Coffee farmers, entrepreneurs, eco-preneurs

I recently caught up with my friend Gani, whom I featured in the previous post about coffee. Gani and his friends founded and tried very hard to run APKLO, a coffee cooperative in Sumatra, Indonesia that succeeded in getting Fairtrade Certified. When I first visited APKLO in November 2006, just two years after the boxing day tsunami that caused so much devastation on the island of Sumatra and many other places in Asia and the Pacific, peace had returned to Aceh, which lies at the northern tip of Sumatra. APKLO was located in Sumatra Uttara (Northern Sumatra) just south of Aceh, but just the same the civil war to its north seemed to have kept foreign tourism down and infrastructure in Sumatra Uttara was basic.

The journey up from Medan, the main city of Sumatra Uttara and also the most important port on the island, was long and arduous, and at the same time breathtaking, with terraced rice fields, gorgeous hills in the distance, and the lovely site of traditional buildings of the Batak people who make up the majority of the population of the region where we were headed. On rickety roads in an SUV (thank goodness for being able to hire cars with drivers in the field) we set off from Medan in the morning and had to break journey for the night midway at the town of Parapat on the shores of Lake Toba. The next day, after several hours’ onward journey we reached the small town where the office of APKLO was located. Now, I’ve forgotten the name of this town and can’t find it anywhere on the maps. It was that small. And our ‘hotel’, the most unfortunately and erroneously named ‘Bali Hotel’, which was the antithesis of everything Bali stands for, was definitely the worst place I’ve ever stayed at. And I’ve stayed at my fair share of weird places! The town was so small that we could walk it end to end in about 10 minutes. The farmers, of course, lived in even smaller villages around the town. And these were the farmers who grew some of the best coffee in the world. You and I pay anywhere upwards from 12-15 dollars for a pound of this coffee when it’s roasted, which means that it takes more than a pound of coffee to produce that roasted coffee. Even if you look at a pound of green coffee, the farmers were for years getting maybe a couple of bucks a pound for their coffee, maybe less. Right now coffee prices are soaring (at around two and a half bucks a pound on average for green arabica beans) and Sumatra coffees generally command a premium of some tens of cents above the average. But still, look at the degrees of difference between what the farmer gets and what you pay. Of course, there are many steps between the farmer’s green coffee production and your roasted coffee purchase, and each of those value adding steps costs money. But still, think about whether you would even have your delicious coffee if it weren’t for that farmer and if he deserves such a small part of its value, so that he always worries about food on the table, costs of schooling and other basic necessities.

So it was in this context-small town, basic living conditions, that I first encountered the wonderful farmers of APKLO. They were already Fairtrade certified, had sold a bit of coffee under Fairtrade terms and were using their first Fairtrade premiums to establish a revolving fund (so that they could take turns taking and repaying loans to fund their personal projects). As a cooperative, they were still nascent, learning how to function together, struggling to find enough Fairtrade buyers for the coffee from their cooperative (if they sold through their cooperative under Fairtrade conditions, they would get far better prices than if they sold to middlemen one by one). What they needed was for someone to support them with training for their cooperative, and help with market linkages. My colleague X and I gave them some training on cooperative management and also carried back some green coffee samples. We returned home more determined than ever to help APKLO and all other Fairtrade producer organizations (and the organizations who hoped to join Fairtrade) strengthen their ability to do business by improving their organizational functioning and their reach to Fairtrade markets. When we got back to office I asked X to send the coffee samples to our colleagues on the marketing side of Fairtrade, and I stepped up my efforts to look for funding to place a field officer in Indonesia (something I had not been able to do because funding was not available). It took me a year and a half to find funding, and in the meantime X kept going back and helping the groups in Sumatra himself (and we managed to help APKLO sell a container load of coffee just from that simple act of carrying back samples of their coffee to send on to our marketing colleagues, who then sent them on to buyers). When I raised enough funds we hired first one, and then another field officer to help APKLO and other producer organizations in Indonesia (the key difference being we could afford to have local people going to work with producers several times a year rather than having X go once or twice in that time span).

Over the years we saw APKLO gaining strength, selling more, and then getting weaker again. Training and market linkages could only take them so far. There were a number of reasons behind this, which I’m happy to elaborate on should anyone wish, but the fact is that there is no guarantee that any organization, no matter how good the intention of its members, or how deep the efforts to support it, will make it. In the end, a cooperative is a business, and one where there are hundreds, if not thousands of partners, who all have to work in concert. Tough in the best of circumstances, and we’re talking circumstances where people constantly face difficulties with resources.

What I can say is that APKLO gave it their all. In one of their crisis situations I still remember going down to visit them again with X and the field officer, and having intense facilitation sessions with them where they could clarify their situation and their choices for the way ahead. They reflected well, they chose the path that they saw fit, and they kept fighting for the survival of their cooperative. They kept going a couple of more years until they couldn’t go anymore. And then they fell apart. This doesn’t happen to every group-many of the groups we supported got stronger and stronger, while some had these challenges, as would any business start-up.

The farmers who made up APKLO are wonderful people, and what I hope more than ever is that they were able to join some of the other cooperatives that came up nearby, or are able to form a new group again. They are indeed far stronger working together than they ever will be as lone farmers working with middlemen. As cooperatives have developed, I have seen them able to increase their bargaining power, work together to improve the quality of their product, take on more roles in the value chain (sorting for quality, exporting their product themselves) and thus also able to earn more money as a result, progressing on the journey towards greater prosperity.

APKLO didn’t make it, but my friend Gani and other friends in APKLO sure did keep fighting for it. And when that didn’t work, Gani kept trying to find ways to improve his income and strengthen his capacity until he can rebuild his cooperative. In the past couple of years Gani has started a civet cat coffee production (look it up-it’s amazing), and now he has taken his first baby steps into an eco-tourism venture. Gani is facebook friends with me (yes, there have been many changes in infrastructure over the years and facebook is now reaching coffee farmers in Northern Sumatra) and he recently posted pictures from his first homestay visitors. Homestay means that tourists actually came and stayed with him in his home and lived as he lives (for a small fee). No extra hotel rooms, no spa, no room service. Just simple, farm living. Wonderful. I’ve asked Gani to send me more information so that I can post it for all of you who want to go stay with him sometime.

So there’s Gani, coffee farmer, coffee entrepreneur, and now, tourism eco-preneur. Inspiring.

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