Archive for October, 2009

Mirembe Kawomera meets hip-hop’s heavyhitter Brother Ali

In my unique position of creating a person-to-person market for Mirembe Kawomera “Delicious Peace” I get lots of suggestions for growth strategy. “Do you know who you should really talk to? (Fill in the blank with famous celebrity-activist name).” Sure. I’d love to talk to that person, just tell me how to reach them.

Early last week, my mother suggested I get in touch with Brother Ali, an amazing hip hop artist whose work I’ve been following since 2004. She had heard an interview with Brother Ali on NPR and, like so many of his fans, was drawn to his thoughtful messaging about loving ourselves, our neighbors, and promoting peace. The values on which the Mirembe project has developed and Brother Ali’s positive messages certainly have a lot in common. I thanked her for the suggestion and then went about my business. How could I actually reach him?

Historically, this project has had little success cold calling big name people. I went to Ali’s website and checked out his tour schedule for the promotion of his new album Us – one I had already bought and had been listening to (the track Crown Jewel particularly) on repeat for the better part of a week. On Friday, October 16, he was going to be performing in Santa Cruz (not exactly a stone’s throw from Fort Bragg but a feasible location nonetheless). I had never seen Brother Ali live, he would be performing with other Rhymesayers artists: Tokie Wright and Evidence of Dilated Peoples. Best case scenario I would maybe get a minute of Ali’s time to tell him about the work we were doing. Worst case scenario I’d catch some underground hip-hop.

The five hour drive to Santa Cruz was well worth the show. It can be hard to find great hip hop performances these days. Beats are over-produced, MC’s are arrogant, and rhymes lack substance….this show had none of that. BK-One spun great beats all night and Tokie, Evidence and Brother Ali all rocked the mic.

Best still was that all of those guys came right out to chat up fans when the show was over. And Brother Ali took my hand and gave me his full attention for a few minutes (in spite of being surrounded by adoring fans making all kinds of requests for autographs, photographs, hand shakes etc). He seemed genuinely enthusiastic about our work and the project. He encouraged me to post to his site and said he would try to get in touch – so far no response to my post yet. Even if nothing comes of it, I really have to give Ali a lot of respect for his sincerity and focus and messaging. We would all be better people if we listened to his words and tried to put them into action in our lives.

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Brazil: New Crop Poço Fundo (Almost) Here!

I got an email from Mr. Luis Aduato de Oliveira yesterday afternoon. He had some good news and some bad news: the good news was that he was ready to send me some pre-shipment samples. The bad news was that he’d lost my address. No biggie, I told him, that’s some damn fine news. I sent him my address, now he’s sending me samples.

I’m just happy that somewhere between my spanish, his portuguese, and our shared love of great coffee we’ve been able to spend a week together hiking around the mountains of Sul de Minas, Brazil, meeting a handful of the members of his cooperative, COOPFAM, and getting to know a little bit more about the reality of life as a family farmer in the town of Poço Fundo, Brazil. 

And sourcing some great coffee too, of course. 

Finally, though the wait is not quite over, I’ve got samples from the recent harvest on their way. Thank you DHL, UPS, FedEx, whoever you are. Please hurry up. 

I generally consider myself a pretty patient person, and I am mostly. I’m usually pretty good at allowing for the 4-6 months between harvest and arrival of a coffee, the once a year chance to experiment with a quality improvement idea, and the often slow-pace that’s part of the deal when working with coffee farmers. But we all have our moments. I’ll be honest, I’m having one right now.

Poço Fundo is an exciting coffee. It’s a natural, which to me means that there’s huge potential for something that will totally stun you, my dear coffee drinker. More potential for sweetness, more potential for character, more potential for complexity. And we’re hot on the trail—the samples that Aduato is sending represent different lots produced at various altitudes and of various varietals (Mundo Novo, Yellow and Red Catui). We’ve fine-tuned our understanding of what ripeness really is using a refractometer to measure sugar brix (stealing a trick from the wine industry) and we’ve fine-tuned our understanding of the right drying times to maximize absorption of sugar by the mean without producing any of the off flavors associated with fermentation. Now there are a bunch of microlots, representing the culmination of these experiments. From these lots we’ll either pick our favorite, or our favorite few and create a blend of them. And I tell you what: we’re going to roast those coffees as soon as they get it. Well slow down then, and take a long time going through each sample. Probably until we’ve brewed every last bean. But as soon as we’re finished with that, I’m getting on the horn to Brazil. Aduato and I are going to press the button that turns the light green, to get those coffees on the water, and on their way here. Stay tuned for news about the arrival and upcoming launch of our new single origin Brazil. Here’s a photo of the cherries that are now the beans that are soon to by yours!

Patience, grasshopper.




sweet sweet sweet!

sweet sweet sweet!





Fort Bragg Bakery Grand (Re)Opening

My friends and I grew up on the Mendocino Coast expecting to find something sweet and delicious in that little bakery on Franklin Street, across from the Rec Center and down the street from our favorite art supply store. Fort Bragg was the closest thing we knew to a city, and a trip into town was cause for excitement—and a treat, of course. I can still recall the taste of the homemade bear claws at Schatt’s, which once occupied the space. My mom would buy two, one for my twin brother, and one for me. Getting up at 6:30 to catch the bus in time for our hour-long commute to school wasn’t so bad on those mornings.

It’s been a number of years since that space was a living, breathing bakery. In fact, since I moved back home 6 years ago it’s been through a series of changes, all taking it farther and farther from its heart and soul: the town’s bakery. 

Now it’s back. Thanks to Tricia and Chris Kump, and their amazing staff of talented bakers, the Fort Bragg Bakery is re-opening tomorrow morning at 7:30.

Over the past two months I’ve had the pleasure of setting up their coffee program, training their baristas, and sneak previewing all kinds of delicious breads, pastries, and pizzas. It’s rare that a community with such a deep tradition of finely crafted food and beverages gets wowed like this, but that’s exactly what’s going to happen tomorrow morning.

Stop in for the best pastry you’ve had in years, or lunch that feels like it was made by your friend who’s a chef in her home kitchen out of ingredients from her farm in the back yard. The pizza is great. Omnivore or vegetarian you’ve got a number of great options to choose from. Chris and Tricia are perfectionists…when the chevre isn’t quite as good as they want it to be, they just make their own. It’s like that with everything you’ll find as soon as you step through the door. Plan on buying a loaf of bread or two to take home with you. You may have never seen crust and crumb dance together like this before. And of course, finish your meal with a great cappuccino, carefully pulled shot of our Organic Northern Italian style espresso, or cup of delicious brewed coffee. We crafted a special dark roast blend that’s nutty, chocolatey, and richly toasty. Alongisde the dark roast will be a seasonal rotation of one of our great single origin coffees roasted light, and our signature Fair Trade Decaf as well.

I’m not sure if bearclaws are on the menu, but I’m sure that somewhere between the tart tatin and the pain au chocolate  I can find a number of reasons to look forward to getting out of bed on these rainy winter mornings.



Continuing challenges in coffee from a Peace Corp worker in the DR

Here is an inspiring communication from a Peace Corps Volunteer working in the mountains of The Dominican Republic. He contacted me a couple of months ago looking for advice on how to bring the coops coffee to market. I put him in touch with friends of mine who have been through the same coffee/Peace Corps experience so that he could get the best of their experience. This communication is between he (Charles) and Chris who did his Peace Corps work in Nicaragua. If you want a first hand report from the mountains of the DR in real time, a report with real facts and real frustrations and real commitment and a read that will expose you to a world both harsh and beautiful, read this young man’s words and if you are so moved, send him a word or two of support. It is young men like him who represent American ideals best.

– pk

DR from peace corp Charlie.jpg

“I am 17 months into my Peace Corps service and helping a coffee cooperative in the Southern, Dominican Republic. The
cooperative is located in a rural mountainous municipality, Peralta, of roughly 15,000 that are dispersed in 7 communities. Coffee, like many mountainous communities in the Dominican Republic, is the most important aspect for the economy and environment in Peralta; more than 2,000 families depend on coffee for their income. As the case
throughout the coffee producing world, poverty is high amongst coffee growers; a survey done by the Dominican Council of Coffee (CODOCAFE) revealed that 9/10 coffee producers live in poverty in the province of Azua (where my community is).

To improve this situation, CODOCAFE has a project (PROCA´2) (that will end this December) to improve coffee growers standard of living by increasing the quality and competiveness of Dominican coffee. The project has several specific objectives but the underlining one is to have coffee producing organizations (OPCs) throughout the country that are able to support small scale growers so that coffee is profitable and sustainable. The project facilitates the organizations get new plants, credit (maintenance, rehabilitation, harvest), extension services, infrastructure improvements, repair roads, diversification, and promotion of the high quality coffee. Unfortunately, this project will end because it has helped the OPCs a lot and before they didn’t have these opportunities.

The cooperative that I am working with, San Rafael Inc., serves the small and medium sized farmers and offers extension services, credit (very small amount), mutual service (they help out with funerals), and commercialize the coffee. However, it is not necessary to be a member in order for the cooperative to purchase your coffee. The cooperative has roughly 200 members but only 100 or so are active (pay the monthly quota) and about 70-80 participate in the monthly assembly. The cooperative has many problems but the lack of trust, organization, and a vision have impeded the cooperative’s (community’s) development. The cooperative is the only community organization that offers these services but they have struggled to gain the trust of the rest of the community and educate the importance of being organized.

My objectives with the cooperative are very broad and vague. Unfortunately, my work has not been the most efficient but that is the way work is in the Dominican Republic because of the lack of organization and stability. After doing a needs assessment, understanding the circumstances more and talking to lots of people we have determined that the main problems for the coffee are age of trees, age of producers, harvesting without defined criteria, and market and credit access I have been supporting the CODOCAFE with the PROCA´2 project. What I have been working on is:

1. Organic transformation. We applied and received a working capital
grant to transform and certify farms. Hopefully by next winter, the
2010-11 harvest, we will have organically certified coffee to

2. Nursery. A fundamental problem is the age of the trees and the
producers have to travel roughly two hours to purchase plants (very
few, if any, have nurseries on their farms). The cooperative is
establishing a nursery of coffee (tipcio y caturra, dos variedades de
Arabica), avocado, lemon, and maderables in the community. This will
definitely help the production of plants, but it still will be
difficult to plant the trees because the nursery is still far from
most of the farms.

3. Youth. The average age of a coffee grower in the Dominican
Republic is 55 years old and the youth are very detached from the
coffee production. To address this we are now training the youth in
organic coffee practices and cooperative management. If the youth
have interest, through CODCAFE, we will offer them credit, plants, and
extension services.

4. Diversification. Due to the decline in coffee profitability and
potential to harvest other products, there is a lot of interest in
diversification. The community wants to diversify with citrus,
avocado, zapote (a local exotic fruit) and macadamia nut. The problem
with diversifying with avocado is the area is very vulnerable to a
particular plague they haven’t efficiently developed a system to treat
them yet (avocados are still very new in the Dominican Republic,
especially in my community). Other problems with the avocado are the
lack of road access, the knowledge of the necessary technology, and a
very crowded market. More challenges for diversification are the lack
of infrastructure and the high altitude. After speaking with
agronomists and an organic fruit broker, the best strategy for
diversification would be getting organically certified lemons, they
grow well and the organic market is not very crowded. However, no
feasibility study has been done yet, which is a SERIOUS problem for
the coffee growers: the lack of relevant information.

5. Institutional Strengthening. All of the other issues would be
easier to be addressed if there was a strong institution, and we are
trying to create a well-managed cooperative. It is difficult because
they do not have the practice or much interest in receiving management
training. Also, the cooperative struggles with corruption and lack of
transparency, although unintentional much of the time. .
Unfortunately the cooperative does not think that their struggles are
attributed to internal problems; they believe they only need more
grant money. I assume weak producer organizations are a problem
across the coffee producing world.

I do not have an agriculture background and this is my first job out of undergrad, so I am learning as I go. Although very unorganized and our results have come slowly, it has been an amazing experience working with small scale coffee producers and I am very excited to continue to learn more. I have talked to my director about extending for another year and he has given me the green light, but we will wait and see.

Besides the coffee, I am working with the youth groups and the public schools about HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancy prevention, and environmental education. These activities have been a lot of fun and I would like to see if we could include the cooperative more.

You asked about finding a balance in my experience and that has been my biggest challenge. These communities need so much help in so many areas and it is so hard to neglect them. I feel guilty not supporting the public education or youth of my community but it comes to a point where it can be overwhelming trying to find a balance between project,
learning Spanish, self-growth/discovery, and maintaining and building relationships.

Anyway, thank you very much for your email. I have read “Confronting the Coffee Crisis” and found it very inspirational and helpful for my project, especially the section about Community Agroecology Network. I would love to learn more about your recent projects, especially in the area of research. What are you all working on now?

As I mentioned earlier, I do not have an agriculture background, so all this stuff is new to me. Do you have any suggestions about starting organic transformation projects? What are some successful examples in other countries? The problem with the projects in the DR is that they all have been started by donations and they are not very well managed. What are your recommendations for increasing consumer awareness of our coffee in the USA? I am thinking of contacting the fair-trade student organizations on university campuses?

Thanks a lot for your email and I hope we can stay in-touch.

Best regards,


Moment’s in time: Guatemala, 1990 Somewhere in the countryside between Guatemala City and Lake Atitlan

Yesterday I posted a photo of two woman . They were walking to somewhere. They looked relaxed as they chatted . They were beautiful people, ancient in an obvious way. They reminded me of the woman who used to walk down the street in the Bronx where I grew up. On their way to the bakery or dry cleaners, or some friends front stoop to chat some more. I thought (last night) how “the universal” was represented in that moment. Friendship, camaraderie, familiarity, and peace.
When these kids saw this gringo , this American they gave me the Peace sign of the Summer of Love .There was good will in that bus. American foreign policy not withstanding. The children are dressed up for some event and although in the countryside, I think they are from privileged families but we will never know. They are in their mid twenties now. I wonder what they are doing .

kids on a bus

Moments in Time: San Juan La Laguna, Guatemala 1990

atitlan ladies San Juan La Laguna is a Mayan village on the shores of Lake Atitlan. It was a peaceful place when I was there in 1990 but it had been a place of oppression by Guatemalan military for over a decade and you could still feel the tension. I was there looking for organic coffee, traveling with Karen Cebreros, one of the first lady green coffee importers in what was, until then, a man’s world. We visited the coffee cooperative La Voz que Calma de Desierto, meaning, the voice that cries out from the desert. Odd name for a tropics based community but later I found out that the Patron Saint of the village was Saint Juan, who came from the desert.

These two woman were just walking down the road in their special clothing woven on hand looms for thousands of years. The patterns indicate status and family identities. I returned with a contract to purchase their coffee and it was the beginning of a decade long relationship with the cooperative. We sold their coffee under the title, Mayan Harvest Coffee and rebated to them .25 cents for each pound sold. Over the decade the coop received rebates well in excess of $50,000 which was used to build their first coffee drying patio. Today La Voz is one of the sought after Guatemalan Organic Coffees and Karen Cebreros is still a green coffee buyer and importer. I took this picture after we had passed each other on the path and I realized that I had a camera and they didn’t. On my next trip to La Voz I found them and gave them each this picture.

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