A Trip to Africa: Day 5 - Coffee Quality & A New Mystery
A Trip to Africa: Day 5 – Coffee Quality & A New Mystery
In January 2014, CEO & Co-Founder Paul Katzeff traveled to Africa to meet with two of our producer cooperatives. In this blog series, Paul shares his experience in Uganda and Rwanda.
In Mbale we stayed at a youth Hostel that has a Cafe that serves western style food that looks and tastes familiar. We had lunch there and met with the USAID Chief. It’s the kind of place where the average age of the people who hang out there is 20-something.
Peace Corps workers and backpackers can live there for $14.00 per night in a small private room or ‘Dormitory style’ for $5.00 per night, wake up in the morning and have a perfect Latte at the espresso bar in the lobby.
The story became different once we got into the world that the story was taking place. Theories are mental, the real world is physical.
Below is a picture I took after the Board Meeting we had with the Mirembe Kawomera Board.
What do we see in this picture?
1. Coffee in burlap sacks against the back wall with Peace Kawomera (PKC) lettering
2. A concrete floor with someone sleeping on a mat
3. A hand operated machine that is used to remove parchment from beans that have dried in the sun after the cherry pulp has been removed
4. White open sacks of coffee in parchment
This picture uncovered a different set of issues. Where did the 250 burlap sacks come from and where were they going? They were ready for export while our coffee was ready to be taken to the mill in town to be “readied for export.”
This was the warehouse under the offices where we met the Board for discussion of the issues we came to resolve (late shipment, blending of coffees, verification of the sources of the coffee). As an aside, the PKC offices were in a building that was only half completed. In 2010, USAID funded the building of a small central coffee washing station. Thanksgiving Coffee’s rebates to the cooperative provided their in-kind contribution to the Grant. Unfortunately, there was embezzlement of funds by the coop’s GM who ran off with funds, and the Founder of the Coop was removed from the Board. USAID withdrew its remaining funds – and the building remains built but without a completed interior (no doors on offices , no paint on walls, No tables or chairs) and remains a shabby edifice that one would find hard to be proud of.
If a coop delivers parchment coffee and there are more then 4% defects, they are deducted .02 cents per pound for each percent over 4%. The coffee in the open sacks had been delivered to the mill and tested, and showed 12% defects. That coffee had been rejected by the mill on our behalf – twelve pounds of defects per hundred makes for a very rough tasting coffee.
So, the sacks were brought back to the PKC warehouse to await my arrival – perhaps they thought I would have some “pull” at the Mill to get the coffee through. This was not exactly the way the problem was presented to me by the PKC management. They pointed fingers and said they were being picked on and that was why they wanted me, their buyer, to front for them at the mill. I thought this sounded legitimate, so I went to the GM at Gumutindo that afternoon to plead their case.
But what about the other 250 sacks along that back wall? Where did that come from and how did it pass defect inspection? And where was it going? Who had produced it, who had sold it? Who had purchased it and who had financed it? This was on my mind as we hit the road to Gumutindo’s dry mill, and it would play an important role in the days to come.
We arrived at the dry mill (Gumutindo) that afternoon with the Board members of the cooperative to witness the grading process. It’s a simple process – first, a long pointed metal tube is thrust into a sack of parchment coffee and withdrawn filled with a sample from that sack. This is repeated on another ten sacks, each providing a small sample (about a half pound). The multiple samples are aggregated into a single sample from which 250 grams are taken and placed in a moisture meter.
The sample must come in under 13% moisture. Then, 100 grams are put through a hand crank parchment removal device and the green beans are then winnowed to remove dust and small pieces of parchment. The beans are then clean, and ready to be inspected for defects, which are sorted out by hand and eye inspection. There was an air of anxiety as the head sorter picked at the 100 gram sample.
The defects are placed in a tray for all to see and agree on. Then they are weighed. This sample came out 9%. Again, too high for their Dry Mill to accept. Now there was a problem. I don’t want nine pounds of defects in every 100 pounds of coffee. There is no way I could make that coffee taste good enough to sell. The coop had to make a decision. They could pay the woman sorters to remove enough defects to get the coffee down to 7% or they could haul the coffee back to their warehouse 20 Kilometers to the north and sort out the defects themselves. Otherwise they would have to negotiate with the woman on a price for sorting out 2% from 30,000 lbs of coffee (600 pounds of defects).
At Gumutindo, the sorters are independent contractors. They sit under a giant shade tree at the mill and spend their days picking out defects, damaged bean by damaged bean. Unlike the sorters in Central and South America who sit at a conveyor belt that carries an endless stream of coffee beans past silent, sitting women who pick passing defective beans out of the rapids, these woman socialize all day and pick at their own pace. A much more civilized way to do tedious work.
The coop board members voted to hire the sorters and sent a member of the Board to the tree to negotiate a price for the sorting. About 300 feet from the defect assessment station the woman sat and sorted, each with their own sack to clean, knowing just how many pounds were needed to be culled from each sack to get it into an acceptable range.
So now we had the 2014 crop due to be shipped to the US and arrive in May, being in the last phase before being put on a truck to travel to Mombasa where it will head south past Madagascar and round the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of South Africa and head across the Atlantic to The Panama Canal and up the west side of Central America toward its destination, The Port of Oakland. With 2013 crop and its problems behind it, I turned back to solve the mystery of the 250 sacks that were unaccounted for, with 17 screen and zero defects. What was their story?
To be continued...
A Trip to Africa (series archive)
Intro – I’m going to Africa Day 1 – Arriving in Uganda
Day 2 – Dancing, Mango Trees & the Dry Mill
Day 3 – On the Road
Day 4 – Transparency, Trust & Relationships
Day 5 - Coffee Quality & A New Mystery
Day 6 – The Mystery Coffee’s Story
Day 7 – All Things Revealed
Day 8 - Making the New Transparency Work