Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Coffee for peace, and business too

What started out as an effort to promote peace in Mindanao eventually turned into a lucrative business both for the peace builders but also for the thousands of indigenous people in the island as they strive to meet the increasing demand for Arabica coffee in the world market.

“We went to the insurgency areas with the intention of teaching them about peace but we found it difficult to teach them about peace without first addressing the basic needs of the people,” Coffee for Peace, Inc. Marketing Manager Dawn Albert Pates told BusinessWorld.

Since 2008, Coffee for Peace has been providing training to the tribal communities at Mt. Matutum in Polomolok, South Cotabato, Mt. Apo in Kidapawanm North Cotabato and Mt. Kitanglad in Bukidnon.

Almost all of the coffee trees in the said areas have been wiped out by the Coffee Leaf Rust in the 1800s but to their surprise, the peacebuilders saw coffee trees still growing in the mountains of Mt. Matutum in 2008. They got some samples and sent it for cupping to one of Canada’s biggest coffee companies.

“They were not even aware we had Arabica Coffee in the Philippines but they liked the sample so much as it was of high quality,” Ms. Pates said. She added there is actually no coffee variety native to the Philippines although “we can create our own flavor depending on the soil where it is grown.’

There are four major varieties of coffee including Arabica, Robusta, Liberica and Excelsa. The Kapeng Barako from Batangas falls under Liberica variety. Mindanaoans however refer to any coffee produced in the mountains as “native” regardless of the variety.

Majority or 80% of the coffee being produced in Davao and in the country is Robusta since this is the variety being bought by companies like Robina and Nestle for their 3in1 coffee products. While Robusta is good for blending, she said, we are encouraging farmers to plant more Arabica since it is premium quality coffee that has less caffeine, less acidic and has a high 70% demand in the global market.

“We have an estimated 1,300 hectares of Arabica coffee from our trained farmers,” she said. Coffee for Peace now has trained a total of 27 tribal communities mostly from the B’laan tribe and 972 farmers.

“But we do not buy coffee from the farmers unless they have undergone peacebuilding training because we do not want development to cause disintegration.” The training includes coffee plantation management, peace and reconciliation and financial management. The trainees are not allowed to graduate unless they can produce quality coffee, preferably following the wet process as it is cleaner and more flavorful.

She said the country has not been exporting Arabica Coffee for the past 27 years but they had a breakthrough last 2011 when they exported Arabica from Mt. Matutum to Canada. “But Level Ground (importer) from Canada wanted 50 tons a month and we could only deliver 600 kilos,” she said.

Ms. Pates admitted that they could not even supply the local demand, much more the huge demand from the international market. They also have inquiries from Japan and Europe but they could not commit as of now until they see the first harvests beginning this year.

Coffee for Peace started training the communities in 2008 and they started planting only in 2009. With a gestation period of three years, she added, we hope to see their harvest by 2013 and 2014. She said there are existing coffee areas already so what they do is just rejuvenate the areas so that they produce better quality and yield. Following the correct process, each tree can produce 3 to 5 kilos; otherwise, it would only produce less than a kilo of coffee.

“The good thing about Arabica is that it can be intercropped with strawberry and carrots so the farmers have other sources of income while waiting for the coffee trees to bear fruit,” she said. And since the Arabica variety requires only 25% of sunlight, they also encourage the farmers to plant more trees and contribute to reforestation.

She said the crops planted alongside the coffee trees will influence the taste of coffee. They have buyers who ask them if their coffee was planted next to strawberries since they had a fruity taste, she added.

Ms. Pates said research and development is very crucial for the development of the coffee industry. As of now, the government has no model farm for coffee intercropped with other fruit trees. However, Dr. Rafael T. Mercado of the Department of Agriculture said coffee now has the government’s full attention due to recent developments. It is now considered one of the sunrise industries because of the emergence of coffee shops and the increasing demand in the local and world market.

She said since most of our coffee farms are in the mountainous areas we can easily match Ethiopia which is the top producer of coffee and the top producer of coffee for Starbucks. However, she said, we have to start right and teach our farmers to plant coffee the right way.

What makes Coffee for Peace unique is that it uses the business of coffee to promote peace in the communities. More importantly, it buys coffee at fair trade prices which means the farmers are actually paid the price of coffee that is prevailing in the market.

“As of 2012 the market price of Arabica was only P80-P90 per kilo but we were already buying from our farmers at P150 per kilo which is the fair trade price,” she said. We also train them how to sort their produce since it gets a higher market price. If they know how to price their products “hindi sila maloloko nga mga traders and middlemen.”

Coffee for Peace teach the coffee farmers to become businessmen and they do not give dole outs. Instead, they help tap government and other support when it comes to the provision of seedlings for the farmers.

She said that since the trainings, the communities are more motivated but they do not impose on them. Their houses have improved a lot, from light to heavy materials and they now have more initiative in seeking ways to develop the community, she said.

“Through our trainings the coffee farmers learn how to negotiate, mediate and solve problems,” Ms. Pates said. Our peace is profound—we do not seek to convert them but we do not hide the fact we carry the cross, she added.

The company’s aim is to make coffee an iconic product of peace so that when people drink coffee they are conscious where it came from and how the coffee was grown. Coffee for Peace has been operating a showroom for five years now and aside from its popularity as a source of organic coffee, the shop has also become a gathering place for missionaries and development workers. After all, Coffee for Peace is a product of the peacebuilding efforts of two Filipino missionaries from Canada who has since relocated to the Philippines.

The next time you drink your next cup of coffee, ask yourself if this coffee was bought following the fair trade concept. But if it came from Coffee for Peace, then you are assured that your coffee was grown not only for business but to establish peace in Mindanao as well.

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