The price we pay for entrepreneurship with Sibongile Rakgatjane

Thursday, 18 June, 2020

Sibongile Rakgatjane is a formidable human. She owns her own business, Mo's Bakery. She makes incredible cakes. It was the first cafe in Mamelodi. Like everyone she has been hit hard by this pandemic, but unlike everyone, she chooses to use the opportunity to challenge herself, to grow, to help others in this time. We are constantly inspired by her. We are sharing her columns with her permission in the hope that you too find some inspiration and guidance. 

Entrepreneurship manifests itself in many forms and shapes. I did not know I was an entrepreneur until later in my life though I always had a knack for selling and convincing people to stray my way. I casually went through my teenage years selling scones and other baked goodies at school to sustain myself. I did not know then that I was an entrepreneur even though I had this feeling deep in my gut that I never wanted to work for anyone but myself. The one question I despised all my life was when my teachers posed the question, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ First it was doctor, and then accountant and then civil engineer and then I just did not bother to answer the question because entrepreneurship was not fashionable and rarely talked about at school.

Post matric I started taking my business serious and started my formal entrepreneurship journey if I may call it that. I invested whatever little I had in it and gave my all. I thought I paid all the necessary dues to become a fully fledged entrepreneur. I mean, I had recently resigned from my job and went head in first into the world of business. The price was paid I thought. I am finally a businesswomen. An entrepreneur. Young, black and able *the many slogans we have as newbies in the life of the entrepreneur*.

Little did I know that there was also a mental price that I had to pay. 2020 was the year assigned for me to pay my psychological dues and I was admitted to a Psychiatric hospital mid February 2020. How does a whole business women, who opened the first coffee shop in Mamelodi land in a psychiatric ward?

A journal entry I made on 25 February 2020

“Hey, I am at my lowest… Here is the drill, my mental state has declined and I am waiting to be assigned a bed at a psychiatric hospital or general hospital, wherever the doctor gets a bed.

Summary of how I feel..

“You lose interest in talking to people close to you. You lose interest in food. You lose interest in engaging in public spaces… you lose interest in everything. The best days are when you are sleeping and your phone is off. Your mind does not think about anything constructive… you laugh a-lot, not because you are happy but because you are hiding how you truly feel.

The way you feel inside manifests itself in your being unproductive and not being effective and efficient at all.

I will connect as soon as I have built confidence and can truly face life head on!

But for now, I am a liability to all those close to me because I have nothing to say.”

After that journal entry I find myself sitting at Admissions in a Psychiatric hospital. The bomb hit me hard, tears rolling down my face. I didn’t even know what I packed in my bag and I felt like I am just existing.

How the hell did I get here? My life is sinking, my business is sinking, I feel like dying…

Diagnosis… Major Depression caused by Childhood trauma. WHAT!!!??? Childhood what?

Going back to my childhood I was molested, had to work from an early age, suffered from middle child syndrome, had an unemployed mother, lived in a family house, had no father and I think all odds were against me being a success. I had a lot of emotional issues growing up and instead of dealing with them, I soaked myself in school work, making sure I was a top achiever. I had a point to prove to myself. A point to prove to my mom, my molester, my family. I can and will be successful. I never allowed anyone to deter me from what I wanted and that made me suppress my emotions and live on adrenaline. I lived on hustle.

When Mo’s came into existence, I had a lot of setbacks. I would have depressive episodes but those where quickly fixed by a bank notification that says, money deposit into your account. I was on a rollercoaster ride. HR issues, production issues, quality issues. It never ended. Not breaking even and just making poor choices.

Remember, I am a high achiever. I do not get deterred and because business was deterring me, I went into depression over a period of years until 2020 my psychiatric dues were upon me. I could not self motivate myself anymore. I wanted it all to end. I felt like a failure in all areas of my life.

I kept thinking to myself, “I AM A FAILURE”

I spent time in hospital. I thought business was the reason for my depression but no, my childhood was the reason. My childhood was hindering with my progress as a business women, wife, mother, friend, sister and associate.

My psychologist and psychiatrist tore my childhood apart and broke me only to rebuild me and make me a better person.

A couple of days into my therapy, I woke up one morning and noticed there was a very beautiful garden filled with succulents however I was too depressed to notice any of that before. Finally my mind and vision was opening up to the possibilities of life and I started appreciating the plants.

As Entrepreneurs we carry so much weight on our shoulders and it gets too much.

Another journal entry I made a few days before being discharged.

“My name is Sibongile. Not Mo (thats my business), not the Mo (thats my business), not Bongi (thats a shortcut and can mean anything), my name is sibongile. My name is enough. Thank you!

Depression in whatever form it presents itself to you is very evil. It robs you off yourself, your thoughts, your relationships and the zeal for life.

It makes you forget that the sky is blue, that birds chip and makes you forget how food tastes. It dampens everything you set your mind to and it locks you in a mental hole. You want to leave the hole but the emotions inside want to camp there.

You want to sit and dwell on all the wrong and forget all the right.

Depression robs you off yourself… Fetch your life by seeking help… mental health is as important as physical health.”

I am confident to say I paid my psychological dues for entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship broke me and forced me to deal with all the bitterness and anger inside me that I hid by overachieving. I am now a better entrepreneur. A progressive entrepreneur who is emotionally aware of herself and her surroundings.

I am proud to say that I see a Psychologist and Psychiatrist because entrepreneurship will kill you if you do not take care of yourself emotionally, physically and otherwise.


Yours in business,

Sibongile Rakgatjane

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True Scrubs: A business with coffee roots

Thursday, 18 June, 2020

One of the stand out baristas at the 2019 SA Barista Championships held in Ballito, KZN was a young woman from Uitenhage, Western Cape. Her name is Sibahle Ngqiva and we've got a sneaking suspicion she's headed for great things. We chatted to her about her new business venture, True Scrubs.

You are a woman of many talents, spoken word, coffee and now an entrepreneur in a new space! Can you tell us a bit about how True Scrubs came to life?

True Scrubs came as a result of me having achy feet, I know a lot of baristas can relate to this because our work require us to be on our feet for long periods of time. So after searching for possible products that I could use, I discovered that good products are actually very expensive. As a result I decided to search for homemade ingredients and remedies, that I could use for my achy feet. I found Natural recipes that worked and made my own soak. It was only when I used the product on my grandmother that I thought of packaging it and selling the product. After she gave me great feedback on how it helped her relieve stress and sleep better, I realized that there could be a market and an opportunity for the product as a lot of people experience the same problem. So I started making soaks and scrubs that are not only affordable but that actually work as well, for people who work long hours and just want to de-stress or people who Just want some TLC on a budget.

Are you still slinging shots at all? I was still working at our roastery when we started the magazine so I know the hustle to start something new :)

Hahaha Yes! I definitely am still slinging some shots. I’ve actually been getting this question a lot lately, but yes I am still a barista. True Scrubs is still a side hustle for now even though it’s doing really well, the plan is to grow the business and hopefully expand it into a huge brand, but even then I don’t think that I’d stop pursing coffee. Like I said back in 2018 while presenting my set at nationals, the plan/ my dream is to one day own my own coffee shop. So you could say I’m working/pursuing on two dreams at the same time. :)

We are of course most interested in your coffee infused products ;) Can you tell us some of the benefits of coffee in your products?

Oh definitely! Coffee is a source of nutrients and is rich in anti-oxidants that help fight skin damage, It also has a lot of great benefits like:

-Making the skin smooth while reducing dark areas and blemishes.

-It enhances blood circulation

-It retains moisture and hydrates the skin

-It has antibacterial properties

-It helps reduce puffiness

-It can help with reducing the appearance of cellulite on your skin, if it is applied regularly. The caffeine content acts as a key to cellulite reduction.

-Anti-inflammatory benefits

•The great thing about coffee is that you can apply it in a lot of ways, it can be used as a scrub,soak and paste.

Where can people find your range?

For now you can only get order the product directly from me. You can find the business page on all the social media platforms at True Scrubs. We will be introducing an online store soon, so you can look out for that. :)

What is your current favourite product and why?

I actually have two favourite products. The detox bath soak and of course our coffee scrub. I’m constantly working and I’m always on the go, so by the time that I get home my body is tired and I want to relax. So I use the detox bath soak to soak up my body, it literally helps me de-stress and relax with no effort. I love the coffee scrub because it smells amazing and it also has a lot of benefits for your body and face, I like to use it as a mask because it removes dark marks and puffy eyes.

If you could give one piece of advice to people out there wanting to start their own business what would it be?

My advice to everyone would be to start small and to start where you are and build from there, because a lot of times people always think that it takes a lot to start a business and it does, if you don’t meet your plans and dreams realistically. I am not saying it’s easy because it’s not, but it is possible. I mean I started my business with tips that I earned and saved and I started my business . Like I always say in order for you to own the candy store, you need to start by selling the candy.

Got something to say? Then leave a comment!

New Look: Bean There Coffee Company's flagship store

Friday, 19 June, 2020

Bean There is celebrating 15 years of roasting and serving incredible African coffees to the people of South Africa. They are one of the coffee teams that lead by example and create an amazing work environment for every member of the team, in fact they have twice won Coffee Magazine's Team of the Year Award.

They have recently relaunched their packaging and they felt it wouldn't be right to leave their flagship cafe and roastery in Milpark at 44 Stanley without a revamp to match the eye-catching design of the the new look.

So, in one of the few stories of COVID-19 where the timing turned out ok, they have been busy building out the brand new interior at this iconic SA coffee destination during this weird lockdown time of our lives. They've now got not one, but two gorgeous brew bars and plenty of cozy nooks to enjoy your cup of ethically and directly sourced and traded African coffee.

To us, it says exactly what they're all about: warmth, authenticity and adventure. We absolutely cannot wait to visit. We miss you guys!!!

If you're in Joburg, they're open for beans and takeaway coffee, go pay them a visit.

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An ode to the Ceramic Cup

Thursday, 11 June, 2020

Dear Ceramic Cup,

Just look at these two cheeky ceramics, next to a tasty baguette, with a teaspoon no less! sigh.

Firstly, We know that during this Lockdown, you may have seen us using take-away cups in your absence, but let us assure you that you are not forgotten. Indeed, the feeling of cupping our frozen hands around your warm rounded form as you house our precious lattes, cappuccinos and cortados is a love affair never far from our thoughts.

Secondly, it’s not your fault dear Cup. Nobody could have seen this COVID nightmare coming and if anything, we were on a crusade before this pandemic struck, to rid take-away cups from our coffee lives forever!  Yet here we are, just grateful that our favourite café’s, Coffee shops and Roasteries are open once again to serve us coffee – even if it is on the roadside, through the takeaway hatch or served to us on the proverbial bargepole, lest we encourage the wrath of the authorities or worse, the social justice warriors on Disgracebook.

And what of our beautiful latte-art? Your perfectly formed bottom, your luscious curves that allow our silky, velvety textured milk to caress the contours of your perfect shape as it hits the espresso shot and marries into a luxurious and beautifully crafted coffee experience. I mean, have you tried to pour into a takeaway cup? Of course you haven’t, you don’t have any arms!   

We miss you dearly in all your shapes – from you, the petite little espresso trinket, so delicate and enticing to the voluminous latte vessel that radiates heat through our hands as we sip from you. You are loved and missed. We're sorry if we ever took you for granted.

Don’t forget about us either – we will soon be back in each others arms ( well, hands really, but it doesn’t really fit the theme)


Your daily admirers.   

Sweet blue ceramic goodness! And a little trendy cortado glass. Sigh.

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In the Beginning: The African Origins of Coffee

Thursday, 11 June, 2020

Words by Jake Easton
Illustrations by Fathima’s Studio


The following represents my research into one of the possible histories as to how humanity first enjoyed coffee and its spread to the rest of the world.

Up until 1990, and the advent testing for genetic lineage, the thinking was that coffee could have come from Yemen via Abyssinia (Ethiopia).

For the 100th anniversary of Probat (arguably the first name in roasters worldwide) they released a book titled, “The Heavenly Inferno” and in this salute to coffee and Probat some fairly astute German writers researched the hell out of coffee, its origin and the legend. This book was written in 1968 but was kept as fact until very recently...and it is this version of our history that urgently needs rewriting.

In an effort to address our world of coffee the Specialty Coffee Association of America & Europe released a great video on Youtube about the world coffee community coming together around our common cause. This video on coffee is a wonderful addition to the world sentiment towards our industry and our history; and, the best part of this video, for me, is the beginning of the video wherein the narrator says, “We don’t know who first made coffee”. This lone statement spells the end of the “History” of coffee and denotes the beginning of a real version of its discovery and its lineage. It may seem sacrilege to question the widely acknowledged story of how coffee was first brewed but hey, it’s coffee and there are no proofs other than those we posit.

The following is my theory and one that I put forward to PechaKucha Cape Town in 2015. As a researcher I love the idea that I can be proven wrong and that my theories might be incorrect so if you have any information I would like to hear it and include its message or use it to refute my claim (

Science combined with research into human existence; ritual traits & discoveries linked with Ethno-Anthropolgy have led me to discern the following statements regarding a possible history of coffee:

1. Coffee was discovered by a child.
2. Coffee was roasted and then made by a woman.

Further insight as a result of the above statements leads the following statements to be likely as a correlation to the above:
There was no Kaldi.
There was no sufi mystic.
There was no Coffee Man of Arabia.
There was no Imam who’s nose twitched.

Here’s one of the “Histories” as written by the coffee conquerors. “Coffee was discovered about 900 years ago by an Arabic, mystic goatherd”.

Not likely.

For over 5000 years children have been goatherds throughout the world. Why? Well it was a test of manhood, it was a way of keeping warriors nearby and, it was a way of ensuring tribal loyalty through having sons of other tribes guard your animals. In Europe, goatherds were always young men and women...unmarried. In Africa it was the same.

1000+ years ago a young boy or girl goes out with the goats and after a day or so on the hoof realises the goats are acting strange...well stranger than usual for a goat (which is for all intents and purposes possibly really strange). At this point the child realises that the goats were eating cherries from one of the older heirloom varietal from southern Ethiopia or northern Kenya (they can say which one very soon) and probably had a mild heart attack. (Ethiopia was, at this time, both pastoralist and agriculturalist.)

This child, boy or girl, knowing that their goats might die most likely took them all back to the tribal home and told the head of the tribe what had happened, and presented this elder with the cherries and the seeds.

Here’s where things get awesome.

+5000 years ago the world had wine, beer, oils from seeds, and later (from Egypt) yeasts for bread.

The Tribal leader when presented with the fruits and seeds and upon seeing that the goats/animals were not dead most likely either had a slave taste the food or tasted it himself. Upon receiving no ill effects gave the seeds to the community kitchen.

In these kitchens were all of the young men, their uncles and, the grandfathers...wait wait wait NO. Sorry, that’s totally incorrect and silly; we all know it’s the women that belong in the kitchen right? Well maybe not in modern times but back in the day in these kitchens were slaves, young ladies and the lower women of the tribe. And the woman in charge of this kitchen knew how to: crush seeds for oils, reduce a thing to get an extract, make wine, crush herbs, make bread, roast seeds and, make beer.

I posit that these amazing African women tried all of the above with the coffee cherry and the coffee seed when it was presented to them.

If you know how to make beer you know you roast the barley or hops, crush them and immerse them in boiling water to extract the flavours; and then, allow the ferment to occur with natural yeasts.

I imagine these African Women roasting the coffee seed and smelling its aroma and using it instantly in foods and in breads. Further I imagine these same women privately trying to make beer (the men’s domain at the time) and making the black elixir we all love so much. Roasting the seeds, crushing those same seeds, boiling water and drinking it as a private act for the kitchen and the women. Then, probably very shortly thereafter, offering this drink it to a lover or a loving husband in a ceremony designed to seduce (it does).

In modern Ethiopia there is the coffee ceremony, run by women and dating back hundreds of years. Further to this ceremony Ethiopia men were required to be able to provide coffee for their wives as a measure of their marital obligation.

So we can deduce that an African Child (boy or girl) discovered the Coffee Cherry as being edible via their goats. As a further measure of logical deduction and ethnographic historical data we can discern that an African Woman Roasted and made the First Cup of Coffee.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to African Women.

Let me be the first, “To every woman of African descent (that’s all of you by the way), I thank you for saving my life and the lives of every person here at Tribe by inventing this amazing drink and giving it as a gift of love to those men who merit your labours.”

An African child discovered the coffee cherry.
An African Woman discovered roasted coffee and the drink coffee.

Thank you. (*Drops the Mic*)

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A Shot in the Dark 2020: Preliminary Round Coffee Focus

Friday, 5 June, 2020

Jesús and the team at Vulcan Coffee, through our partners Sevenoaks Trading, have supplied the incredible beans being used in the Preliminary Round of A Shot in the Dark sponsored by Genio Roasters.

Name of Farm: Vulkan Coffee

Name of owner/head Farmer:  Jesús Recinos 

How long have you been farming coffee?

I’m part of the 5th generation. Personally, all my life, I come from a family that has dedicated is entire lifetime growing coffee. At least 120 years. 

In what region is your land and how many hectares do you look after?

It’s located in the Eastern side of Guatemala. The farm is segmented in several blocks distributed around our town: Moyuta, Located in Jutiapa prefecture.  We care for about 150 hectares.

What is the focus on your farm? Commercial/specialty?

Our focus is taking advantage of the climatic and particular soil characteristics we have in Moyuta to produce high value/quality coffee in order to inspire all of our collaborators, workers and family. For example, big part of the farm is located around the slopes of the inactive Moyuta’s Volcano which offer coffee plants high number of different substrates and minerals to create exceptional coffee profiles. Linked to this focus is always protect, preserve and develop our life business being conscious with the nature, working around ecological sustainability of our lands and the nature that surrounds them.  Aggregate to this that the beach (Pacific Ocean) is 45 minutes from Moyuta. So, we want to improve the economic development in the region as well using the advantages of the lands. Our mainly focus thus is Specialty. 


Which varietals grow best on your land and have you had any issues with leaf rust or pests?

No questions that it is Geisha, however, all varieties are threaten by leaf rust.

How have your processing methods changed over the years? What is your main method of processing?

Barely has changed over the years. Recently we have taken several coffee lots to try and sell different processing methods (Natural and Honey) but currently the market demand on us in considerably focused on the full washed method. About specific considerations of washed processing, I may say this processing method has been improved over the years in our region, all the machines and flow process in our wet mills have been optimizing around water usage. Our main coffee processing method is washed.

How many people are supported by producing coffee on your farm?

In harvest season about 150 people. And off harvest season 40 people. 

Have you been affected by the drop-in stock market price of coffee?

Yes.  No questions that our productions depends on that unfair C-Market.

Has the trend of more green buyers and coffee roasters visiting farms helped your business?

Yes. This one of our best selling tool now, been known by good buyers who really understand the importance of let us survive in this agricultural activity.

What do you wish coffee consumers knew about what it takes to grow coffee?

 Teach and show them all the hard work it takes to bring coffee from our lands to their cup. In my personal opinion, specialty coffee shouldn't be value /linked in the commercial coffee market.

What does coffee mean to you, personally?

Simply: Life, my family sustainability, a modus vivendi. My life turns around coffee. I consider myself a coffee addict in the good way.

History of the Farm

Located on the mineral rich slopes of the Moyuta Volcano, the Recinos family has owned and operated a few coffee farms since 1880, carefully studying and improving the agriculture, and passing it through the generations, the fifth now, enabling them to produce this exceptional quality coffee.

Papa Lencho, who was the precursor and first generation of all of the family history, came to Guatemala from Italy in 1880. Nowadays, most of our small collective of family farms are located on the non-active Moyuta Volcano, just 140km south-east of Guatemala City. In the late 1980's (100 years after the farms were founded) Jesus was recognized as the leader in the field of estate grown, single origin, specialty grade coffee. He is an agronomist with a special knowledge of soil fertility and plant nutrition.

Jesus is very proud of what he has inherited from the family, and is committed to continue everything at the highest level, and offer the best of Moyuta.

The Recinos family feels a sense of pride, and has been working all of their lands for five generations now, and want to keep this feeling for future generations. They have a deep care for the land’s wellness and its surroundings. They show special care for the environment, applying an ecologically friendly and sustainable way of production, especially responsible pest, disease and weed control.

All of the farms receive a good dose of morning sun, and because of the proximity to the Pacific Ocean, they also receive a permanent cool wind that makes the coffee trees blossom evenly, and allow for a perfect ripening. In the early 1940’s Pedro Ibanez, a poet born in Moyuta, referred to the town as ‘The Nereid of the Pacific’. The influence of the nearby sea makes for consistent rainfall patterns during the rainy season (around 1000mm per year) and during the dry season the coffee trees get moisture from abundant amounts of dew at night.

The elevations make for slow development of the beans, and concentrate the flavours from bloom to harvest, which takes approximately 9 months.

Finally, the volcanic soil contains a wide range of nutrients not found naturally in other places and is abundant in phosphorus, which is a key element for root development.

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A Shot in the Dark 2020: Finalist Coffee Focus

Thursday, 4 June, 2020

We are very fortunate to have Specialty Coffee Exchange sponsor some delicious coffees for our A Shot in the dark Finalists.

This is the coffee that the roasters will submit as the single origin:

Bugoyi Fully Washed – Rwanda

Bugoyi Central Washing Station (CWS) is managed by our partner Baho Coffee. Baho employs strict quality controls from intake to drying to ensure the cleanest coffee possible. The high altitudes of 1,500 to 1,900 metres above sea level of the farms delivering to the station provide ideal growing conditions for high quality coffee. The altitude, along with the careful sorting and processing at Bugoyi CWS creates an excellent coffee that is clean, with a full body and expressive fruit notes.  

Bugoyi CWS

Bugoyi CWS sits on the shores of Lake Kivu. Its location is more than just picturesque. The winds blowing off the lake help to dry the coffee evenly. Baho Coffee purchased the station in 2016 and has already partnered with around 5,000 farmers in the surrounding area, a testament to their exceptional working standards. 

This is one of the coffees that the roasters will use to make a blend. The other is the original Guatemala from Sevenoaks Trading that was used for the preliminary round.

Blending CoffeeUganda Bugisu Sironko Carico

Location: Bugisu region along the Kenya border.  

Varietal: Arabica SL34

Soil type: Volcanic soils on the slopes of  

Mt. Elgon, in eastern Uganda.

Screen size: 15

Altitude: 1300-1900 MASL 

Harvest Period: August – February.

Processing: Washed 

This Direct trade partner takes pride in every step of the journey. We love the Characteristics and versatility of this coffee as it's a simple coffee to roast and more importantly a great coffee to blend with. With typical Ugandan Bugisu flavors of Citrus, sweetness and Earthiness this coffee can be roasted and enjoyed across most roast profiles and is enjoyable in most brew methods.

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The Education of a Millennial in East Africa

Friday, 5 June, 2020

Words and Images by Benjamin Jenkin

I remember when I used to love specialty coffee. Whilst the range of flavours pulled my coffee-to-milk-ratio down that well-trodden latte to cortado path, I was really in love for another reason. Specialty coffee wasn’t just a tasty drink, this coffee had an identity and it had a face. 

As a child growing up in 90’s Britain, I was keenly aware of my privilege. Something I always heard about the British is that we say “sorry” too much. This was true for me, I couldn’t wrap my head around why what was “normal” in my life, was not for so many others.  

As I turned into a semi-sentient teenager so began a life of chronic do-goodery. The details of which I will save you from to avoid some perverse sense of self-aggrandisement, but there was volunteering, donating blood, even digging trenches for water pipping in Tanzania for (literal) pity’s sake. Specialty coffee fitted perfectly into this, because I could trace my single origin beans back to a specific geography - I could now use my flat white consumption for world saving! Excellent!

My specialty coffee love affair was at its pinnacle when in 2016, I paid ten pounds (between 180-200 rand) for a single cup of AeroPress Burundian coffee. Pretty soon after this, everything fell apart. 

Okay, I’m being dramatic. I knew that in that cup was a brew of London rent, living wage employment, flying the coffee in from a Danish roaster, multiple players in the supply chain and then, and only then, the price paid for the coffee. But, after moving to Burundi in 2017 and working in East African coffee since I have found that we need to perform a similar taxonomy on green production in order to establish what farmers are getting. This article attempts to do just that.

Coffee Production – the numbers of it all

I’m going to start by doing something I hate. Africa is not homogenous, but for this article I will try to make it so. Currently I am writing in Tanzania about my experience in Uganda, I’ve seen things here that wouldn’t make sense over there. So these are just general rules – I’d always recommend roasters and drinkers to spend more time in the details, but unfortunately that is beyond this article’s word count. 

It always takes me some time to wrap my head around the numbers of coffee production. 

A coffee producer is someone who takes a coffee cherry and turns it into a green coffee bean. In countries like Colombia a farmer may likely also be a producer, in that they both grow coffee and own their own means of production. In contrast in a country like Uganda, a single farm of between 50 – 500 trees does not produce enough surplus to invest in processing equipment.

Once the rains come and the coffee starts to ripen, the farmer will pick the coffee cherry and transport it to a nearby washing station (either privately or cooperatively owned) to sell by weight. After this, the cherries are usually depulped, fermented, washed clean and dried for around 20 days. 

The majority of the weight of coffee is not in the bean itself, rather either in the weight of the cherry in which the bean sits or in the moisture that is lost during drying. Numbers change from producer to producer, but a rule of cherry weight to green weight I’ve heard a number of times is 10kg of cherry to every 1.5kg of green coffee, or 6.6kg of cherry to every kilo of green (this is to “all grades”, if you are hand sorting insect damage and broken beans, or pulling out a particular grade AA,AB,PB – you’ll need even more cherry to produce a kilogram!).

We know there is a coffee price crisis. Many commentators much smarter than I have written at length about the New York(NY) C price, what it is and how it works (google coffee price crisis for extra reading). 

Briefly, the NY C Price is supposed to be an indicator of the current value of a pound of green arabica coffee. If there is lots of green coffee in the world market the price comes down to make it more appealing to buy, and if there is less coffee in the market the price will go up. This market mechanisms has been influenced by speculators who buy “future” lots of coffee at a given day’s cheap price, in order to sell that contract on for a profit when the price of coffee has gone up (say when Brazil’s production has a bad year). This system creates demand (for contracts) where perhaps there isn’t (for cups of coffee).

In July 2018, the NY C price fell below a dollar a pound (lb). Over the last year the price has not recovered, spending most of the time in the mid-low 90 cent range. This month (November) we have seen a slight recovery with the C holding at around 102 cents. 

102 cents per lb of green is roughly 225 cents for a kilogram.

Imagine an ideal world where a coffee washing station has zero costs. So no electricity bills, no maintenance of equipment, no wages to pay (oops, this doesn’t sound very ideal now, right?!), and the only cost was the cost of cherry per kilo at the very beginning of the process. Assuming that the market will buy coffee for 225 cents a kilogram of green coffee - in order to break even, that station could only pay at most 34 cents per kilo of cherry. 

If you are a smallholder with 200 trees, how many kilos of cherry can you expect to get? Again, there is no industry wide rule for this. This all depends on the climate, the age of the trees, the quality of husbandry, etc. I’ve seen a range of less than a kilo per tree go all the way up to 10 kilos per tree. The later I’ve never seen in person, it’s the stuff of model farms with extreme levels of expensive inputs. A yield of 3 kilograms per tree is really good going in my experience. At this yield, a farmer of 200 trees could expect 600 kilograms each year. At the above cherry price that’s a payment of 216 dollars. That is once a year, for many African origins (a few places like Kenya have a second and smaller fly crop each year). 

For a few reasons (mills have large costs to consider and farmers could be getting as little as 500g per tree) this estimate is probably too high and still not enough to live on. A 2017 Fairtrade study into the living standards of smallholders in seven coffee producing nations, found that only in one of which (Indonesia) were farmers, although certified, found to be on average compensated with a living wage. 

Cooperative Production as a solution? 

The cooperative model, the production of coffee through collective ownership of equipment, gives the opportunity for the farmer to benefit from the value adds of processing. The first recorded cooperative was a group of 28 weavers in 1844 in the UK. Co-operatives have since become common throughout East African coffee production. Despite a quarter century career in the design, implementation and support of the model – “its not a silver bullet” warns Andy Carlton co-founder of Zombo Coffee Partners. 

Andy, also a Brit, started out assisting with seamstress cooperatives in Zimbabwe before helping TWIN, a fair trade coffee organisation set up cooperatives across Rwanda, Burundi, the DRC and Uganda.  

Zombo is a rural area of western Uganda, near the border with the DRC. In 2015, in conjunction with Twin and Oxfam, Andy undertook a pilot programme to see if this region (also known as the Nile Highlands) could produce specialty coffee. Farmer groups constructed three cooperative microstations* – Leda, Culamuk and Pamitu. Despite intense rainfalls this year, which usually affects coffee quality, the stations produce lots scoring between 85 and 87.5 points on the SCA cupping score. 

Unfortunately, the funding for the project was pinned to a single year and despite the promising results each of these stations struggled when the support ceased. This exposes one of the biggest weaknesses to the cooperative model: the desperate need for finance. Without finance the mill cannot afford to buy cherry. Because of this, in the two following years (2016, 2017) these microstations did not produce enough coffee to export. *A micro station is a washing station on a smaller scale usually costing a tenth of what a larger station requires. Farmers “buy in” to the microstation by providing materials, labour or both.

A second criticism often levelled at cooperatives is about quality. Producing high quality coffee requires a lot of hands on work – which requires technical as well as financial support. A team of workers need to separate the defective cherry, any under ripe, over ripe and insect damaged. These workers continue to remove defects after pulping and whilst the coffee is drying, a hand processed of constant agitation to assure uniformity.  

The final criticism of the cooperative model is a lack of access to markets. With regard to coffee, marketing is more than social media strategy, establishing a consistent off take of coffee is the definition of sustainability. Cooperatives often do not have the international connections to sell their coffee. They can become reliant on the multinational exporters who can drive a tough bargain. This is another reason cooperatives struggle to apply for finance, grow and sustain their operations. 

Zombo Coffee Partners (ZCP)

After years of tailoring solutions to these problems, Andy created Zombo Coffee Partners to strategically target these three areas of weakness. 

He cashed in his personal savings to provide the original three (which has since grown to eight!) stations with the working capital they needed. With this support the stations are flourishing – Pamitu’s production has lept 900% in the past year. 

ZCP also brought on Aggrey Chombe as a partner. Aggrey was born in the Zombo region and has set up his own NGO which has helped farmers through the promotion of sustainable agricultural practices. Combining Aggrey’s ties to the community, with Andy’s coffee knowledge – ZCP travels each week to provide technical support to these microstations. 

Finally ZCP serves as a marketing partner for these stations. Co-founder Jason Ferriman is managing the sales office in Kampala and can be found running around trying to sell this coffee. They attend World of Coffee events, African Fine Coffee Association events – all to best publicise the coffee coming from the Zombo region. 

 When ZCP started to work in the region two years ago a smallholder coffee farmer had two options. Sell to a big multinational operating in the area for 20 USD cents per kilo, or sell to the other big multinational who are buying coffee processed at home for 18 USD cents per kilo. With ZCP pre-financing support, microstations were able to pay 27 USD cents in 2018 and 37 USD cents in 2019! This is on top of an operating levy paid to the microstation to employ staff for the season. 

ZCP operates on a transparent basis and opens their books for anyone looking to start a relationship. They have a set cost of production figure which combines their prefinance for purchasing cherry and running the station. This figure includes ZCP’s cost of running its office in the Zombo region, which includes the costs of maintaining and running a vehicle to the stations each week. 

ZCP has committed to sharing a third of the profit on each exportable lot with the farmers. We are currently contracting a coffee at a price that an extra 25 US cents will be owed to the farmers – another 4 cents when translated back into cherry price. This commitment is regardless of whether the company makes a profit. Last year it declared a loss, but farmers from Culamuk and Ajere still received this reward for quality. 

ZCP has in a very short time had a massive impact on the Zombo region. Farmers who once had little choice to sell cherry at 18-20 cents are now receiving close to double this. With the profit share farmers are rewarded for quality, and this has the potential to increase farmer earnings considerably. As the volumes of the microstations grow, ZCP’s fixed costs become less of a burden and more money will flow to the bottom line, and ultimately farmers. 

When we visit East Africa, we often come back with stories of individual success or trial. This is understandable, these stories are inspiring. But as the coffee world becomes more interested in transparency and sustainability we must meet this interest with figures. Through “Transparent Trade” and’s “Pledge” – we are discovering more and more about how much roasters pay for coffee. This is important because we have seen that at the current C market price, is not good enough. But this development is just one step in the journey, in East Africa what roasters are paying is not what small holders are receiving. 

I started the article saying that I used to love specialty coffee and truthfully, I still do. So my cup of 10 GBP AeroPress didn’t save the world, but it was a step on my journey; a journey where I get to meet people like Andy, Aggrey and Jason. It’s individuals like these that are changing our industry for the better. It’s a privilege to be associated with them. 

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