with lots of time to mull over concerns that have been on my mind for a while.

Before I go to this, I’ll rewind to earlier this year.

Earlier this year we launched our direct trade idea, a model used by other roasters whom I respect, as a way of showing they look after their farmers / producers / co-ops. I agree that farmers / producers / co-ops should be looked after and it’s important to make sure they get paid well, very well. But ever since I launched this I began to feel it was a bad idea for Has Bean (stay with me).

Direct trade is a way the needs of the farmers / producers / co-op can be met, be that monetary, be that pride in improving quality, education, whatever. But it’s also about the farmers / producers / co-ops having an equal voice to that of the roaster, and protection too – but what happens if problems swing the other way?

At the time of our launching the ‘Fairer Than That’ idea, I was in negotiations with a producer in El Salvador about a very important coffee for us. One we bought initially from the number one Cup of Excellence, one that we’d bought every bean of from the farm for four years, and a farm I had visited 3 times and loved. The farmer, due to his hard work, was being approached by many coffee roasters about buying his coffee, but the farm is small (the way we were able to buy everything from the farm for four years shows how small it was). There was not enough coffee to share.

Regardless of how much money we offered (we never even got to the money negotiation), and because the producer’s voice got ever louder, we didn’t get our coffee.

This isn’t about sympathy; there are lots of other great coffees out there, but we invested a lot of time money and travel in building up this farm, and the voices became unbalanced away from us and we could no longer negotiate.

There is good news from this; Santa Petronas, San Raphael Pacas, Loma La Gloria, and Monseratt wouldn’t have made it here this year if this hadn’t happened. I am very pleased with these coffees, and there are many other great coffees to be found.

So from launch I had this concern that the Fairer Than That / direct trade model wasn’t perfect, but I persevered as we had launched and made a big noise about it. I looked enviously at others using this kind of model and thought “I could do that.”

But that’s part of the problem. As a coffee industry we are all saying the same things; we are sending this confusing message, which means something different to everyone. And when we try and tell the world what we mean by it, I think most people don’t get it. We make it more confusing.

I buy amazing meat from my local butcher. I don’t ask him if the farmers got paid. I taste the quality, I listen to what the butcher has to say, and I trust him; this makes sense, right?

So fast forward to my ill fated Colombia trip. Another relationship was falling down, because the producer had a different set of priorities to making our long standing commitment to meet up. I am not just belly aching here; much time, effort, and energy was invested into my second trip for a second year, blown up only when I kept pestering to confirm the trip one week before leaving.

It’s not a relationship when it’s one way. I like the idea of equal-stakes-equal-voice, but in this case it was not equal. If I broke that equilibrium, quite rightly I would be a bad man, but it doesn’t seem to be the same both ways.

I likened it to being trapped in a loveless marriage; one was trying really hard, but the other didn’t feel the same way. It’s a problem when your partner loves you for the wrong reasons, or doesn’t trust your motivations. I guess it’s my job to fix or change that.

The extra time in Bogota on my own – in the evening eating alone, not knowing anyone in the city – gave me lots of time to think, and to run (a great city to run around). Most of my thinking time (and on the flight, and even more since I got back) was about direct trade and Fairer Than That. And you know what, I’m not happy with it at all.

I don’t think it helps the message: I think it clouds it. And it’s important to be happy, or otherwise to change something to make yourself happy. A ginger man once said: life’s too short.

When you make a mistake you can either keep going ahead or stop and about turn, and that’s what I am going to do.

We are not going to label up our buying practices in the “direct trade” model we discussed in Fairer Than That. Not because paying a good price isn’t a good thing; it is a very important thing, but it’s also a complicated thing. I can talk about the $10 a lb Colombian we bought last year when the market was at $1.80 if you like, and I’d sound great, but from all the deals we did last year, none were lower than $3 and most around $4 and above, which is a great price. But what does it tell you?

$3 in Colombia won’t buy you just anything in Nicaragua or El Salvador – it will buy you a great (and I mean great) coffee. It’s all figures and numbers that make no sense. Coffee buying and relationships are complicated, and I want to try and make it easier for everyone.

We’re also not going to cheapen the great coffees we have acquired through importing partners by not giving them a sticker, or make noise about economics when we should be talking about taste. We paid over $7 a lb to a producer for a coffee from an importer last year. This was a huge price, for a huge coffee, but we couldn’t put it under the banner of direct trade because we used an importer. When you have constraints like that, it’s crazy.

Instead we are going to buy the way we always have; some direct, some not, dependent on the partnership and the logistics, but we will always remain transparent and faithful to the following:

1. I promise to pay a good price for the coffee I buy. This is built on trust between grower, roaster, and end customer – trust, and long term results;

2. The price we pay will ALWAYS be above the market price and any Fairtrade floor prices;

3. I promise to visit the producers we buy from directly as often as I am able to, and ask them face to face if they are happy that they sell to us, and with how we roast their coffee and promote their farm name;

4. I will work with our partner producers feeding back things I learn about the coffee market and what I think the market needs, where we can add value to the chain. Collaboration is important;

5. If we use middle men (exporters / importers / brokers) we will make sure they are good people and that the producing end still get rewarded for their work. these people will become facilitators, not leaks where money doesn’t make it back to the ground floor. If we cannot be assured / shown this, we will not work with them;

6. I will promise to work with good people, in general good people produce good coffee;

7. You’re just going to have to trust me.

You’re going to have to trust me even though it doesn’t have the name direct trade / Fairtrade / grown by nuns / kissed by monkeys, or any other certification. I don’t want to make the same noise or the same mistakes as others using direct trade. Relationships with many producers is too complicated to give it a title or a badge or a sticker. After all, it’s not about words, it’s about actions. Feel free to judge me on them.

Why I never get a sun tan when traveling

"........Why I never get a sun tan when traveling.............."

Day 5:A modern Producer is now a sunderland fan

"..................one of the other successful introductions this year was a coffee called Bolivia Finca Canton Uyunense, grown by Teodocio Mamani. Its gone super well since we introduced it back in March, and the feedback has been great............"

So today is my last day before setting off back to La Paz and on to Colombia. We can’t leave Caranarvi until 4pm when the road re-opens (they are ripping up and widening a huge piece of road between Corico and Caranarvi, which is a HUGE engineering feat).

So one of our other successful introductions this year was a coffee called Bolivia Finca Canton Uyunense, grown by Teodocio Mamani. It’s gone super well since we introduced it back in March, and the feedback has been great.

The photo we have of Teodocio worried me a little as he is in a Chelsea shirt, but I’ll forgive him that. It’s another coffee that doesn’t have a name (or does as I found out later), and Canton Uyunense is a huge area, so it’s not super helpful as a description.

We drive up to the farm and get a call to say that Teodocio is not at the farm but is shopping in Caranarvi (sound familiar?), but as it was he was zooming up the mountain to meet us, as he was very keen to show me around. We have a hang-around of about an hour waiting for him to come up the mountain, but he does so and we follow him to the farm. This is one of three farms he owns, and is the one he most recently acquired. It belonged to his wife’s father, who had said the land was no good for coffee and gave it to his daughter and Teodacio.

Determined to prove his father-in-law wrong, Teodacio went about ripping out lots of the plants and reorganising the farm. He has been doing this over time and he showed us part of the farm that has two year old plants, four year old plants, and six year old, and he is slowly planting ever more. He also has a program cutting back plants, to produce new stems and branches which helps the quality of the cup.

All around and near the farm there are people growing coca, but Teodocio is convinced it’s the right thing to do coffee. He’s a very very gracious host, and a cool man (apart from his football allegiances). He is quite different to the other growers I meet in Bolivia: much more progressive.

I of course couldn’t leave it here, and had to ask him about the footie. He says he has the Chelsea shirt from when he played football, as his team had blue shirts. He enjoys football but doesn’t really have a premiership team. So I of course offered to send him a Sunderland shirt, to which he got very excited. One convert in Colombia

And this is the end of the Bolivian adventure. I have really enjoyed it; I learnt so much about production, and so much about the growers and the unique issues they have. This is why I have to travel to meet producers. If I stayed in Stafford I could probably still buy the coffee with the aid of Skype and email. But I have bought from some of these farms for four years, and only this week have I truly understood them. This can not only help us explain their situations to you, but also to understand the unique issues they have.

So tonight I had the scariest journey in the world: a trip in a dust cloud on some of the most dangerous roads I have ever encountered. We left at 4 pm on the dot, and we arrive in La Paz at 9pm. I chuck my bag in the corner and book my 1:45 am wake up call for my next trip to Colombia.

Day 4 Shopping is important

"..............its been amazing to finally meet the people who I have talked and thought about for the past couple of years................."

So for most of yesterday I cupped. I cupped lots of amazing pre-shipment coffees for us to make some buying decisions. And don’t get me wrong, that’s fun, but for me these trips are about meeting people – seeing the colour of each others’ eyes – and getting an understanding of the challenges of the producer, and them an understanding of what we are doing.

So the itinerary was to go see David Vilca; an amazing new coffee and farm from last year, and one we want to build on going forwards for sure, and then in the afternoon to visit loayza.

I learnt two very different ways these coffees are put together, but remain two very special coffees at the same time.

So the drive to David Vilca is around 1 hour from Caranarvi in a good 4 x 4: I am sure it’s a longer trip in a not-so-good means of transport. When we arrive at the farm we find it all locked up apart from a very friendly dog who is very pleased to see us. We wander around the farm to see if we can find David and no luck. Shouts of “Don David” fall on no ears, so we have a look around a very traditional-style farm, where coffee is the most important and main income. The farm’s very well laid out, very well presented, and super tidy.

So we head back to Caranarvi when the mill manager gets a phone call and we locate David. He has gone to town as he needed to go shopping. He knew we were coming but shopping’s more important. And I 100% agree, I turn up at these places and ruin their plans and ruin their days. It kind of drove home for me that I need to be more understanding. David Vilca coffee all comes from David Vilca’s farm, and it has no name apart from his own. I like this quirkiness.

At this point we learn that David and his wife are keen to meet up with me still, but they’d prefer to meet in Caranarvi. I get to meet the legend, and he is as blunt as he is a great farmer. We have some photos and we have a chat in the town square. He tells me about the problem with his hearing and that this limits his life. Through a translator I asked why he hadn’t got hearing aids, and he replied that just can’t afford them. The mill manager is going to find out for us how we can help with this, and I may ask you guys for some help too.

In the afternoon I find out things that were a bit of a shock to me. Loayza is a big area and is made up of lots of different producers and Feliciano who we have worked with for a few years is one of many producers. But I got to meet Feliciano and he and his family are amazingly lovely people. Very proud of the work they do (quite rightly so). He showed me around the farm and i have lots of photos (to follow soon).

It’s been amazing to finally meet the people who I have talked to and thought about for the past couple of years, with one more to come tomorrow. Exciting times.

Day 3 Rain Rain Go Away

".................come back another day................"

Rain rain go away come back another day.

So everyone thinks I come on these buying trips and sunbathe and relax, and there is some relaxing, but it’s mainly busy busy. I sit here writing this blog post in the rain, not pitter patter rain but throwing down and bouncing off the roof rain.

This is a problem; not because I’m scared of the rain – the rain is so warm it’s like taking a shower. The problem is two-fold. The climate has begun to change in Caranarvi, everyone I speak to says so. The rains come for longer, and it’s more ferocious. It’s making the coffee develop at different rates, and it’s making some of it turn black and horrid on the tree. This is of course bad, and means less coffee. Much much less coffee, around 60% less than last year. This is not just down to them turning black, but is also due to the other problem with rain.

Because of the rain, no one wants to pick. Who would want to stand in the rain for 9 hours up to your knees in mud on the side of a mountain? Not me for sure, and I’m fairly sure that I couldn’t find many folks in the UK wanting to to do this. Finding pickers is becoming harder and harder because of access to better jobs, and higher aspirations of the young folk, who are moving to the city. This is a real problem that’s not going to go away.

The young would rather drive a taxi between Caranarvi and La Paz than stand in the rain, and who can blame them. But what does this mean? Well, coffee prices will have to go up: those who stay and pick will need greater rewards. It’s an interesting problem when you tie it with climate change. Coffee picking is not suited to the 21st century mentality of work and living, and all the good coffee can’t be mechanically picked – technology can’t help us there (hillsides and inaccessible areas, and the need for the hand and eye of man when picking).

For now I can’t help but wish it would stop raining for a selfish reason: I am getting wet.

And there is some play too, as I have just eaten the best steak ever in my life. Good Bolivian food, with good Bolivian wine and more good Bolivian wine. Time for bed

No Machacamarca this year :(

"..................one day it will be made into a film..............."

So keeping to my promise so far, day 1 of my keeping a travel-type diary alive

This time it’s an audioboo. I’m not sure why I’m attracted to audioboo with an accent like this, but it’s so much easier than typing (wuth mu bad spellun).

This is a sad story, and one where I need your help. Maybe not until I get back as I think my inbox may explode, and there will be another blog post about it once I am back, with the details of what to do and when.

But I hope you find it interesting. One day it will be made into a film.