11th Hour Deals

Later that night there were un-chilled Mutzigs, Rwanda’s answer to Amstel, for Aleco, Bosco and I; Fanta orange soda in slim glass bottles for Casper the driver and Alphonse. We waited into the 11 o’clock hour for our platters of goat kebabs (politely called brochettes) and pommes frites, sprinkled with pilipili sauce, made from a searing cousin of the habanero pepper. The best goat brochettes in Rwanda, Aleco had promised me as we bounced around in the jeep on the way back to the village of Cyangugu, stopping three times for policemen with rifles to look us over. I wasn’t really in any position to judge the best goat brochettes in Rwanda; so long as I could chew and swallow a piece in under three minutes, I’d take his word.

Shivering against the chill in the air, I count exactly 16 lights through the barbed wire fence past our concrete dining pavilion. They flicker faintly in the distance, the 16 lights, from the Congo side of Lake Kivu where dense forest obscures rebels and spies. Here on this side, the Rwandan side, there is no forest left to hide in. Nearly all of the land that once provided habitat for thousands of mountain gorillas, save for a few tracts of thin tree groves and the protected national forests, has been tilled under the plow. Or, more likely, felled with a hand hoe and a few machetes. Whatever might be done by machine in this country can be completed more cheaply by a person; few rural households can afford to employ animals to pull a plow. The Virunga National Park housing the Rwandan mountain gorillas protects about 400 individuals or so, which the government charges foreigners $500 per hour of close-up photo-op. Few Rwandese ever make the trek to see gorillas.

While I count lights and tug my thin shirtsleeves over my hands, Aleco and Alphonse make a deal. Alphonse agrees to re-open the Kanzu washing station having closed it in the first place, I now understand, because a nearby competitor offered the farmers $1.80 per kilo for their cherry, more than Alphonse could afford to dole out. There is constant competition among washing stations in this coffee business, where there are rarely any guarantees made to anyone for anything. The average Joe farmer around here owns maybe 100 coffee plants on less than an acre of land and is free to choose among washing stations so long as they can reach it within 12 hours on foot. The Bikes to Rwanda project, sponsored by a handful of small American coffee importers, has supplied hundreds of bicycles to coffee farmers through a loan program so they might have a chance at reaching a washing station in fewer hours. And also have more options of whom to sell to, for a better price.

Around 40% of the 100-plus washing stations in Rwanda are owned by cooperatives, the rest privately owned by men like Alphonse. Cooperatives have gained ubiquity in the coffee business, no less so in Rwanda because they are promoted by the government under the theme of reconciliation. There’s a pervading belief among coffee consuming countries as well that cooperatives promote fairness and equality at the production level. We in the States like to associate cooperatives (when we consider the production end of the coffee chain at all, though Fair Trade has brought much attention to that) with perhaps the same ideals embodied by an organic farming cooperative high in the mountains above Santa Cruz where children are raised barefoot on mulberry puree by multiple sets of parents. In other words, coffee farming cooperative means egalitarian agrarian commune. Au contraire, latte-sipper, au contraire.

Coffee cooperatives in most of East Africa, particularly in Kenya and Ethiopia, can be notoriously corrupt entities run by community elders who are appointed for political reasons rather than for their financial know-how. In communities that have never before had to handle hard currency, the tens of thousands of dollars that flows into the hands of the co-op at the end of harvest season is rarely managed well enough to last throughout the year. So when hundreds of farmers turn up at the beginning of the following harvest season expecting immediate cash payments for their cherry, in-the-red co-ops sometimes can’t pay them. But farmers are free to sell elsewhere, and many in Rwanda are now looking to the privately-owned washing stations for financial security (the Ministry of Defense, by the way, has invested in dozens of these private washing stations for reasons I haven’t yet figured out). The co-ops in Rwanda haven’t really been in existence long enough to be beguiled by serious corruption but most of them have yet to turn a profit and are, under the radar, weighed down by poor business management.

I also learn from Aleco that night that most coffee buyers prefer to work with the privately-owned washing stations because deals can be made quick and dirty, like over lager and charred goat kebabs. While the manager of a co-op would need to take the buyer’s offer back to the co-op board for negotiations with a few dozen people, someone like Alphonse can agree to the price right then and there. To an international coffee buyer visiting a producing country for only a few days at a time, consider co-ops a drop of spoiled milk in the cup.

But the reality of the middlemen in the coffee business is that few companies have buyers such as Aleco employed at all, whose mission it is to search for the best coffee in the world and then offer high relative prices when they find it. As Aleco said on behalf of Stumptown Coffee Roasters, they aren’t looking for the second best coffee or coffee that would tie for the best. They want the best, and because they purchase it in single lots (usually a single day’s production from a solitary washing station) they can afford to offer over 100% more than the current market price–currently hovering around $1.40 per pound–and include a contractual premium within that which will be paid to the farmer directly. The few coffee companies who are taking this approach to coffee buying have bundled coffee quality, price transparency, and the economic and ecological practices of coffee farmers intrinsically in a purchasing process they are calling Direct Trade. Unlike Fair Trade, there is no third party certification involved but there is money guaranteed to the farmer, beyond what they would typically get for their cherry. Through Fair Trade certification, while there is a stable price floor for cherry, the dollars are only traced to the co-op level, which as I’ve already described, certainly doesn’t indicate anything about financial guarantees for the farmers. Farmers might be taking home 30 cents at most per pound, depending on the region, even if they are certified Fair Trade.

Aleco told me he believes that while Direct Trade aims for complete price transparency among all players in the coffee supply chain, from the farmer to the washing station, exporter, importer and roaster, it also asks the consumer to have some faith at the end of the chain. In this case, Stumptown’s customers have to trust that the Direct Trade process is actually doing all of this. Depending on what kind of coffee drinker you are, Direct Trade is either putting a de rigueur farmer’s market face on a food commodity chain that stretches longer than the reach of mobile phone service in some producing countries… or it’s just another gimmick encouraging boutique shoppers to pay $20 per pound for a proclaimed origin coffee that may or may not taste better than Dunkin’ Donuts decaf.

In the morning, we’ll taste. But now, I’m still gnawing at my brochette though everyone else has licked their kebab sticks clean. Attempting to eat around the pieces of liver and intestine, soft fat and gristly fat, I give up and distract myself from the goat by eating as many pommes frites dipped in pilipili as I can before the heat makes it painful to eat anymore. Aleco begins propositioning Alphonse. He offers a price for the Kanzu washing station-sourced green coffee beans, the best, he still thinks. Aleco hasn’t even tasted Kanzu yet this year. But after seeing the potential at the Muasa washing station (same state of the art practices as at Kanzu), and with the memory of luscious butter mouth-feel lingering from last year, he takes a chance and offers Alphonse some money. One price is offered, roughly double that of the commodity market price plus a hefty premium to each farmer, if Kanzu scores between 86 and 90 during cupping; another price, almost 150% above market price plus double the premium to the farmer, if it scores above 90. And this is just the first year, with annual opportunity for quality improvement, and more money. “Tell him this is the first year, we’re starting a relationship,” Aleco says urgently.

Bosco takes five minutes to translate all of this into Kinyarwanda. Alphonse pulls a puffy, pointed black hood over his head and crosses his arms. He looks inflated. Aleco is impatient for another round of Mutzig. Then Bosco comes around with some English: “He ask if it’s 86 to 89 score if you give him same price as 90 score.”

Without hesitation Aleco responds “No. Tell him no one has ever paid him this price before. It’s the first year. We’re starting a relationship, it’s going to make the farmers stronger and they will want to work with him. Tell him that.” He’s obviously practiced this negotiation with first time Direct Trade sellers before. I down half a foamy glass of lager, trying to erase the scorching sensation on my tongue. It’s almost midnight. Aleco wiggles his thumbs back and forth, more Kinyarwanda, and Alphonse leans back in his plastic chair. Then Bosco switches languages.

“Yes, I explain it’s not a big job to him and he agrees to the price for the two. He’s able to work with you. He say he ship the first coffee in August.” Aleco turns and offers his hand to Alphonse for a vigorous hand shake and slap on the back.

“Bosco, tell him we are looking forward to working with him, and that the premium to the farmers will be on the contract. It’s going to make him stronger, the farmers will bring better and more cherry. And this is just the first year.”

“He want to know also if you find buyer for other cherry,” Bosco adds.

“Look, my job is to differentiate the best quality and pay them a good price for it. It’s not my job to find him another coffee buyer. Tell him I can try, but that’s not my job.” Alphonse throws a toothless grin in my direction. I’ve been staring at him.

“They will not sell the good coffees to someone else,” Bosco says. “It’s for you.”

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