Monday, April 7, 2014

IndieGoGo (Part II: The Particular)

As I said, we’ve got this IndieGoGo campaign to raise funds for the Organic certification program in general and a new scheme to connect our farmers with formal credit markets in particular.

The particular part with the Credit Union will work thusly: For a handful of farmers we know and trust (say up to about 30) we are going to offer the chance to become members of the local Cooperative Credit Union. The support we get through IndieGoGo will cover the cost of membership fees for these individuals and allow us to open a savings account with something between $100 and $200. This money will not be immediately available to the farmer, but will act as collateral for the farmer to borrow against.

Bam. We just knocked out two huge barriers to access to formal credit markets: Entrance fees and collateral requirements.

If that were all, this would be a terrible plan. People would borrow the money, never pay it back, the collateral would be lost. Thankfully, this ain’t the first rodeo our Credit Union partners have been to. The managers and loan officers work with members in the same position as our farmer-partners every day. They work with them to create financial calendars so that they know when money comes in and goes out of their households, develop saving strategies together, and follow-up with anyone who takes out a loan. In fact, they follow up to a degree that I would definitely find annoying but is considered neighborly here in Oku. With this additional support, on top of what Mocha Joe's already provides, it should be a snap for our cherry picked farmers to keep good on their financial obligations.

I keep saying Credit Union, but I should maybe say Unions, because we are going to partner with two: one in Oku, one in Mbessa. For the most part their policies are the same, but there are a few key differences and those differences will be reflected in our strategies in the two villages. For example, the Mbessa Credit Union has a pretty exceptional interest rate for savings accounts, 0.5% per month. That’s right, Per Month. When I heard that I seriously considered moving my paltry 401k to the Mbessa Credit Union. Meanwhile, their interest rates on outstanding loans is higher than in Oku, so for our Mbessa members we are going to encourage more savings and downplay the loans. We’re adaptable and on the ground, we can do that kind of thing.

Time is getting short for our campaign and we’re pretty close to hitting our goal, but not quite. I encourage anyone to check out our page and if you have contributed already, thank you so much. We’re going to do the absolute best we can with the money and faith you’ve given us. If you haven’t contributed but are considering it, go ahead and do it now. Any amount will help. Thanks in advance.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

IndieGoGo (Part I: The General)

Full Disclosure: I work for Mocha Joe’s Coffee Roasters in Brattleboro, VT. I also happen to be Director of Organic Certification (though not for very long), so I’m not at all neutral on the topic of funding this program which Pierre and Mocha Joe’s staff cooked up several years ago.

All that being said, you should go to IndieGoGo right now and support Mocha Joe’s in supporting Organic coffee farmers in Oku and Mbessa.

Believe it or not, we’re not exactly profitable yet. In time we will be; we have no desire to have to come back to the well time and again for people to support our effort to improve the leverage of small-holder coffee farmers. For now (and probably the next year or so) Mocha Joe’s Organic Growers is operating in the red. We’ve been able to do that thanks primarily to the largesse of our owner and founder Pierre. While that’s awesome, we know we can do more and get to that elusive sustainable sweet spot with some help. Thus, we’ve launched a campaign to raise funds for the Organic certification program in general and a new scheme to connect our farmers with formal credit markets in particular.

The general part is to give us some breathing room as we expand the program towards a sustainable level. This year we nearly doubled our organic production over our first year. With that kind of growth we should be getting to a sustainable level within about 3-4 years and in each of those years we’ll be closing the gap so that we’re not hemorrhaging money as we go. We have a couple of tactics that are going to help ensure this:

1. Supplying our farmers with new trees. We have an aggressive nursery program in the works that is going to help our farmers replant their fields with young, healthy, disease-resistant stock. Within 5 years this alone should boost the organic production a significant percent.

2. We’re going to favor slightly larger farmers in the future for entrance into the program. These ‘larger’ farmers are still small-holders (I’m yet to meet a farmer in all of Oku/Mbessa with more than 3-hectares under coffee) but small-holders who can produce at least 100 kg of coffee. A farmer who is putting in the appropriate work with their fields should be able to produce 100 kg with less than 200 coffee trees on about 0.2 hectares, so this is no great feat. In the meanwhile, Jude and I (or at least Jude) will continue providing technical support to those smaller farmers to help them raise up to a more tenable level of production.

So your support will get this program that much closer to the point of sustainability. From here, we continue carrying the ball until it starts supporting itself. Thanks for all the support in advance.

(Pssst…I want to point out that the $30 gift of 1 lb of coffee is pretty close to the basic price Starbucks was charging for their own version of Oku coffee [some of which comes from Bafoussam, about a 4 hour drive from Oku]. Not for nothing, ours is better…and organic.)

Friday, February 28, 2014

Meanwhile, back at the mill...

The milling season is back in full swing and that means I have to leave Oku a few times to visit Bali. We haven’t moved our organic coffee from the village storehouses yet, so there isn’t too much for me to be paying attention to down here, but I’m using the few days I’ve been down here to introduce Jude to the place and make sure that all the improvements we settled on following our inspection are in place. It’s actually pretty minimal this year since we took care of all the problems noted during our first inspection over the past year. Maybe the most notable change is that we added a polisher to our milling line, so when the coffee finishes having the parchment taken off, it is run across a flat screen that rubs off the silvery skin you find on unroasted coffee. There are a few benefits to this:

1. It’s a little bit prettier for wholesale customers
2. There is a little less debris left over after roasting as the silvery skin becomes a bit of papery fluff during the process
3. Sorting is easier

Number 3 is definitely the most important to me. Removing the silver skin gives the coffee more uniformity and makes identifying defects simpler. Thus, our coffee is going to be cleaner and our sorters are able to get through a bag of coffee a little quicker than they would otherwise. Since they are payed by the bag that translates directly into more money per day (not necessarily more money though, since that depends on how much total coffee we process).

I shouldn’t underplay those first two benefits, though. They represent a commitment to quality that makes me proud to be working for Mocha Joe’s and our partner Alpine Coffee, Ltd. This is the third year I’m seeing this mill operate and it has gotten better and better. Whether you’re in Cameroon or the US there’s a lot to be said for a business that doesn’t get complacent with being ‘good enough’. In the long run, good enough never stays good enough for long and that is going to be more and more true in buying and selling coffee from Cameroon as the profile of the region grows (which it is doing). We welcome the competition.

Thursday, February 13, 2014


Back in the US one of my hobbies was home-brewing beer. I was never the most prolific brewer, but could usually get out 3 to 4 batches in a year, some of which were pretty good (my Spring Lager was great) while others were a bit ill-conceived (Beet Beer doesn’t even sound good on paper). In either case, I’m happy to be seeing a similar spirit of adventure and experimentation in the kitchens of some of our farmers who are taking the initiative to roast their own coffee.

In January, we showed all of our farmers how to roast coffee using equipment they already have available to the (i.e. a stove/fire pit, an aluminium pot, and a spoon). Normally, after training I will make a program with a few farmers to try out the techniques we covered, so following roasting I made a date to meet one man before market day so that we could roast up some of his beans. I was a little delayed that morning, so I arrived at his house about an hour late to have him surprise me with beans that he had already roasted. That was unprecedented. For almost any other method or technique that we have done training on, the farmers I know are usually so nervous about trying something new that I absolutely have to be there to get the ball rolling. That’s not something I’m proud of, in fact I think it’s a major weakness of my training methods that I seem to intimidate people into thinking the stuff I’m showing them is beyond their own grasp (hopefully Jude can do a bit better in this vein).

Since then, I have had a handful of farmers show me the coffee they roasted themselves. What is it about roasting coffee that makes it so accessible? I can’t say for sure, but I could give some guesses.

1. It’s low stakes. Coffee isn’t expensive, roasting isn’t a huge time investment; it can be done at home so you don’t feel like you’re wasting time, and if it goes terribly wrong, a bit of milk and sugar can always salvage the results (we’re comparing with NesCafe, so not too high a bar to start with).

2. It’s familiar. Roasting coffee and roasting peanuts turns out to have almost the exact same directions (crack shells, sort out bad ones, heat pot, roast to taste) even if the nuances are pretty different.

3. It’s fun. It’s not work really, it’s just plain fun.

Could that be a formula for getting more activity following our trainings? Probably...though I’m not sure it’s feasible for every new idea we trot out. Organic pesticides and manures aren't really low stakes in either time or money. Most techniques we are promoting are pretty foreign (installing grass bunds comes to mind) and a departure from the familiar. As far as fun, well, that’s in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Special Guest Blog by Jude


When Kevin B. announced his replacement in Mocha Joe’s Organic Growers, farmers and other fans of the company thought their future will be bleak.

Who is your replacement?

Is he up to the task?

Has the program come to an end?

What about the improved standard of living I’m enjoying since the inception of this program?

These were some of the questions posed by the beneficiaries of the program. He is gone and I have come.

My name is Jude, a male Cameroonian from Nkambe, N.W. region. I am the ‘Obscure’ replacement for Kevin, outgoing Director of Organic Certification for Mocha Joe’s organic growers. Since January 1st 2014, I have been working in Oku with Kevin in the ongoing program. My mission is to foster and support sustainable increases in the productivity of organic coffee within the overall objective of the program (to ensure that coffee produce by Mocha Joe’s organic growers in Oku is 100% organic). In serving this mission, I will therefore concentrate on integrating and/or implementing organic farming policies, monitoring and evaluating  farmers activities, building their capacities on nutrient control and management, record keeping, encourage the transfer of skills and propose more cost effective management strategies to achieve workable solutions to farmers problems. In addition, I will create a longitudinal data to foster research on organic coffee farming in this community, write reports, and guarantee a balance between organic coffee production, the environment, and the sustainable growth of the company, amongst others.

Living and working in Oku with local farmers is great, there is always something to do and you have a good connection to the people, thus giving me the opportunity to share my sound theoretical and practical knowledge and experiences with farmers as well as learning from them.

Before being recruited into the company, I managed a family organic farm. I am therefore optimistic that I will improve my skills and those of farmers in this domain. Thanks to the team of well experienced staff I work with, I have also learned a lot, most especially about the inner processes and the work of a big company which is very important to me. Thanks to my encounter with Mr. Philip, Cameroon’s Director, and Mr. Pierre Capy, Director and Owner of Mocha Joe’s company Ltd.

Since I am here, I can see a lot of progress in and around the community with respect to the ongoing program. For example, over 50 coffee farmers who received training were certified as organic producers in my presence during the 1st ever general meeting held in this community and more than 150 other farmers are anxious to validate their training program in order to be certified. This shows me the great potentials in this program and the due achievements of my predecessor Kevin B and the entire crew, as well as the task ahead of me.

Will he achieve the task?

I guess this question is running through your mind. Never mind…time will tell.

Generally speaking, life with ruralites (local farmers) is often not very easy. However, the program offers a good opportunity to live and work with people who have similar problems and give them solutions to their problems as well as instilling self-confidence and the ability to solve their problems independently.

My visits to some organic farms have shown that many of them are doing very well in the program (e.g. managing their farms organically). Indeed, it is good to see the success of the program and it motivates me to continue my work.

I believe in the vision, mission, goals and objectives of the better management of every institution (company) and the proper functioning of its resources for the benefit of humanity and also working to create a better society free from environmental glitches. With time, we can achieve all those goals and more.