A new dialogue in direct trade

A tech-based platform could be set to revolutionise how coffee roasters and growers interact and trade with each other. Algrano, a Swiss-based start up that officially launched earlier this year at Nordic World of Coffee in Gothenburg, Sweden, is shorthand for the Spanish phrase vamos directo al grano, or fittingly translated as – let’s get straight to the point. It’s a simple but effective concept that has already scooped a coveted SCAE award for tech innovation. The pioneers behind Algrano are also setting their sights on nurturing a global community of coffee professionals from opposite ends of the speciality coffee value chain by creating a space for dialogue and direct trade. The first shipping container of coffee grown by producers in Nicaragua – some of the them Cup of Excellence finalists – has already made its way across the Atlantic to the port of Bremen, Germany, and the team are now preparing their second container for growers in Brazil.

Visiting coffee producers in Brazil

As the trend in speciality coffee shops making the jump to roasting their own coffee gathers pace, there is greater interest in having more influence over the coffee’s journey from the crop to cup. Algrano is responding to this need by building the bridge between farmers and roasters  and overcoming the logistical challenges and risks of moving green coffee from one continent to another. Price per kilo, export and delivery costs are presented clearly on the platform and roasters have the opportunity to pay a premium above the cost of production to support improvements in agronomic practices or social projects.

The platform also helps to improve transparency in the coffee value chain by enabling farmers to present their coffees to new speciality markets and customers that they would not otherwise have access to. More than just an online marketplace, the ability to strengthen the ethos of traceable ‘relationship coffee’ where buyers and sellers are able to directly engage and share information offers huge potential. This is particularly potent in an industry where established coffee merchants can still hold a disproportionate balance of power in the complex supply chain.

Algrano co-founder, Gilles Brunner, who has an academic background in international relations and development wanted to explore how the private sector can provide innovative sustainable solutions to global agricultural supply chains. It was after a year of working in the field to support Brazilian coffee farmers achieve certification such as Rainforest Alliance accreditation that the idea of help growers and roasters to interact online took root.

Algrano Co-founder, Gilles Brunner

Brunner developed the idea with co-founders Christian Burri and Raphael Studer. The team was selected by the Startup Chile programme in 2013, and later Startup Brazil in 2014 to work with Fair Trade co-operatives to test the platform. The initial response from growers was extremely positive but it was not until they took their concept to the Speciality Coffee Association of America (SCAA) to understand the needs of roasters that the platform shifted to a trade platform where coffee could be bought directly from origin.

In May this year, the team met with growers in Nicaragua to train them on how to set up their own profiles and post images or updates onto the platform’s dedicated newsfeed. He feels strongly that content should be largely producer-generated so that an active community can be created from the grassroots up. “Our number one purpose is to connect growers with roasters. Since the launch we’re really happy that 140 roasters have now registered online and can request samples from growers up to two weeks before the container closes. The value that we bring is to consolidate all the demands of the roasters into the one container and ask the exporter to prepare and ship the container to its destination”, he says.

“We don’t import coffee and store it in a warehouse. We want the roaster to choose the coffee that crosses the ocean, and we think this has real value. Roasters tell us that it takes time and money to source really interesting micro lots and we want to make it easy for them and sustainable for producers to do just that.”

The Algrano team are now busy establishing links with coffee farmers in Brazil so that they can present a container with growers and exporters from the world’s largest coffee producer once the harvest of the 2015/16 crop gets underway later this year. Gilles adds, “coffee is a universal language and we’re here to help nurture those conversations between growers and roasters”. It’s the kind of language that coffee professionals and customers are keen to hear more of as the conversation increasingly becomes a chorus for transparent, sustainable models of direct trade.



Seeds of recovery take root in Nepal

Two months have passed since natural disaster struck Nepal but new shoots of recovery are already beginning to take root.

“It has been a massive blow to our people. I fear that our infrastructure and development has been pushed back by two to three years,” says Appa Sherpa, Director of the Nuwa Estate Coffee.

11426758_1006906709346190_2916755166245852401_oSince April, he has been heavily involved in the local relief effort since the earthquake tragically claimed thousands and flattened villages – leaving millions homeless.

And the arrival of the monsoon rains bring an increased risk of landslides – threatening further damage to livelihoods and crops.

It is particularly acute for Nepal’s fledging coffee industry that has been flourishing in recent years. Production has surged to over 650 tons annually – more than thirty times since the early nineties – and the growing industry now employs more then 25,000 people each year.

“We lost numerous crops that were around two to three years-old and five houses on our estate were turned to rubble, luckily no one was injured,” says Appa.

“We are now slowly returning to stability but still get minor aftershocks and expect several landslides this season that can gravely affect our estate. Coffee plants take time to grow and an even longer time to bear cherries.”

Many of the villagers who work on the farm are still living in temporary shelters of wood and tarpaulin. In spite of this, the community has come to the aid of the estate by donating compost and helping out with the labour-intensive task of planting of more than 10,000 saplings.

11537923_1016773525026175_2725259252730753173_o“Monsoon is here and the community are helping out with transferring our saplings from the nursery. All of this done freely by the villagers out of gratitude for all the help that we have provided so far”, he adds.

Local coffee farmers have been receiving assistance from the Green Tara Foundation, a charitable NGO set up by Nuwa Coffee Estate that was the first on the scene to provide food, medicines and relief to those most affected.

Aimed at improving livelihoods by providing income, employment opportunities and the provision of education to under-privileged children, the foundation has successfully constructed two schools so far and provides free coffee saplings, new technologies and training to farmers.

The estate covers more than 25 hectares of agricultural land in the Nuwakot district, northeast Nepal. Located at an altitude of 1300-1400m, it enjoys ample sunlight that bathes the nutrient-rich soil of its southeast-facing slopes. This provides the optimum conditions for growing a washed bourbon varietal that has a complex body with notes of dried fruits and spice.

The organic practices on the farm also encourage greater biodiversity by inter-cropping with ginger, turmeric, and avocados under the shade ‘bird friendly’ canopy of macadamia and hazelnut trees. Harvest season is between December and March each year.

For a country that ranks as one of the poorest globally, Appa believes that coffee can play an important route to providing income security without increasing dependency on foreign aid.

He sees coffee as one of the most sustainable ways in which to help local villages rebuild towards a brighter, more secure future – but it is not without its challenges. Middle men in Nepal continue to act as a barrier for coffee producers such as Nuwa Estate Coffee from accessing international markets.

He says that this is a result of brokers in the country who all but remove traceability by collecting and mixing large quantities of coffee while fixing the market price beyond the benefit of growers.

But Appa continues to remain optimistic about the future: “In the coming years we can expect a more bountiful yield. Nepal is not a large scale coffee producer yet but in time we hope to enter the international market.”

11722143_1016773621692832_1938285150054104804_oAs an emerging coffee producing country, there is huge potential for Nepal to tap into the specialty coffee boom. Benefitting from high elevations free from frost, long hours of sunlight and adequate rainfall, its climate and topography is ideal for cultivating arabica coffee.

“We want to show the world that not only do we have the breathtaking scenery of the Himalaya but we also produce specialty coffee, which has a distinct flavor profile that is be different from the rest,” adds Appa.

For Appa and coffee communities across Nepal, sowing the seeds of recovery are now crucial to rebuilding the country as it strives to gain an international reputation as a rising star in the world of specialty coffee.

You can support coffee communities in Nepal by donating to the Green Tara Foundation here.


Coffee and its creative muse


Ever since the age of the enlightenment, the literary canon is steeped in references to the seductive power of coffee to refresh the senses and stimulate mind. From Beethoven to Voltaire, the creative output of musicians and writers has been fuelled by its invigorating properties. But there is one particular writer who stands out in his legendary lust for a drop of the good stuff.

The prolific French writer and playwright, Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), had a reputation for taking his coffee addiction very seriously, and often to extreme lengths. So serious was his desire to summon his mighty literary muse from a steaming cup of Joe that he would regularly undertake marathon coffee-fuelled writing sessions. Rumour has it that he would drink immeasurable cups over sleepless days and nights of creative output. Balzac describes how he regularly experimented with grind size and would even consider eating the freshly ground coffee if his extractions of increasing intensity did not adequately satisfy his unquenchable thirst.

But although the Parisian dandy was widely acknowledged as one of the founding fathers’ of literary realism – inspiring Wilde, Engels, Proust, Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Kerouac amongst others, he was not known for working at lightening speed. Instead, his stamina for long hours of focus and dedication were unsurpassed. In his lifetime, he toiled away to produce more than 40 published texts before he bought the proverbial farm at the tender age of 51 years-old. His magnum opus, La Comédie Humaine, was a collection of short stories and novels that presented a kaleidoscope of colourful characters in a panoramic depiction of French life after the fall of Bonaparte Napoléon – another self-confessed coffee addict. Balzac’s preferred method of writing was to eat a light meal and then sleep until midnight before rising to write for many restless, nocturnal hours. Here, he talks about the creative impact of coffee on his caffeine-starved brain:

“Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination’s orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink – for the nightly labour begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder”.

Balzac’s pleasures and pains of drinking coffee are well documented. His words resonate with such literary force that the words jump off the page like a shot of espresso which arrest the senses with a Herculean vice-like grip; loosening only after its volcanic effects have finally left the system. In his own words, coffee had found its victim – and it would appear that Balzac surrendered to its sublime physiological and psycho-active effects gladly. To a lesser or greater extent, maybe we do share common ground with Balzac in his thumping literary salute to the bewitching brew that has the power to awaken and stir the creative forces in all of us?