Inspiration + Collaboration; How Smart Relationships Make Great Coffee

Nov 21, 2011 9:30 AM ET
Campaign: Business+

Prepared by Helen Russell, Co-founder & CEO Equator Coffees & Teas

What’s the connection between mushrooms and specialty coffee? And why would a coffee roaster buy a farm? Here’s why: inspiration + collaboration = great coffee. For more than 16 years Equator Coffees & Teas has worked to develop direct relationships with farmers who already produce exceptional coffee. We also invest in communities where coffee growers live, strengthening infrastructure and economies in the entire region. The end result: even better coffee. In some cases, we offer micro-loans to farmers for investment in their farms and equipment. We also partner with like-minded organizations like Sustainable Harvest to spark community development projects that empower farmers to grow better coffee and improve their standard of living. In a global industry like coffee, contacts on the ground are key to success. Through collaboration we’ve been involved in successful projects all over the world, from Africa to Central America.   Tanzania—Pulp to Protein  Hunger in coffee-growing communities is a pressing problem, sparking a real need for alternative food crops. Coffee growing communities often have a shortage of natural resources, but the pulp that surrounds the coffee beans can be the ideal medium for growing mushrooms. It’s a beautiful solution that lowers waste while producing nutritious food. In 2010 Equator and Sustainable Harvest jointly sponsored a training in mushroom production for the women of Mkatanga Village, Tanzania with Chido Govero, a young Zimbabwean woman who won the 2009 Sustainability Award from the Specialty Coffee Association of America for her work training orphaned girls to cultivate mushrooms. Six weeks later the women were successfully cultivating enough mushrooms to feed themselves and their families and sell surplus for cash at market. Today the women are growing the mushroom spawn in a building made possible by a $5,000 donation from the International Women’s Coffee Association. The women of Mkatanga Village have since traveled to Rwanda to train women at the famous washing station in Karaba and now, in Moshi, Tanzania, another group of women are successfully growing mushrooms. We could not have made this happen without Sustainable Harvest’s help on the ground.    Our "Chido's Blend" coffee, continues to fund Chido’s work. The coffee from Tanzania is also featured in this year’s Holiday Blend.    Finca Sophia—The road to great coffee  In 2007, we partnered with International Coffee Entrepreneur Willem Boot to purchase Finca Sophia, an un-planted coffee farm in Panama. We’ve visited hundreds of farms over the years, but as eye opening as our experiences were, they were temporal. We felt becoming farm owners was the next step in an authentic understanding of producing a truly great cup of coffee. Now we know first-hand what we’ve always known intellectually. Nurturing great coffee requires investment in the overall health of the workers and the land. Again, collaboration is key. Since purchasing the farm, we’ve partnered with architect Susan Church to build culturally appropriate, eco-friendly worker housing and Onil Stoves to install clean burning cookstoves that use less fuel and prevent health problems.   Santa Domingo, Nicaragua – Investing in Ecological Coffee The Santo Domingo cooperative’s 115 members grow truly ecological coffee. Certified Organic and Fair Trade, the co-op has worked hard to keep the forest canopy intact to produce their shade-grown coffee. Their practices are great for the environment, and have the potential to produce exceptional coffee, but can result in lower yields, at least in the short term. That’s why we’ve pledged a micro-loan to help the farmers improve organic yields and ensure their success in the long-term.   We share a common goal with Sustainable Harvest of helping producers compete and thrive in the specialty coffee market. Our joint relationships not only foster supply chain transparency, but also improve both environmental and economic sustainability in the coffee industry—ensuring the long-term success of the farmers and enhancing our ability to provide great coffee to our customers. Now that’s inspiring!