In January 2014, CEO & Co-Founder Paul Katzeff traveled to Africa to meet with two of our producer cooperatives. In this blog series, Paul shares his experience in Uganda and Rwanda.
In Mbale we stayed at a youth Hostel that has a Cafe that serves western style food that looks and tastes familiar. We had lunch there and met with the USAID Chief. It’s the kind of place where the average age of the people who hang out there is 20-something.
Peace Corps workers and backpackers can live there for $14.00 per night in a small private room or ‘Dormitory style’ for $5.00 per night, wake up in the morning and have a perfect Latte at the espresso bar in the lobby.
The story became different once we got into the world that the story was taking place. Theories are mental, the real world is physical.
Below is a picture I took after the Board Meeting we had with the Mirembe Kawomera Board.
What do we see in this picture?
1. Coffee in burlap sacks against the back wall with Peace Kawomera (PKC) lettering
2. A concrete floor with someone sleeping on a mat
3. A hand operated machine that is used to remove parchment from beans that have dried in the sun after the cherry pulp has been removed
4. White open sacks of coffee in parchment
This picture uncovered a different set of issues. Where did the 250 burlap sacks come from and where were they going? They were ready for export while our coffee was ready to be taken to the mill in town to be “readied for export.”
This was the warehouse under the offices where we met the Board for discussion of the issues we came to resolve (late shipment, blending of coffees, verification of the sources of the coffee). As an aside, the PKC offices were in a building that was only half completed. In 2010, USAID funded the building of a small central coffee washing station. Thanksgiving Coffee’s rebates to the cooperative provided their in-kind contribution to the Grant. Unfortunately, there was embezzlement of funds by the coop’s GM who ran off with funds, and the Founder of the Coop was removed from the Board. USAID withdrew its remaining funds – and the building remains built but without a completed interior (no doors on offices , no paint on walls, No tables or chairs) and remains a shabby edifice that one would find hard to be proud of.
Parchment coffee is not green coffee. Parchment has to be milled off of the green beans so the green beans can be graded for percentage of defects. (broken beans, insect eaten beans, unripe beans, black beans, sticks, pebbles etc). Quality is related to the number of defects contained. Gumutindo, the secondary coop that is made up of 15 primary cooperatives of which PKC is but one member, accepts up to 7% defects. Anything over that needs to be sorted and picked out of the delivery to get the percentage down to 4%.
If a coop delivers parchment coffee and there are more then 4% defects, they are deducted .02 cents per pound for each percent over 4%. The coffee in the open sacks had been delivered to the mill and tested, and showed 12% defects. That coffee had been rejected by the mill on our behalf – twelve pounds of defects per hundred makes for a very rough tasting coffee.
So, the sacks were brought back to the PKC warehouse to await my arrival – perhaps they thought I would have some “pull” at the Mill to get the coffee through. This was not exactly the way the problem was presented to me by the PKC management. They pointed fingers and said they were being picked on and that was why they wanted me, their buyer, to front for them at the mill. I thought this sounded legitimate, so I went to the GM at Gumutindo that afternoon to plead their case.
Willington, the GM of Gumutindo who has visited me in California, offered to send his truck to pick up the parchment coffee and re-test it in front of the PKC Board. That way, they could see for themselves just what the defect percentage was in the batch of coffee slated for Thanksgiving Coffee Company from their 2013 crop.
But what about the other 250 sacks along that back wall? Where did that come from and how did it pass defect inspection? And where was it going? Who had produced it, who had sold it? Who had purchased it and who had financed it? This was on my mind as we hit the road to Gumutindo’s dry mill, and it would play an important role in the days to come.
At Gumutindo, the sorters are independent contractors. They sit under a giant shade tree at the mill and spend their days picking out defects, damaged bean by damaged bean. Unlike the sorters in Central and South America who sit at a conveyor belt that carries an endless stream of coffee beans past silent, sitting women who pick passing defective beans out of the rapids, these woman socialize all day and pick at their own pace. A much more civilized way to do tedious work.
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