Wakuli and quality

One of our strongest convictions is that quality is the way out for farmers. But also for coffee lovers. Because who doesn't want to drink better tasting, diverse, exciting coffee?  Everyone! A lot of people just don't know it yet!

For farmers, quality means a way out of the endless gridlock and unbeneficial status quo that the industry seems to be so happy with. Virtually everyone invested in the coffee industry agrees: Farmers need to earn a higher income and nature shouldn’t get such a brutal beating. We just don't agree on how. The only way that Wakuli believes this would work and will stand the test of time, is if it is accomplished through quality improvement. Because through quality improvement, with a required big bump in the demand for that higher quality, we can start working our way up. 

So what does higher quality mean and how are we accomplishing that increase? Wakuli’s sourcing manager Kerissa Narine explains:

Quality increase for price improvement
It is the most obvious way to increase the market value of farmers’ coffee. Having a distinguishable difference between the products a farmer offers increases their value proposition, and calls on the market to place different values on these products. In a market dominated by big buyers pushing for the lowest prices, this is the challenge.

We believe that by focusing on quality, farmers and cooperatives could have more control over the added value they create. Paying a higher price is not just down to the goodwill of the end buyer, but more importantly, it is a fair remuneration for the upgraded customer experience. As the appetite for specialty coffee grows, this becomes a more lasting route to fair prices and sustainable income, not only for farmers but for all the hands leading up to the final quality of the cup.

Quality as an instrument for price stability
With a higher quality coffee, apart from attaining a higher price, farmers are also able to access a better market. Buyers who focus on specialty coffee are more likely to value transparency, a fair supply chain setup, and the impact coffee farming has on the surrounding environment. Customers become more aware and engaged in retaining the value of coffee. This gives way to a healthier business relationship between origin and purchasing countries, with more long term planning, cost-based pricing, and overall a shared approach to future-proofing the industry. This is in stark contrast to the commodity approach, which exclusively focuses on short term gains and primarily benefits higher income actors outside of producing countries.

By specifying the exact traits of a coffee that give it its inherent “quality”, we are in a better place as an industry to develop a pricing strategy that correlates both to consumer appreciation as well as practices at origin. Quality becomes more quantifiable and interchangeable between markets, origin scenarios, and year on year.

Quality for product/flavor innovation
Coffee flavor is extremely diverse, and also threatened. The coffee market increasingly facilitates volume-focused production, while small-scale production no longer seems to be viable in an increasing number of regions. Apart from moving towards a coffee world dominated by wealthy estates, we are also limiting the range of terroirs and varieties that end up in our cup. With innovation in the hands of a few actors, we don’t get to explore nearly as many of the processing methods or farming techniques that still remain untouched.

We set out to find working models for as many origins as possible, to prove the case that coffee can be a viable business in diverse landscapes. With increased income through quality coffee, there is more space and freedom to invest in scalable quality, as well as small-scale experimentation. Think of upgraded cherry processing, more accessible and professional mills that reduce losses and shorten the supply chain, a closer link between cup quality feedback and the farmers themselves, and a firmer grip on the variables that affect flavor development in the more nuanced microlots. All of these things have direct and positive economic impact which ultimately will trigger an upward spiral.

In this way, we can preserve and stimulate growth throughout the coffee world, not only in the already thriving environments, and we are able to celebrate coffee for its uniqueness, not as a simple commodity.

Quality as the gateway to regenerative farming
There is a clear link between farmers that pay attention to the quality coming out of their farm, and those that pay attention to the environment they are a part of. When we actively work on on-farm practices to improve quality, we are also able to pinpoint ways that a regenerative approach can enhance this. When a higher income is possible through a higher quality and subsequently higher value product, the regenerative conversation becomes more open and less restricted by consequences on yields. In short, we intend to prove that farmers are more likely to achieve a higher and more sustainable net income by focusing on quality within a regenerative structure, as opposed to only one or neither of these approaches.

So what does quality improvement look like in practice
Quality improvement can be done in multiple ways. Here are some examples.

Shared risk in experimentation
Is there already specialty quality being produced, or is this within reach in 2-3 years time? This is one of the questions on our sourcing checklist when onboarding new origins, and it seeks to maximize the value of high potential coffee. This means we’re always curious for ways in which we can pull even more flavor out of the cherries we work with, and find ways to do this that not just serve a hip specialty trend but have economic potential for both farmers and cooperatives.

In Honduras we co-funded a fermentation workshop from Lucia Soles, an ex-winemaker turned post-harvest processing guru, in order to further expose farmers at Cafesmo to the opportunities for low intervention processing methods to increase quality. In the subsequent year, we purchased our first micro lot from Cafesmo, and look forward to many more to come. Apart from being able to experience some amazing and unique profiles out of Honduras, our aim is to provide a consistent market for higher quality coffees and in some small way incentivise its production from a wider group of farmers. With this, Cafesmo has higher marketability, farmers have diversified incomes and an overall higher profit as a result.

At the same time, we maintain focus together with Cafesmo on the quality of the larger scale lots. As we scale with the El Pinal group of farmers, we are in a continuous feedback loop to address the challenges that come out of scaling quality coffee, and follow Hidardo’s lead in how we can use our partnership to maintain and incentivise realizing full quality potential.

In Tanzania, we are in a new stage that involves two different forms of experimentation - innovation to upgrade the larger main lots and testing out new methods for smaller micro lots. We started with the conviction that the beans out of southern Tanzania had a unique and distinct profile, with the white grape and raisin notes being plain as day, and this potential was yet to be fully realized. Together with CBC, we worked on bringing the quality up to a consistent specialty grade at scale, so that with a small group of farmers we could achieve a first direct export from the region. Since then, the quality has been consistently improving while we grow in the number of farmers we work with and the amount of coffee being processed; it sounds simple, but it’s an important achievement. Now we have the confidence to take it a step further and test out ways of increasing the quality of the existing larger lots (e.g. improved picking, new layers of sorting, variations in mucilage fermentation) as well as going a bit more experimental with other fermentation techniques. End goal: turn up the funk in Tanzania.

Experimentation in coffee does not only involve the scientific playground that is coffee fruit fermentation and the production of micro lots. Oftentimes the most difficult, risky and also valuable effort is in bringing coffee from high potential, borderline-specialty lots from individual farmers, into a consistent scaling specialty product. That was the case with Ecuador.

This process has a bit more to do with minimizing risks to quality and solving supply chain puzzles, but is much less commonly undertaken. The expectation is often that origin parties foot the cost and take on all the risk of building a new supply chain, which is not only expensive but daunting without a clear understanding of what the market wants and how much they are willing to pay for it.

In Ecuador we started a 3-year long process of understanding the key variables that would affect quality, how much it would cost to overcome them, and whether the possibility of producing scalable specialty coffee would be profitable for their business model and the needs of farmers in Manabi. Kat and Marlon still bear the brunt of the risk: buying coffee upfront, paying attention to every painstaking detail from the moment the coffee trees are planted to when the coffee is dried and ready to be prepared for export, building new structures, taking on costs so that farmers remain incentivised and hoping that at the end the market sees what they see when it comes to the value in Manabi coffee. We try to be the partner in that, co-investing through price in services that go a long way for coffee quality, being transparent on the dynamics between price and volume, and figuring out how that could work for their business plans, including piecing together supply chain partners that could fully transform the coffee into an exportable product, and openly discussing quality notes and how they fit into the specialty market, not just Wakuli.

Wakuli and quality