Jean Bosco & Longin of Dormans Rwanda on Kanzu Coffee, 2020, & Covid-19

We were able to connect with Jean Bosco Seminega and Longin Muhizi of C. Dormans Rwanda in the Foxhole and talk all things Rwanda, Covid, and the 2020 and 2021 harvest and shipping seasons. Host and Red Fox founder Aleco Chigounis has known both Jean Bosco and Longin for over a decade, well before Red Fox was formed and before the 2 of them joined Dormans. He is joined by co-host and co-founder and director of business operations Julia Fariss, who among many other things has managed our Rwanda operations since the beginning. Both Jean Bosco and Longin bring with them incredible histories and insight on Rwanda coffee production past and present.

Aleco Chigounis: Hello everyone, welcome back to the Foxhole. We have another special episode today. I am joined by my co-host Julia Faris. Julia has been helping me run the business since day one as our director of business operations but also as our coffee buyer in Rwanda. We also have 2 very special guests from Rwanda, from C. Dormans in Rwanda, Jean Bosco Seminega and Longin Muhizi. Welcome to the show, both of you! It’s great to have you here.

Jean Bosco: Thank you Aleco. We are happy to be here with you tonight.

Aleco Chigounis: I’m very happy to see you both. It’s been far too long. Both of these fine gentlemen here are our representatives of C. Dormans Rwanda, particularly the Kanzu washing station which is the one and only coffee that Red Fox procures from Rwanda. It’s one of my all-time favorite coffees and possibly our most popular coffee of all. Most of our clients, top to bottom, are buying Kanzu in some capacity because it really is a jewel of Nyamasheke. 

Quick background: Nyamasheke is the growing region where Kanzu’s coffee comes from on South Central Lake Kivu. It’s high up in the mountains around 2000 meters and has really green, lush, forested mountainside. Kanzu was built in the mid-aughts by Alphonce Kayijuka, who eventually sold the washing station to C. Dormans. I’ve been involved with Kanzu since 2007 when the Cup Of Excellence did a precursor event in Rwanda called The Golden Cup. Kanzu took third place, and at the time I was at Stumptown and split that lot with Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia coffee. I really fell in love with the profile and started to buy the coffee year after year from there. With that out of the way, I’d like to turn this over to Julia and we’ll get started with the interview and hear from these two guys. Enough from me!

Julia Fariss: Thanks, Aleco. Jean Bosco and Longin—if you would introduce yourself and start by telling us a little bit about your coffee career?

Jean Bosco: Thank you, Julia. My name is Jean Bosco Seminega and I’m the country
manager for C. Dormans Rwanda. I joined C. Dormans Rwanda in 2015 but I’ve been in coffee for the last 20 years. I started as a consultant, became a coffee business owner, then later I joined C. Dormans in 2015 as a country manager. 

Longin Muhizi: My name is Longin Muhizi, I have 13 years’ experience in the coffee industry here in Rwanda. I started my coffee career in 2007 in a USA project called Spread, where we were helping producers initiate and develop cooperatives, get financing, and connect with overseas buyers. After Spread I continued working with a number of cooperatives as a quality controller and cooperative development officer.  In 2010, I joined Technoserve, which was a project funded by the Bill and the Melinda Gates Foundation in order to provide a solution for poverty. After Technoserve, I joined C. Dormans Rwanda in 2012 as operation manager and logistics coordinator, where I work now. 

Aleco Chigounis: Great history Longin. That’s where I first met you, working for the Spread project. Really amazing project, for any of the listeners who aren’t fully aware. There was actually a project prior to Spread called Pearl, which morphed into Spread after different financing came in through USAID. It was a recovery project for the coffee sector post-genocide, and really boosted the ability to produce and differentiate specialty coffee in the international marketplace. Coffee producers’ prices have risen exponentially since the advent of that project. 

Jean Bosco: That was actually in the earlier 2000s, when the Pearl project started. There was another project supporting private companies called ADR that I was a consultant on for 4 years. I remember, we met in 2010, I don’t know if you remember.

Aleco Chigounis: I remember—you were working with Alphonce directly.

Jean Bosco: Yes, I showed you some coffees from Kanzu. So much time has passed since then!

Aleco Chigounis: Now we’re veterans in the coffee industry.

Jean Bosco: I’m thinking about retiring someday.

Aleco Chigounis: I’m not. I can’t even fathom yet but maybe, maybe.

Jean Bosco: Some people never retire from coffee, you know? It’s very hard to leave the coffee industry.

Aleco Chigounis: I’ve seen people try to leave before and they always come back. It bounces back into you and doesn’t let you go.

Julia Fariss: Jean Bosco, can you tell us a little more about C. Dorman’s history in Rwanda, when Dormans bought Kanzu, and what other washing stations Dormans operates now in the country?

Jean Bosco: C. Dormans Rwanda started operations in Rwanda in 2012. We started leasing washing stations, 5 washing stations in the western province. We were leasing at that time and in 2013 we started buying washing stations that we had been leasing. Our operations were concentrated in the western province, mainly in Nyamasheke district where we really feel that the best coffee from Rwanda is coming from. 

Since 2015 we continued buying washing stations and now, we own 9 washing stations. Aside from what we own, we also sometimes work with some small outside washing stations owned by small local companies where we pre-finance and help market that coffee. We currently have around 6,000 farmers registered that are linked to those different washing stations where we provide some services from farming to training, support, certification process, and more.

Julia Fariss: Longin, could you tell us a little about what makes Nyamasheke a special growing region for coffee and a little bit about Kanzu washing station?

Longin Muhizi: As Dormans Rwanda, we have chosen to be present in Nyamasheke district alone, because of the quality of coffee in that particular area. Bordering Congo in the west, it has a range of altitudes from 1495 all the way up to 2200 and above. It also has the natural forest called Nyungwe, with rainfall in that particular area ranging between 1300 to 1400 millimeters per year. The soil is volcanic as well. The quality coming from those factors was what pushed Dormans to buy the Kanzu washing station in the Nyamasheke area.

As Jean Bosco mentioned, we bought and started operating in Kanzu in 2012. Kanzu washing station is located at 1836 meters above sea level with great access to the hills covered with coffee and excellent agricultural practices. It is highly visible. Kanzu is able to produce 4 to 6 containers of exportable grade high quality. Because of the quality produced in that particular region, we always face competition from other trading companies. Our advantage depends on our relationships with farmers, so we build really strong partnerships, which makes Kanzu the best washing station to work with. To date, Kanzu is working with 535 farmers and those farmers are also registered under certification programs like Rainforest Alliance and trained in best practices to help them continue producing the best possible coffee. If you look at Kanzu’s last season, we were able to produce 4 containers of exportable grade coffee, and because of competition for cherry the price was very high. 

Aleco Chigounis: I’m very curious about the competition there and how it works. I’m sure it’s a battle for the coffee as it is every year. That is such a special area. You told us a little bit about how the harvest shook out in terms of competition and volume. How did you see it quality-wise compared to years past?

Jean Bosco: Kanzu has special quality all the time, so we always deal with competition. That means we always have to pay the highest price, and we know the quality is worth it. We thank you for the price you have been paying us so that we can pay a good price to the farmers we work with in Kanzu. We also keep close track of small lots of coffee for quality control because we know, when we focus on quality we need to really, on a daily basis, track the coffee we are getting. We are very grateful for the support to manage the quality down to a lot by lot scale for our top clients.

Aleco Chigounis: I have to say I regret not buying more coffee this year. The coffee was so good. We were as buyers, maybe you’ve seen this from other buyers as well, a little timid with the Covid-19 situation. Unsure of how things would shake out economically here in North America with our own clients and how they would be living through this situation, but in retrospect we should have bought another container. Next year we’ll be back strong with the full volumes again. When do you see the next harvest starting and how do you think it will shake out in terms of volume and quality?

Jean Bosco: In Kanzu, because of the higher altitude, we’ll see the next season start a bit late compared to others. Around the end of February, early March. This year, we’ll still be getting cherries into July, which is great. The late maturation gives time for concentration and the quality gets better over the course of the harvest. We expect a good crop, because the rain is what we want to see so far. We applied fertilizer already, and we’re expecting at least the same volume or more than what we bought in 2020. We’ll definitely have the volume you want, especially since you make such fast decisions. 

Aleco Chigounis: Thank you. That’s the mantra for us, to make quick decisions and move quickly. Be a strong partner.

Jean Bosco: That quick decision helps us so much.

Julia Fariss: And I wanted to say, regarding quality, all our work this year was done from our lab in Berkeley. No one was traveling and it’s always such a pleasure to cup those Kanzu offers, they’re so good. This year, they were just the highlight of cupping for me personally. I haven’t been cupping as much because I’m mostly working from home, so it’s just such a beautiful coffee and this year was definitely no exception.

Aleco Chigounis: So beautiful. It also seems like, and correct me if I’m wrong, that the potato issue obviously still exists but it’s much better controlled than it used to be. To give a very brief synopsis on what potato defect is to anyone who might not know, a specific kind of insect bores into the beans, leaving bacteria that create a raw potato flavor in the coffee. Really interesting, and unfortunately undesirable—it’s a problem that has hurt Rwandan coffee producers, which is why folks like Jean Bosco and Longin have taken great measures to try to eliminate it as much as possible. Thinking about the Kanzu coffees and the amount of times we’ve kept them this year across the different lots that we’re buying, we have a very low incidence of finding potato cups. Is there a special program or a special way that you approach the quality control of that now at Dorman?

Jean Bosco: There’s a lot of strict control and tracking of small lots. We cup every small bunch of coffee on a regular basis and whatever we get any potato taste, we keep it aside, we recup until we get all lots potato-free. We do a lot of hand-picking and we have very good cuppers at our office. We have 2 Q graders now and we work hard really on getting the best quality we can. Especially for regular buyers and committed buyers. The potato taste is still there we can’t say a hundred percent, you know? It’s very hard to control these potato tastes, but we try to track as much as we can to get the potato-free reloads.

Aleco Chigounis: I think you’ve done a very good job, thank you for that.

Longin Muhizi: Also going back to the farms’ practices, a lot has been done. We have a program designed for farmers. We deliver training on good agricultural practices and with those practices, you see there is really an improvement on how farmers are treating their coffee crops. That’s had an impact on reducing the potato. Pruning is really very important. The bugs that cause potato taste like to hide in coffee farms where the foliage is bushy, but when you clear the farm and carefully apply fertilizer, some pesticides when possible, and be consistent at pruning, the severity of the potato is really reduced. 

At the washing station where we sort the cherries, we also make sure that anything that has been bitten by any insect is removed during flotation. When you put coffee or in water, cherries that have been damaged by insects float and can be removed. Then, after coffee is pulped, we also do sorting in the pre-drying area. We call that phase skin drying, where we pre-dry the skin of coffee so that when you put the coffee under natural sun it cannot be cracked by the sun, allowing other issues to arise. During skin drying you can also easily pick out any defective coffee beans. Just to highlight that we do a lot of controls at every stage to be sure that the coffee we are going to produce is of quality desired by the client.

Aleco Chigounis: It’s great to hear about all the steps you’re taking. 

Julia Fariss: Could you two tell us a little about what the year has been like in Rwanda, what the impacts of Covid 19 have been both on operations for Dorman, for farmers, and also just on a human level?

Jean Bosco: 2020 has been very hard for everyone worldwide, and Rwanda was no exception. We had our first positive case on February 14th, and from then on positive cases kept increasing and Rwanda took major serious measures, starting in early March. We went into complete lockdown. By the time we started harvesting, the whole country was on lockdown. Farmers and the agricultural sector were allowed to continue operations, but with little movement allowed. Everything slowed down, it was very hard for us to keep the same level and speed of work in the field.

For example, in order to leave Kigali we needed a special authorization to leave. Fortunately we have washing station supervision at the regional level—our washing station managers were living at the washing station during harvest. We managed to get there ourselves during the harvest, but it was not easy to get in and out. 

Otherwise, Rwanda took serious measures. Now it’s mandatory to wear masks everywhere. Anyone in Rwanda leaving their home needs to wear a mask; social distancing is controlled as is testing. We, Rwanda, started testing in March because we were not prepared. The pandemic came as a surprise to everyone but over time Rwanda got more equipment to do testing. Now we have 5500 positive cases tested since that time with more than 90% recovered, fortunately and around 50 deaths. In June, the country started reopening slowly. Now schools are back. 

The country is slowly recovering, but we are still under serious control. We need to keep social distancing, some pubs are still closed, hotels are opening and all travelers need to get tested. Whoever enters Rwanda needs to be quarantined for 24 hours and tested. We took serious measures, and we are lucky now we can say it’s a bit under control, when you compare with the other countries. 

During the farming season, the risk was a bit high for us to keep financing, sending money to the field when we couldn’t go there on a regular basis, but we managed to anyway. We were lucky to have a good team and then we managed to get production and pay farmers and in the end it went well. 

One of the biggest negative impacts is still with us: the cost of living is becoming very high. Rwanda is a country that imports a lot of things including food and imports prices are very high due to transport issues at the borders. It’s really not easy; there’s a very negative impact on everyone including our farmers. Their cost of living is rising, and buying anything they need is more expensive. 

Julia Fariss: Yeah, in the US right now having a really big surge of cases and, it’s been a hard year here too. I’m glad that the measures in Rwanda have been successful at controlling Covid and that schools are back. Are you able to travel to the field now? Do you still need to get special authorization?

Jean Bosco: Now we can travel in the field. The western province was under lockdown for a longer period than the rest of the country because it’s at the border of DRC, but now it’s reopened so we can travel within the country without any problem for the moment. Only people going out of the country need to be tested first and when they come back.

Julia Fariss: How do you see things looking forward to the upcoming season? What are the plans in place for next year for coping with any more Covid-related obstacles?

Jean Bosco: We have hope that the vaccine will help and that Rwanda would probably be included in the first countries to get the vaccine. The pandemic was taken very seriously here in Rwanda because our country relies on tourism and has a service-based economy. So, that’s why in Rwanda this problem was taken seriously from the beginning. Now we have hope because worldwide if the pandemic can get under control with the help of vaccination then things will be much better next year.

On the farming level we are as ready as possible. We have applied fertilizer, but it wasn’t ideal. We used to have fertilizer from expert contributions and the government gave us additional support. Now the government wasn’t able to get that support so we probably won’t have enough, and this this year will be already reduced to what we have, but whatever we had was already applied on time. The rainfall has been good, so we hope that the production will be good. Farmers are in a hard situation, but we are in touch with the farmers, we are trying to work with them. Some of them are looking for some small loan for their production, and we try to help them to access some finance to pay their family expenses. 

We’re also struggling with training. With social distancing measures in place, we can’t gather people for trainings. It’s a bitter challenge but we hope to be able to do training as we can in respect of the committed measures.

Longon Muhizi: To add to that, we are working to increase the involvement of women in coffee farming, so we’re planning for when things get back to normal. We’re planning to create 4 groups of women in Kanzu, where we will be able to train them on different topics aside from coffee practices like basic business skills and financial literacy, so that in the off season they can have some activities that can generate income to support the household. After the training we help them to develop their business ideas, and also spread them to the other women surrounding the Kanzu region. 

We also plan to maintain certification which is good for farmers and helps them get higher premiums. And, we’re planning to contribute to production by raising seedlings which will be given to farmers for free—our plan is to distribute in 40,000 new seedlings in 2021 which will help us assure that in 3-4 years the productivity won’t drop off. That is also an assurance to Red Fox, that any volume they will have in the future as the company is growing, we will be able to supply.

Aleco Chigounis: That’s great news! Which varieties are you giving them as seedlings?

Longin Muhazi: There’s a new released variety called Rap C15; it was tested by Randall Clutch and released in 2015. It’s resistant to coffee bean disease and the quality and productivity are good.

Julia Fariss: It’s such a pleasure to see you and to hear how the year has gone for you. We so appreciate working with you and all the work that you do. We love that coffee from Kanzu and the work that Dormans does so, thank you so much for being with us.

Aleco Chigounis: Thank you both. It’s great to see both of you. Two of my oldest friends in
Rwanda.

Longin Muhizi: Thank you, thank you, Aleco.

Jean Bosco: It was a pleasure meeting you here. It has been a long time since we’ve seen each other. We hope you guys will continue buying Kanzu and it will be really a pleasure to work with you.

Aleco Chigounis: We’ll always be there—as long as Kanzu is producing coffee, we will be there. 

To learn more about our work, check out our journal and follow us on Instagram @redfoxcoffeemerchants, Twitter @redfoxcoffeeSpotify, and YouTube.

Asnake Nigat of Kata Muduga, Ethiopia on Covid-19, Agaro History, & More

We were lucky to get a chance to bring Asnake Nigat of Kata Muduga Cooperative Union in Agaro, Ethiopia into the Foxhole for a conversation about current events in Ethiopia, the upcoming season, and Agaro history, in which Asnake has played an instrumental role. For more background on Agaro history and the role Kata Muduga has played, click here

 

Aleco: Hello everyone, welcome to the Foxhole. I am here with a very special guest this week, Asnake Nigat from Kata Muduga. Asnake is out in the field in Agaro right now. Asnake, welcome, we are very happy to have you. How are you?

Asnake: I’m good Aleco, welcome. Thank you very much for introducing us to this audience of buyers. 

Aleco: Ah, yes, very happy to do so. It’s been a long time since I personally started buying your coffee and Red Fox has been buying your coffee since the beginning of the business, almost 7 years ago. Can you tell us a little bit how you got started in coffee in Agaro? I know you were a very important person at Technoserve in the original days of the project.

Asnake: Yes, as you know, some of the cooperatives in Agaro started in 2000. In 2009 Technoserve started, so most of the cooperatives joined in 2010. At the beginning, the coffee in this area was not well known.

The majority of the coffee was prepared as a Jimma 5, very poor quality coffee, so the farmers were selling this coffee to local traders. Local traders help, but they don’t worry about the quality, they don’t worry about the preparation, they collect the coffee as usual whereas Technoserve started dividing the coffee based on quality. They also advised the farmers to organize the cooperatives and trained them how to do the business. They trained the farmers to do the business preparation, to use new wet mill technology to process the coffees. They facilitated loans to cooperatives and training. Quality training, processing training, how to process the coffees, how to wash the coffees, how to dry the coffees. So, because of this, most of the cooperatives started with very small numbers. For example, in Duromina when they started at the time, it was almost 75 individual members.

Aleco: Oh, wow!

Asnake: In Duromina, in 2010, they only had one machine with a capacity of 1500kg per hour. Nano Challa started with 123 members and a very small machine, only 500kg per hour. Along with frequent training, Technoserve assigned business advisors to each and every cooperative. Such business advisors trained farmers how to follow up, process on their own, record-keeping, and cash management. These were very important changes for Agaro’s coffee. Now Duromina is very well known, now has three big-weight machines, so everywhere the volume is increasing. 

The dividend that Kata Muduga received from producers (they get 90% and pay the union 10%) at the beginning was almost 200,000 per dividend, but now Duromina, last year, for example, paid the dividend to five million birr. It’s a very huge amount. This year Nano Challa paid a dividend at six million birr. Nano Challa now has two big washing stations. Their members increased from 123 to 740 members. It is a big increment, and this coffee is now well known in the world. It is changing the farmers, how they produce the coffee, how they pick the harvest, so completely that even Jimma 5 (which used to be low-grade) is now very good, high-specialty coffee. The whole starting point to us doing exemplary in these areas was the Technoserve project

Aleco: Yeah, amazing how the value was changed almost overnight, in almost one season, right? For the Jimma 5 to now, the Grade 1 and Grade 2 coffees.

Asnake: Yes.

Aleco: Okay. So eventually, after a handful of years of Technoserve, you formed Kata Muduga Cooperative Union with Efrem and others to manage the cooperatives in the area, correct?

Asnake: Yes, exactly

Aleco: What led you to make that decision?

Asnake: You know, just previously the cooperatives were supplying their coffees to Duromina Coffee Farmers Union in Addis, but there were ups and downs. There were problems because the buyers were commenting differently, creating an obstacle to source Duromina coffees, to source Nano Challa and Yukro coffees. There were some problems and bureaucracy, so because of this, because of considering the different buyers’ comments and also that these areas are each special, Goma and Gera are unique coffees. The areas were good so we thought, why don’t we form one union to export this unique coffee to the buyers in order to be fast, reliable and on time to deliver these coffees? 

This is one reason, the second one is the system. Kata Muduga works on commission, which means that 90% of the price goes directly to the cooperative, so this makes it different from the other unions. This other union is buying Nano Challa coffee, sold to the buyer but at the Ethiopia Coffee Exchange price, so this union doesn’t like the commission system we use at Kata Muduga. Because the majority of the sale, 90% of the sale doesn’t go to the cooperative, it goes to the union level. In the Kolla Bolcha case, the peak, 90% of the price goes to the cooperative, the cooperative distributes dividends to the members. That is the system because, in this case, the cooperative is made of coffee farmers and we want to maximize the benefit they get from their work.

Aleco: Yeah, and it is really tremendous what you’ve accomplished in terms of getting the best value back to the farmer. What year did you start Kata Muduga and how many cooperatives were members of the union at that point?

Asnake: We started the union in August 2016, almost 4 years ago. At that time we had 19 cooperative members. The volume was very limited. At the second year 2017, that 19 raised to 26, at the third year raised to 30, this year during the fourth year, double the original. Now we have 39 member cooperatives at Kata Muduga.

Aleco: 39, that is really great, yes, amazing. Amazing growth, so you are seeing producers from the greater Agaro area wanting to become members and you are building more washing stations. It seems almost every year, no?

Asnake: The washing stations are increasing.

Aleco: Will there be new stations for the coming harvest?

Asnake: This year, we have one new cooperative, Racha, which is very close to Yukro. In Racha there was some problem with the quality last year. This year they are at full capacity with good quality coffee. There’s another new one in Gomma, a very good cooperative called Gerba. Did you taste this coffee?

Aleco: I don’t think so.

Asnake: Yes, Gerba is a new cooperative that is very good quality coffee adjacent to Kolla Bolcha, very good. It’s a newly developed cooperative, a very unique coffee, very high land. We will try to supply these coffees in the next harvest.

Aleco: Oh great, I look forward to chatting about that more. I can’t wait to taste that one. I’m curious about the coming harvest, but it’s really impossible to talk with anyone about their 

coffee harvest coming up without talking a little bit about the coronavirus. How has the virus affected Agaro and the coffee farmers and even yourself in the area out there?

Asnake: Coronavirus? Still, now in this area definitely. But, generally in Ethiopia, especially in our areas, there are not serious cases happening now. There are serious cases in Addis, our capital. The majority of coronavirus cases are recorded in Addis, but not serious issues in this area. I don’t know. 

Aleco: Okay, so maybe people are isolated and stayed safe, I’m guessing, is it true?

Asnake: Yes, in Addis, people are isolated. This disease is most common in the Addis capital city, not around in Agaro or Gera and Jimma areas. 

Aleco: Do you think that there will be an effect on the harvest that’s coming up or will people be able to work as normal?

Asnake: We will see on that, we will see during November. Currently it is not serious enough to affect the daily activities of the coffee harvest. Now, people are working and preparing drying beds, getting the loans they need for the season, everything’s now in preparation and it’s going well. But maybe we’ll see on that in November. Some Ethiopian health ministers expect in November to maybe see an increase of the number of the affected people. 

Aleco: Okay, well you, Efrem, Eden, everyone at the cooperatives and the producers have been in our thoughts, so I’m glad things are okay so far, we hope that everyone can be safe. Going forward and into the harvest and beyond of course as well. How is the harvest looking for the coming season? Is it going to be smaller and larger? 

Asnake: Not smaller, not larger, it is almost medium, almost the same as last years, because you know, coffee by nature is biennial. In some parts we expect high volumes this year and in some parts, lower. So it’s not such a big fluctuation in our areas. It’s consistent, sustainable production.

Aleco: It’s great to have a lot of reliable volumes for the producers to count on. When will the harvest begin this season and when will it end? Roughly.

Asnake: There are two starting times. In a little bit, in areas which are very low. Areas in the union, for example around Agaro, will start in the middle of October. Some cooperatives start after. The other cooperatives in Duromina, in Biftu, in Yukro starting at the end of October and beginning of November. The majority of the cooperative is the beginning of November and the end of November is peak time. So, the end of the harvest is the beginning of January.

Aleco: Okay, so normal season here. That’s good to know. Thank you. What, if any, adjustments do you have to make during the harvest season because of the virus?

Asnake: There is some change. We’ll have to take special care, like masks, sanitization, and also not gathering workers in one area. Distributing people in every bed so there aren’t too many people when sealing the coffees, and washing the coffees so we’re limiting the numbers in a single bed. And also collecting water, so those are some adjustments that will happen in the next harvest. 

Aleco: That makes sense. Do you have any questions for me, Asnake?

Asnake: No questions, just that I see all your marketing and I say thank you very much Aleco, you are doing a great job to introduce and market these coffees. I know you from 10 years ago, you know these areas. Your buyers’ support, it promotes this area’s coffee. I always tell the leaders of Nano Challa and Duromina, Aleco is a genuine buyer. Almost 10 years and above; you are introducing this area of coffees to buyers so this is very great support for the cooperative. Also, you are supporting the coffee farmers in this area, so I say thank you in the name of the cooperative and the union. You are always reliable. We trust you to trust these coffees and to continue sourcing them and advertise more to buyers. I see you, your website, and Red Fox, always writing about this area’s coffee. I say, thank you very much, you did a good job on this site Aleco.

Aleco: Thank you very much Asnake, to be considered reliable is good.

Asnake: When do you plan to visit by next harvest? 

Aleco: As always, I’m hoping there’s a way for me to come and work the same way that we always work, and to make decisions very quickly for you and to get coffee moving, yeah, so you’ll hear from me again I’m sure a few times before the end of the year and then we’ll plan for that. But yes, my plan is to come.

Asnake: In January?

Aleco: Yes, yes.

Asnake: January is a good time. Most of the coffees are moving at that time. The majorities we move a lot by loads. Most in December, starting from December, the middle of December, we move the coffees by loads. So January is a good time to cup that coffee. We will meet then.

Aleco: Perfect, my fingers are crossed to work business as usual again, Asnake and thank you for the kind words. You make it easy to work with you. To work with you and Efrem, and people who are so reliable and honorable. It is really honestly a pleasure for us and to continue to support the farmers in the way that we have and that I have for a decade now. It feels special to continue the relationship and thank you for the comment on reliability, that’s all we really hope we can be, so really, thank you.

Asnake: Thank you, thank you. I hope, I wish great success for you and your company, Red Fox. We will continue to work together, thank you very much Aleco. 

 

To learn more about our work, check out our journal and follow us on Instagram @redfoxcoffeemerchants, Twitter @redfoxcoffeeSpotify, and YouTube.

 

Marilu Lopez Padilla of Coopbam, Peru on Covid & Women Leadership

We were lucky to get a chance to bring Marilu Lopez Padilla, Coopbam smallholder producer and Women’s Committee leader, onto the Foxhole for a conversation about the challenges created by Covid-19, her role in Coopbam’s formation, and her leadership in the creation of Coopbam’s Women’s Committee.

Marilu is an exemplary member of Coopbam, a cooperative founded with help from environmental group Conservation International to help support and protect the forested coffee farms within the Alto Mayo Protected Reserve in Amazonas and San Martin, Peru. From its founding, the group’s core focus has always been how to marry coffee growing with the enrichment of both the land and the community, rather than stripping the environment of resources in order to farm it. Marilu speaks to how the cooperative structure and the role of women in communal economics serve that mission, as well as the challenges they face perennially and this year in particular. 

Ali Newcomb: Hi everyone, I’m Ali Newcomb, director of Red Fox Sourcing Company in Peru and Mexico. I’m here with Carina Barreda, who helps manage quality for Red Fox in Peru. Also joining us is our very special guest, Marilu Lopez Padilla from Coopbam in Amazonas, in the North of Peru. After a break, we restarted the Foxhole last month with the new concept of focusing directly on the people who produce the coffee that we all enjoy so much and letting them speak directly to the people who drink their coffee. Right now we are right in the middle of Peru season and so we wanted to invite someone from our supply chain in Peru. Marilu is a crucial member of Coopbam,  the group with whom we started our work in the North of Peru. Marilu, thank you so much for being here and sharing your time to tell us your experience. 

Marilu Lopez Padilla: Thank you Ali, I’ll introduce myself as well. My name is Marilu Lopez Padilla, I am from the committee of Beirut, in Amazonas. Thank you for having me here.

Ali: Marilu, Coopbam has a very different history than many other cooperatives in the sense that it is in a protected forest, and because of that, it has a key focus on protecting the local ecosystem. Could you tell me a little bit about the history of Coopbam and how it started?

Marilu: Before Coopbam, I didn’t have any stable customers for my coffee. We would sell to whomever would arrive ready to buy it. Sometimes it was for really low prices and sometimes for higher prices. Often, we had no choice but to sell to whomever would show up. 

One day, Edwar, the promoter for the Beirut committee, appeared when I was washing near the road and he said, I think you sell coffee. I said that I do, but just a little, and there aren’t any dried coffee beans at the moment. Then he told me that he knew a buyer looking for dried coffee to be able to sell and that I could take advantage of it. He hadn’t explained the buyers yet and I didn’t know what a cooperative was at that time, but thanks to Edwar I started to understand that they were planning to open a cooperative and were looking for coffee to start it. 

He explained the details and since then, we have been working with trust. Now I say it again, in front of Edwar (who’s holding the camera), I can’t distrust the cooperative because I am always sure that it is truly cooperative and they do it for all of us, and amongst all of us, so we are all united—that is why I trust the coop.

Back then, before we established that trust, Edwar came to take my coffee and as I waited for results and payment, I kept asking him when he would pay me. He took my coffee and days went by. Soon, they did pay me and the cooperative officially started the following year in 2017. By then, it was more known in the area and many wanted to become members and build committees. Our coffee had a guaranteed market from the cooperative, and we continued and continued and I always believed in my coffee, and I still believe in it. 

Carina Barreda: Marilu, from when you started working with Coopbam to today, how has your coffee production changed? How do you see your development?

Marilu: I am very happy with the development from the beginning to now. We learned things from the cooperative like managing planting, how and when to fertilize, to do everything on time and to be on top of the harvest so we can get a good product and to not to abandon the farm: the to-do’s of the farm.

Ali: In the Beirut subregion, what are your biggest producing challenges, especially for producing quality?

Marilu: When it comes to the harvest, we have to be really on top of it. Once it starts ripening we have to be there consistently. If not, when the winter comes, the coffee starts falling. In Beirut, parrots will come eat the coffee once it’s ripe—that is a big difficulty for us because we have to be ready to run over quickly and scare them away no matter what else we’re doing. It means we have to pay attention constantly.

 Ali: It seems like you do a great job managing the parrots and everything else. This year, the world is upside down and I think there have been more challenges than ever, no? I know Peru had one of the longest quarantines in the world and I know that in the rural areas, additional preventative measures were  taken. Can you tell us more about how things are there both on a daily basis and also the challenges that have arisen over the course of the season?

Marilu: We had many difficulties because of the pandemic. We are farmers, country people, and many say that in the countryside people live happily, and that is true in some ways, but not in others. Yes, we are less anxious because we are in the countryside. On the other hand, we have difficulties and we need help as well: sometimes for our children, other times for the house, and sometimes for other things like not being able to go out and shop for what we need. During the harvest, it was difficult because we needed to go out to other fields to help with labor there, but we were surrounded by policemen, rondas campesinas (groups of peasants that patrol to keep the countryside safe), and the army. 

To this day, we have the army nearby. From my house, you can see the army—they are always paying attention, they don’t allow people from outside to come in. 

And while that has created difficulty, maybe it has been because of that, and thanks to God, that we are all still safe and there haven’t been any cases of this illness in our area. We are still taking care of ourselves, respecting the protocols as the president mandates. He asks a lot of us, our people, and we don’t understand much about it. But we all take care of ourselves and we are in the front, fighting it as well as continuing our jobs at home and at the farm, for our own good, for our families’ health and ours.

Ali: Well, it makes me happy to know that you haven’t had any cases of the virus in Beirut but it sounds complicated as well; so you haven’t left Beirut? 

Marilu: No, we’ve stayed here. For example, we haven’t been able to attend a cooperative meeting since March. I’m a representative in the administrative council where we usually have many meetings, but none since March. Schools are now virtual here and my little girl is about to start her first year in elementary school. She is here studying virtually from home, and my son is also studying college virtually in Chachapoyas University. We are all here, all together with them.

Ali: How are you doing with the virtual school? Do you attend via TV? On the radio? How is it held?

Marilu: I am going to tell you this but it’s going to make you laugh—I don’t have a TV. The signal doesn’t reach here, so I don’t own a TV. The virtual classes that my little girl has to attend, I borrowed a radio so she could listen. I can also listen so I can help her with homework. The signal isn’t very clear but we make anything possible. We make it work.

Ali: So besides producing coffee, you have become a teacher.

Marilu: Yes, I work a bit as a teacher, a bit on my farm, a bit taking care of my house, doing all the chores and doing a little bit of everything.

Carina: What help or benefits have you received from the cooperative during these last few months, related to the pandemic? 

Marilu: They have brought us baskets with staple goods and supplies. Thank God we have been able to get something, I am very thankful. It has helped me tremendously.

Ali: Marilu, can you please tell me more about your work in the Women’s Committee at Coopbam?

 Marilu: We coordinate between the women of different regional committees to be able to expand and diversify our communal livelihood. Some members wanted to do other work like crafts and planting vegetable and fruit crops; it is so essential for the health to have fresh vegetables and we prioritize it when planting in our orchards. So that was our idea: different committees for different projects, for example, a committee for creating vegetable plots, another committee to make artisan crafts, and another committee to raise poultry, all of this to generate diversified sources of income. 

Because as women we always think, the most important thing is not to lack anything at home.  As a group we had plans to do many more projects through different committees this year, but as you know, this pandemic came and delayed a lot of that. I’m sure that as soon as this passes we are going to continue improving and conversing about many projects we will do. And the committees agree as women, to do it and fight to be able to go on.

 Carina: How did the idea come up about building this Women’s Committee? Who was the person who managed or who pushed for the development of this committee and what was the goal?

 Marilu: Well, the cooperative always talked about this, during our trainings. There are men who are married to coop members, but not all the men are members of the larger cooperative—sometimes the husbands aren’t the members, the wives are. In my case, I am by myself, but I am a member and I am also the president of the Women’s Committee, and I manage this role differently from being a cooperative member, but it is equal. 

That’s what gave us the idea, because we have women who are coop members but we wanted to broaden the group to include the non-member wives of the men who were coop members. We all wanted to do something for our lives and our finances, we are always in need of things and that was our agreement: the women who want to work united to do jobs cooperatively and get better at them. For example in 2018, our women’s group grew and sold over 200,000 seedlings.

A lot of us in the community are happy that we are producing all that we are, as committee members. Like those seedlings: in order to grow a seedling, it doesn’t happen from one day to another. You have to be on top of it: fighting, working, group by group every day, just like that. That was our idea, so we could improve our livelihood. That is why we formed groups in Beirut, Vilcaniza, Yambrasbamba, by Aguas Verdes, and other places.

 Ali: What is your favorite part of being a coffee producer?

 Marilu: What makes me happy is having you as a set market of clients to buy our coffee. We have our buyers and believe in them, and you also put their trust in our product that goes to you. We always try to improve our product and see the best way to have it delivered to you with quality.

Ali: Would you like your daughter Ani to be a coffee producer when she grows up?

 Marilu: I would love that. My daughter has learned about coffee since she was small, she has a bright mind. She likes to harvest the ripe fruits; she knows what to pick and what to discard. You won’t believe me but she already bites into the dried coffee to assess the moisture.  When she bites into the dry bean, she says it’s already hard, or it’s already dry. I know with time she will learn more and that she will like it.  

Carina: What other objectives would you like to achieve in the near or far future either in terms of coffee production or other personal goals?

 Marilu: My goal is, that with the help of God, with the production that we perform here, I want my son to keep studying and finish with the profession he is pursuing, for my son and my daughter to keep studying always. Right now it’s very worrisome with the whole pandemic but we are fighting it as best we can with virtual schooling.  

Ali: Thank you so much Marilu. Do you have any questions or comments for us?

 Marilu: Just to thank you and thank God for giving us this day to be here with you and you with us. Let it be the first time we do this but not the last. The only thing I would ask you is, once the pandemic is over hopefully you can come visit us again.

 Ali: Oh yes, I am looking forward to it and Carina as well.

 Carina: Yes, absolutely. 

 Marilu: Thank you!

 

To learn more about our work, check out our journal and follow us on Instagram @redfoxcoffeemerchants, Twitter @redfoxcoffeeSpotify, and YouTube.

 

Asorcafe’s Geovanny Liscano On Covid, Why Specialty is The Future, & 2020

After over 12 years working with Asorcafe leader Geovanny Liscano to source amazing coffee from Inzá, Colombia, we wanted to open the floor for Geovanny to speak directly to the specialty coffee market. Some background on Geovanny: he’s been a stalwart partner to us since 2006, back when he farmed just one hectare of land with his wife and father. The coffee was superb and over time Geovanny reinvested profits back into the land, bought surrounding plots, and built up processing infrastructure into a thing of beauty for the whole community. He is the model producer to look at when talking about reinvestment and potential at the farm level. His group Asorcafe is incredibly well-organized with a laser-focus on ethics and he’s a valued leader in the greater Inzá community. He’s now in his second run as Asorcafe President after being the association’s third President from 2007-2008. To read more about the smallholder communities of Asorcafe, click here.  

What follows is an interview with Geovanny, first aired via the Foxhole on August 14th, 2020, edited for length and clarity, and translated from Spanish to English by Red Fox’s Ali Newcomb. Geovanny has a lot to say to the specialty market, and we’re happy to help him build the space for producers to talk directly to consumers.  

Aleco Chigounis: Geovanny, can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your family? How did you get your start producing coffee in Inzá?

Geovanny Liscano: For me, coffee is all we have; it’s a product that is special to our area. In my family, we’ve produced coffee ever since we were children. Now, we’re proud because we had the vision of forming Asorcafe, the business we have today. Thanks to that producer association we met you, Aleco, who we and the producers are grateful to be working with today. In this moment there are difficulties, but we also know that good things come out of difficult times where we have to learn, to get inventive, and I think from there we will find strategies to come out ahead.

Aleco: Can you tell us a bit about your personal story as a producer, or about your parents and how they started to produce coffee?

Geovanny: Since we were very young, coffee production has always been a part of our lives, but despite that, I didn’t know nearly as much about coffee until we founded the association and started working with you and getting into specialty production. It’s brought a huge change to my family. I’m really grateful to have gotten into specialty coffee; I like it. In the case of my family, we feel good about working in coffee. We feel happy going to the farm, from planting a tree, to harvesting, the whole process. 

I owe everything to coffee and to the program we have with you because today, the price the local green coffee market and other C-based buyers are paying for coffee right now is booming—but Aleco, you know there are times when the prices dropped to 600,000 pesos, 700,000 pesos, and at that price we barely cover our costs. Profits from producing specialty coffee come from knowing you’re going to receive premiums. Thank God we as a family started saving those premiums and investing them into building solar dryers, buying a good depulper, building a good wet mill set-up to make the processing easier. 

Each day we have more love for coffee farming, those of us who depend on that crop. We do the work as a team, as a family. All of that makes us special. There’s a saying, “it isn’t the coffee that’s special, it’s the producer.” I think that’s right, you can have a very good variety, but if you don’t cultivate it well, you’ll never produce a good coffee.

Aleco: It’s always been a pleasure to work with you and your community. Was it your father or your grandfather who initially planted your farm so many years ago?

Geovanny: My father. My grandfathers also, but in the case of my farm specifically it was my father.

Aleco: Can you tell us the history of Asorcafe, how you started it and how you got to where you are today?

Geovanny: Before Asorcafe, we would see traders who paid unfair prices. They would come, meet up, and agree on the prices they would pay at the market. There were some producer leaders who thought about that and said, you go to town to sell your coffee and everyone is buying at the same cheap price. It wasn’t fair, and we could all see that. It led to us thinking about an organization, and we started socializing the idea with Yovany Castillo, who ended up being the founder, and with the other leaders there we started to organize and spread our ideas in all of the communities in the municipality. 

Before, you would put in the effort to produce good coffee, and take it, beautifully selected and when you got to the trader, they paid low prices and mixed it all up with low grade coffee, and that wasn’t ok. With Asorcafe we started to separate the lots, the coffee from the producers who took a lot of care in their production would be separated out. At first, we worked with Virmax Colombia. Once I got into specialty coffee, I liked it, and I see our future there.  

After forming Asorcafe, we learned to prioritize caring for the environment in our work. Before the association, we had learned that monocropping was the way to farm, planting coffee only. At Asorcafe we didn’t agree with that policy, and we started reforesting, planting trees, and switching to integrated crop farming where the farm has everything you need. Thankfully, it has been a model that many in the association have integrated. 

I’ve always told the people here at Asorcafe that Aleco’s program is open, that all of us could sell our coffee there and all of us could benefit from the premiums that we receive from Red Fox. Not all the producers in our community are quality-focused, there are some that don’t do the work that they should, but more than 50% of the members are committed. We set prices according to the coffee quality and those are the prices Aleco pays, and we at Asorcafe calculate the payment, deducting the expenses of the association—but we deduct very little, because Asorcafe always takes into account that the producer is the one who does the most work and puts in the most effort, so the largest amount possible goes to the producer. 

Right now, it’s difficult because of the high prices, the boom. At Asorcafe we have to make an investment to be able to get that coffee because the local price right now is almost as high as what we can pay, but when these booms happen—we’ve seen it before, and right now we’re seeing prices that we haven’t seen in many years—we know from experience that when we least expect it those prices will drop and we at Asorcafe still continue paying high prices. 

There are challenges, the pandemic has been very difficult, but we’re looking at strategies every day to come out ahead with the project of producing coffee.

Aleco: How is the quality of the harvest this year? I know that you are cupping a lot in Pedregal and that the producers are well versed in how to produce good coffee. 

Geovanny: Those of us that produce specialty are doing well. We’re doing things carefully, fertilizing well so that the harvest isn’t harmed, and I think there is good quality. 

Also, right now something very positive that we have as an organization is the cupping. Rivier does a really good job in the lab. We are very aware that he understands what he is doing and it gives us confidence in the organization. 

So yes, I think the end of year harvest will be good, hopefully the prices stabilize because they have been crazy. One day it’s one price, the next it’s another, and it’s been hard. 

Aleco: The prices are going up and down a lot?

Geovanny: More than anything going up, these days. It has been really complicated. The regional prices more than anything.

Aleco: Could you tell us a bit more about how the pandemic has affected you there in Inzá with the people, the logistics, the harvest, all of that—how has it been?

Geovanny: In our case here in Inzá, we’re in the countryside and thankfully we’ve been privileged because it has been uniting for family and community. 

From the perspective of being on the farm, it’s been good, because we’ve been able to work on lots of things that we were behind on. There was more time for each of us to work on our farms and so it hasn’t been so bad. 

On the business front, it has affected us. For Asorcafe economically it has been really difficult because here we have business locations and warehouses that we had to close for days in La Plata. Here in Inzá, we have also closed certain locations because it was impossible for suppliers and clients when people aren’t allowed out into town, everyone has to be in their house. That part has been complicated for us because you’re not allowed out. On the other hand, thankfully it has helped in terms of being able to spend more time with the family and working at home. 

Here in the municipality, just a week ago we had our first positive case. We’re now, once again, confined to our farm, our house, our community. So on the one hand, Aleco, we’ve been doing well, and on the other hand so so.

Aleco: Geovanny, it’s always a treat to talk to you. I think COVID has presented a lot of challenges but one of the advantages is I think all of us are learning to connect virtually.

 

To learn more about our work, check out our journal and follow us on Instagram @redfoxcoffeemerchants, Twitter @redfoxcoffeeSpotify, and YouTube.

The Foxhole

Scroll down to see all episodes of the Foxhole!

In this episode we had a conversation with Esperanza Dionisio, leader of the Pangoa cooperative in Peru’s Selva Central and first ever woman cooperative leader in Peru. We discussed Esperanza’s unique position in the Peru coffee world, the singular history of Pangoa, and the impacts of Covid-19 on the most recent harvest and shipping season. Esperanza is an incredible speaker and a powerful voice for gender equity. Prefer to listen, check out just the audio for this episode here.

In this episode, Aleco had a conversation with Eden Kassahun. Eden is one of Red Fox’s most integral supply chain partners and has been since we opened in the business in 2014. Eden and Aleco’s history together goes back to her days at Technoserve where they first met in 2009. Eden helps us manage our supply partnerships with Kata Muduga, Kerchanshe, and Kedir Jebril. Her role couldn’t be more critical to our success in executing early shipments as she manages much of the detail internally in Ethiopia as it pertains to transportation and logistics. Aleco also gave us the lowdown on how our Ethiopia season is shaking out on the whole. Prefer to listen, check out just the audio for this episode here.

In this episode Aleco and Julia had a conversation on the recent harvest, history, and future in Rwanda. They talk with Dormans Rwanda Country Manager Jean Bosco Seminega and Dormans Rwanda Operations Manager Longin Muhizi. Aleco has known both Jean Bosco and Longin for over a decade, well before Red Fox was formed and the two of them joined Dormans. Watch this episode to learn more about their histories in Rwanda coffee as well as the intricacies of the 2020 season. Prefer to listen, check out just the audio for this episode here.

In this episode we have a convo with Tibed Yujra of Putina Punco in Puno, Peru on the current season, current events in Puno and Peru at large, and effects of Covid-19 on this remote producing region. Prefer to listen, check out just the audio for this episode here.

This episode features Asnake Nigat of the Kata Muduga Cooperative Union in Agaro, Ethiopia. We talk about Covid-19 and current events in Ethiopia as well as explore Agaro specialty coffee history, in which Asnake has been instrumental. Prefer to listen, check out just the audio for this episode here.

In this episode we talked with Marilu Lopez Padilla of Northern Peru-based cooperative Coopbam on the state of the harvest, her history producing coffee, the effects of the pandemic, and what women leadership looks like in Coopbam. Prefer to listen, check out just the audio for this episode here.

In this episode, we hosted a Colombia producers roundtable with some of our longest-standing producing partners in the world: Geovanny Liscano from Asorcafe in Inzá, Colombia, Raquel Lasso of FUDAM in Nariño, Colombia, and Red Fox’s own Fabian Viveros León of Pitalito in Huila, Colombia. Prefer to listen, check out just the audio for this episode here.

In episode 7 we talk with special guest Menachem Gancz of Quentin Cafe in Mexico City and discussing how the Mexico season went down, what changes COVID-19 brought to this supply chain, lessons we learned, and what we expect the supply to look like over the next few months.

In episode 6 we explore the current and future retail landscape and the challenges it presents, as well as what reopening could look like, with some of the most innovative cafe owners from around the country including Eileen Rinaldi of Ritual Coffee Roasters, Erica Escalante of Café Reina (formerly The Arrow Coffeehouse), Mark Capriotti of ReAnimator Coffee Roasters, and Kyle Glanville of G&B and GGET. Prefer to listen, check out just the audio for this episode here.

In episode 5, we explore the limitations of FOB pricing as a benchmark, discuss how we pay for coffee, and talk through any questions you have around coffee pricing. Prefer to listen, check out just the audio for this episode here.

In episode 4, we hang out while some special guests share their funniest roasting stories.

In episode 3, we hang out while some of our most intrepid buyers and friends share their favorite travel stories.

In our second Foxhole session, Aleco, Adam, Joel, Ali, and Zach focus on Pluma de Oaxaca and swap stories with George Howell and Ric Rhinehart. Prefer to listen, check out just the audio for this episode here.

For our inaugural hangout, Aleco, Zach, and Gabby swap a few travel stories and bring in surprise guest Ryan Brown from the audience.