A Trip to Africa: Day 9 -The Final Entry

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.

Like everything else in life, things change over time. This was a wonderful story of how one man had a vision and changed his community once he was able to act on his idea, which was to unite coffee growers with different religions into a Fair Trade Certified coffee cooperative. He realized that if the farmers were working together they could reap beneficial economic gains and improve the quality of their lives. Laura Wetzler, Program Director of Kalunu was working with the Jewish community in Mbale, and came to aid this vision of the community leader, JJ Keki. That was 11 years ago. Thanksgiving Coffee responded to Ms. Wetzler’s and JJ’s call for help, and we began to purchase their coffee and to sell it via telling the amazing story of this interfaith cooperative.

We told their story, purchased their coffee, and worked with the coop and its “Leadership” to help the story survive, and the Cooperative to flourish. However, over ten years, random and not so random events make things change, and PKC was no exception to this rule of life.

Poor leadership, predatory organizations that wanted to use the story for their own purposes, unethical business practices, and a complete disregard for transparency and record keeping by the Mirembe Kawomera Cooperative Board created a toxic environment for using a Fair Trade model to improve and meet the needs of the coffee farmers of the Mirembe Kawomera Cooperative

Thanksgiving Coffee Company lost its trust in the Cooperative as the leadership declared their intention to become independent from their parent second level cooperative, Gumutindo, the organization that provided them with Organic certification oversight and leadership training, financial pre financing of the coffee harvest. Fair Trade certification, quality control and export services. This departure made the small cooperative rogue outfit out of what was in the beginning, a collaborative effort with adequate oversight of both quality control and financial integrity.

We have always intended to support the farmers through the Cooperative. It is always about the farmers. The Cooperative is a business model that democratically facilitates business policy and the activities of trade. We have ended our relationship with PKC under its current leadership; lack of trust and too much financial risk is the reason. But, we have not abandoned the farmers who were being poorly served by their leadership.

The situation has evolved, changed and morphed into Phase II, a more mature phase with the lessons learned, being applied to build a new primary level cooperative with the same interfaith coffee farmers that once were nominal members of Mirembe Kawomera. The Vice President of the PKC Cooperative and the Organic Coffee Director have broken away from the original PKC and reunited with their parent cooperative, Gumutindo, to begin this year’s purchasing of green coffee from the very same farmers. Thanksgiving Coffee will evolve our role in the supply chain to support the changes that are occurring in the coffee community that was once the Mirembe Kawomera primary cooperative. We have committed to begin purchases for the 2015 crop, and the farmers have already delivered over 600 sacks of dry parchment coffee to the Gumutindo Cooperative for export.

We are in transition to a deeper and more economically valuable situation. It has evolved from what was once a fine interfaith vision with poor leadership at the Cooperative, to what we see as a real positive evolution for the farmers and for interfaith work. We will continue to sell Delicious Peace Coffee from the same inspired farmers, and we will continue to support their coffee production by selling their coffee under a duel banner which I will briefly explain and then leave for more detailed discussion as we learn about and grow into this new evolution over the next decade of interfaith and inter-tribal collaboration.

The decade of work in Mbale Uganda has taught us that the coffee farmers of the Mt. Elgon region, which comprise the PKC members, was composed not just of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but also of the nine indigenous tribes of Uganda. The original idea of PKC highlighted interfaith cooperation among Jews, Christians and Muslims to create peace in the region, and therefore enable economic cooperation for the common good. Now we will begin our efforts to support their tribal communities, and learn about this aspect of the farmers lives, as well.

In sum, we are changing, because things on the ground have changed. We ask for your continued support of this coffee, as it is the fuel that drives our ability to carry on. It took a decade to discover the internal toxicity that one or two charismatic leaders can create with a weak board of directors, and when hubris from self importance leads to decisions that are ill advised and beyond the scope of abilities. This interfaith story of peace and community economic development is still alive.

We see a bright future for telling the story of the value of interfaith and tribal cooperation in the quest for improved living conditions for all.

Nothing remains the same for long, however “Not Just a Cup, But a Just Cup” will stay with us for as long as coffee farmers need a friend to promote a fair deal for their efforts to grow our favorite national drink- coffee.

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Here are links to the first 9 parts of this story:

A Trip to Africa: Day 8 – Making the New Transparency Work

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.

The duplicity of The Coexist Foundation was ever on my mind while in Uganda. I felt betrayed by two young men in Washington DC. Tarek and Lance are the leaders of The Coexist Foundation. They came to us in early 2013, seeking a collaboration with the Thanksgiving Coffee Company. They presented the idea that they market and sell Mirembe Kawomera coffee in a coexist package. We were excited to have them come on board as promoters of this Interfaith Cooperatives coffee which we saw as our primary responsibility. Roasting the coffee for others to market and sell to their congregations, members and followers.

“Coexist came to us in early 2013, seeking a collaboration with the Thanksgiving Coffee Company.”

It has been a decade since we began promoting Mirembe Kawomera Coffee, and we have invested many hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring this story to the coffee world. Tarek and Lance, in numerous emails and phone conversations both encouraged and worried us as we moved forward with their private label package. We loved the idea that they were investing in a fully printed package, but we worried about their unwillingness to present Thanksgiving Coffee as the decade long carrier of the torch and promoter of the story and developer of the supply chain that created the improved quality we now roast. But we forged on with Coexist as they gave assurances to us that their only interest was to sell the coffee to raise funds for the school in Mbale.

When we were told that the 250 mystery sacks were sold to the Coexist Foundation by the cooperative two months before we arrived in Uganda, the mystery was no longer who were the bags of coffee for, but now the questions were; how did this happen, why did it happen, and what were the consequences going to be for this double betrayal of Thanksgiving by both the Cooperative and The Coexist Foundation.

The conversations led to these discoveries:

  1. The Coexist Foundation had used the film makers of the Documentary “Delicious Peace “, Ellen and Kurt to set up their own Film project and then sent a five person film crew with a script, to Mbale to create The Coexist Foundation Story of their discovery and adoption of this cooperative. Their video tells the story as if Thanksgiving Coffee never existed these past ten years.
  2. The president of the PKC Board had negotiated with the Coexist Foundation to sell this coffee without informing many on the Coop’s Board and in fact, there were no records of this coffee being purchased from the PKC coffee farmer members.
  3. Coexist had purchased coffee that could not be shown to be Certified Organic and was certainly not Fair Trade certified. They had paid a price that was far below the price Thanksgiving Coffee had paid for this years crop according to their General Manager.
  4. There was nothing we could do about the situation because the money had exchanged hands already.

“Our Story was being re-filmed and revised to replace our Brand with Coexists Brand.”

I concluded that our decade of work had been hijacked. Our Story was being re-filmed and revised to replace our Brand with Coexists Brand. They believed they could buy media, legal services and a coffee supply chain that Thanksgiving Coffee company had developed over a decade of investment in time, travel, expertise, and money to create. What to do was the question on my mind in Uganda on day 8. I could walk away from this Interfaith Story and punish the cooperative for their moral decay. I could confront Coexist and threaten to expose their deception and unethical business practices to their Board of Trustees, I could redouble my efforts to strengthen the PKC cooperative now that we had a ability to discuss all issues with openness and transparency. One thing for sure, I was going to stop in Washington DC on my way back to California to confront Terek and Lance and lay down my threats to expose them.

To make it real, here is a link to Coexists Current Blog. It tells the story as if cutting out the middle man (Direct Trade) was a good thing. But this is their way of justifying cutting out the Company that invested its money and time to develop this story. There is no mention of Thanksgiving Coffee whatsoever. They are spinning ” Direct Trade” as something that benefits farmers by putting more money in their pockets, but Coexist paid substantially less to the cooperative saving money so they could be more competitive on their wholesale price to their customers. In their eyes, Thanksgiving Coffee was a Middleman in the supply chain, instead of the creator and financial supporter of the chain.

The last chapter in this story is being written now and will be posted soon.

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Here are links to the first 8 parts of this ongoing story:

A Trip to Africa: Day 7 – All Things Revealed

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.

It was revealed that the “mystery coffee” was scheduled to be shipped to Newark, New Jersey. The buyer was The Coexist Foundation, a British charity with offices in Washington DC.

Coexist_bumper-stickerThis knowledge thoroughly pissed me off…I was about as angry as a wasp being chased by a Zebra! But what good was anger? It was good for motivation to confront the duplicity while still in Uganda. And that is what we did.

We asked for a second meeting with the Cooperative Board to discuss the matter of the 250 sacks…being sold directly to one of Thanksgiving’s wholesale coffee accounts. That “customer” had become aware Mirembe Kawomera through the media’s reports on my company’s decade-long collaboration with Mirembe Kawomera Cooperative.

So, that was my beef. Why did the cooperative not see this end-around? Why did this important customer go around the roaster who they came to for a proposed collaboration?

There are always many stories in a screenplay, such as the one Nick and I found us in. And, we were in Uganda, about to be in a semi-barren second floor meeting room, just chairs and walls not yet painted.

Uganda_meetingWe sat together for three hours with the board and I expressed my surprise to learn that we had different ideas about our relationship and by open discussion, with many pointed questions (“where are the payment records for those coffees?”) and much talk about Transparency. Everybody knew something was wrong. There were those that were in on the deal and those who knew for the first time that “a deal went down” and they were not a part of it. There was a lot of discovery but nothing was revealed. No one got hurt in the scuffle. There were no indelible scars that would hinder future Trust developing.

Five concrete measures were decided on as a result of the conversations and cross conversations:

  1. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Thanksgiving Coffee Company and The Mirembe Kawomera Cooperative is needed so as to define the authorities and responsibilities, and the quantifiable goals and objectives of each Business.
  2. That the Cooperative members could produce four containers yearly and to be successful, it needed to have the financing to be able to purchase cherry or parchment from their members.
  1. The Washing Station needed to be expanded from being able to process one container to two containers by August 2014.
  1. Solar Driers needed to be installed to handle the increased volume of washed coffee.
  1. Thanksgiving Coffee had not expanded the roasted retail market in The USA to meet the needs of the cooperatives members. If Thanksgiving Coffee was to keep its exclusive relationship with the PK Cooperative, it was going to have to find homes for the three containers it did not purchase.

It was late afternoon and the heat of mid day was just a sweet memory. The sun was low and there was an orange tint to the air and everything solid and in the sunlight’s way. The meeting disbursed in a flurry of people going off in different directions amid the “good nights” and “see you tomorrows”. We covered a lot of ground during that meeting. It was a workout but through it I learned about the people I was going to be working with. We had discovered a “problem of ethics” and came to terms with no blame placed, and no sermons either. The room was filled with people who knew “when to leave well enough alone”. We all got it, so we moved on.

hotel_poolsideAnd so the long day ended at our very fancy hotel where JB and Juma joined us at the pool. JB is the Cooperatives GM and Juma is the Special Projects Director. They are payed by the cooperative to run the coop’s operations.

 

 

 

Sorry for the long delay, the next part of this ongoing story will be posted soon.

Here are links to the first 7 parts of this ongoing story:

A new way to connect with your coffee farmer!

By Mischa Hedges, Director of Communications

At Thanksgiving Coffee Company, we’re always talking about how to connect our coffee community. We strive to create a space for dialogue between coffee drinkers and coffee farmers – space that allows for gratitude, appreciation and knowledge about coffee to be shared. With social media and increased global connectivity, it’s becoming much easier than it used to be to do that. For instance, check out this new feature on our website:

Connecting coffee drinkers with coffee farmers

Farmer FeedbackIf you’ve enjoyed one of our single origin coffees recently, you can visit our “Farmers” page and write a message to the coffee farmer or cooperative who grew it. 

Traveling to your coffee’s country of origin and meeting your coffee farmer in person is the richest way to connect, but that’s not an option for most people. We’re hoping this new feature on our website will enable you to deepen your relationship with your coffee.

Some of the farmers and cooperatives we partner with are Facebook users, and can respond directly to your messages! In other cases, we’ll gather and send your messages to the farmers and cooperatives we work with so they can see your appreciation.

Let us know what you think of this new feature…

A Trip to Africa: Day 5 – Coffee Quality & A New Mystery

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.

PKC Warehouse
 
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.

Gumatindo's TruckParchment 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.

On the road to GumatindoWillington, 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.

 

We arrived at the dry mill (Gumutindo) that afternoon with the Board members of the cooperative to witness the grading process. It’s a simple process – first, a long pointed metal tube is thrust into a sack of parchment coffee and withdrawn filled with a sample from that sack. This is repeated on another ten sacks, each providing a small sample (about a half pound). The multiple samples are aggregated into a single sample from which 250 grams are taken and placed in a moisture meter.
The sample must come in under 13% moisture. Then, 100 grams are put through a hand crank parchment removal device and the green beans are then winnowed to remove dust and small pieces of parchment. The beans are then clean, and ready to be inspected for defects, which are sorted out by hand and eye inspection. There was an air of anxiety as the head sorter picked at the 100 gram sample.
The defects are placed in a tray for all to see and agree on. Then they are weighed. This sample came out 9%. Again, too high for their Dry Mill to accept. Now there was a problem. I don’t want nine pounds of defects in every 100 pounds of coffee. There is no way I could make that coffee taste good enough to sell. The coop had to make a decision. They could pay the woman sorters to remove enough defects to get the coffee down to 7% or they could haul the coffee back to their warehouse 20 Kilometers to the north and sort out the defects themselves. Otherwise they would have to negotiate with the woman on a price for sorting out 2% from 30,000 lbs of coffee (600 pounds of defects).

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.

The coop board members voted to hire the sorters and sent a member of the Board to the tree to negotiate a price for the sorting. About 300 feet from the defect assessment station the woman sat and sorted, each with their own sack to clean, knowing just how many pounds were needed to be culled from each sack to get it into an acceptable range.
So now we had the 2014 crop due to be shipped to the US and arrive in May, being in the last phase before being put on a truck to travel to Mombasa where it will head south past Madagascar and round the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of South Africa and head across the Atlantic to The Panama Canal and up the west side of Central America toward its destination, The Port of Oakland.
With 2013 crop and its problems behind it, I turned back to solve the mystery of the 250 sacks that were unaccounted for, with 17 screen and zero defects. What was their story?
To be continued…

A Trip to Africa: Day 4 – Transparency, Trust & Relationships

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.

Leaving Jinja

When we left Jinja, we left with a deep satisfaction, having met some really serious people who were in the beginnings of something great. Two hundred elders were one day away from receiving a “Certificate of Completion” for the nine month course in Asset Based Community Economic Development offered by The Communities of SHALOM in collaboration with Drew University. This 3 credit course will give them the tools they need to enter the 21st century global trading environment and may be the only educational accomplishment many of them obtain (The certificate will be of parchment suitable for framing). I can see it now, hanging on a wood slab on a simple brick wall, inside a 12’x12′ square room with a red dirt floor, the only adornment to be found on any of the walls in the home of that proud community leader (and Organic Robusta coffee grower)

Nick and I felt that our trip had an auspicious beginning. We had a two pound sample of what looked to be a beautifully prepared Organic Robusta which we hoped to “cup” when we got to Mbale, and we had a mutually agreed-to trading relationship started if the coffee proved to be of good quality. It was not my primary purpose to search for another cooperative to work with, especially a coop that had never sold a pound of coffee before, but I use about 75,000 pounds of Robusta each year in our very popular, high caffeine coffee “Pony Express” which I now buy from Importers.

IMG_0090At Thanksgiving Coffee go to great effort to make sure we know the farmers we buy from and work with them directly. It is essential to our buying plan that the price farmers receive is high enough that they WANT to continue growing coffee. We want the farmer to love their trees because those trees are providing food, clothing, shelter, health care and education for their family and community. Trees that are loved produce better coffee, they are no different than tomato plants or marijuana plants: care for them, love them, and they will respond. That is the key to sourcing great coffee and sustaining the farmers’ efforts. Quality of life and quality of coffee go hand in hand.

The road from Jinja to Mbale was red clay – dry and dusty. It’s the same material that most buildings are made from. A great and endless building material. This photo is rich in information. A dirt highway comes to a paved road with electricity poles and wires, a billboard advertising a soda of some kind, two motorcycles, people walking and a truck loaded with hand-sawed slab lumber driving to market. The trees are semi arid in their type, not at all tropical. In this dry, dusty Ugandan moment where the paved road began, I started to ready myself for the work ahead, the major reason for my 23 hour trip to the other side of the world – Uganda is 11 hours ahead of California time. Paved roads mean you are getting close to something!

At a gas station close to Mbale we came upon this sweet fruit vendor. We ate some bananas for lunch, something I don’t think of doing in the USA. Bananas in the tropics are like candy – and you look upon them as safe energy food. I thought I was taking a still shot but the video was on and I was lucky to get her little hip rotation presentation of her wares and that wonderful smile as it formed. She made me feel special in a male/female kind of way. I felt that she actually saw me more deeply then I could ever see her.

IMG_0109

Here you see the way they do building in Uganda. They are, surprisingly, not artisan bricklayers – they just are bricklayers. I could see holes in the backyard where the bricks came from: you rarely see truck loads of bricks being transported to building sites because the bricks are made on location.

I went to Uganda to visit the Interfaith Cooperative of Jews, Christians and Muslims called Mirembe Kawomera. This cooperative has an incredible story – and Thanksgiving Coffee Company became the story teller for this miraculous group. We have purchased their entire coffee crop each year since 2004, and their coffee has been Certified Fair Trade and Organic the entire time. We market this coffee to faith-based groups, Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and to people who believe in and work for Interfaith healing in a troubled world.

Peace Kawomera Sign

 This cooperative presents, perhaps the greatest coffee story ever told, and we have seen our efforts to promote this cooperative bring a modicum of fame (Oprah’s O Magazine) and recognition (Tufts University Jean Mayer Award). We sell the coffee to over 200 religous groups and congregations nationwide and our supply of green beans was running out when I left for Uganda. The supply was running out because the 2012 crop, which was slated to be shipped December 2012 and to arrive in Oakland in May 2013, was eight months late. I went to Mbale to find out why.

I had some clues before I left:

  1. The contract required that all the coffee be from the central washing station.
  2. In a Skype call to the Mirembe Kawomera Coop (PKC) manager ard the full Board back in October 1013, I  asked what was causing the delay and I was told that they could only produce 110 sacks that they brought through their washing station.

Because our contract was for 250 sacks (37,500 pounds purchased at $3.05/pound), they did not know what to do and were instructed by our Importer (in the USA) to blend in other Ugandan coffees with the washing station coffees to fill the container – and ship it to Thanksgiving Coffee Company for sale as PKC washing station coffee. This presented a problem of certifiable authenticity of the product Thanksgiving Coffee presents to our customers.

The system of authenticity had broken down and I was there to see if I could verify that 110 sacks were actually run through the central PKC washing station. I needed to verify that each farmer’s delivery was recorded with their name, amount paid and farm location – and that all of this was recorded in the Cooperative’s records for the Fair Trade and Organic Certifiers to verify through their own field trips to farms.

This was a serious effort on all our parts to get back on track. We all knew that the transparency issue is essential to the trust we use as a basis for working together. Similarly, our customers depend on trusting that what they wish to support is what they are buying – that their purchases are going toward the economic development of a community of courageous people who believed that by coming together in an interfaith coalition coffee cooperative, they could better their personal lives, and their community life as well.

Here’s a video clip from the first meeting to discuss our mission. I asked each member of the Board to help me remember each one of them when I got home because I was not good remembering names and putting them with faces.


To be continued…

-Paul

A Trip to Africa (series archive)
Intro – I’m going to Africa
Day 1 – Arriving in Uganda
Day 2 – Dancing, Mango Trees & the Dry Mill
Day 3 – On the Road
Day 4 – Transparency, Trust & Relationships
Day 5 – Coffee Quality & A New Mystery
Day 6 – The Mystery Coffee’s Story

A Trip to Africa: Day 3 – On the Road

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.

Paul's Hotel in Uganda

After two days in Jinja in the poor countryside we would return to our hotel for a touch of our comfortable western style life. Hot showers, fruit sliced properly, Gin and Tonic: Uganda was a British Colony back 60 years ago. In the background you can see the Colonial Style architecture beyond the pool. The Hotel manager who came to greet us at our arrival was in a suit and tie, very British in accent. He was from South Africa and considered his “posting” here at the hotel as a purgatory and informed us he was leaving “his post” in two weeks to return to Johannesburg to resume his life.

Driving to Mbale, Uganda

In this photo, we are approaching the coffee growing region of Mt. Elgon, just outside of Mbale. In the distance you can see the mountain. It rises up rather spectacularly as you approach it.

Nick in a Tea Field

Here is my traveling partner, Mr. Nicholas Hoskyns. Nick is a Brit who lives in Nicaragua. He is an expert in many fields and specifically cooperative management and business practices. He is the President of a British Charity called ETICO, an acronym for “Ethical Trading Company.” Being British I thought it appropriate to photograph him in a tea field! In his hand he is holding “two leafs and a bud”, the most delicate of the new growth and most flavorful.

By this time, I was getting excited to visit the Mirembe Kawomera Fair Trade Cooperative. This is a cooperative that consists of Jews, Christians and Muslims who came together to work in a coffee cooperative system to obtain the benefits of selling into the Fair Trade and Organic specialty coffee export market. It is the only such Interfaith cooperative in the world and their story has been documented in a 60 minute documentary called “Delicious Peace Grows in a Ugandan Coffee Bean.

The cooperative has been awarded many honors. Thanksgiving Coffee Company has promoted their coffee under the Mirembe Kawomera (Delicious Peace) label since 2004 and promises that only the coffee that their members grow is found in the packages and that each package sold adds $0.25 cents to a fund that we send to them each year to be their “in kind” contribution when they seek grants for projects to improve their community. To date we have sent $95,000 and they have built a central coffee washing station with grants from USAID, a climate change program with a tree planting project and in the works for this year will be an expansion of their central washing station and a cupping lab for tasting their coffees of each farmer prior to export so they all can taste the fruits of their individual labor on their farms.

Last year, we had some hang-ups in the coffee supply chain. Mirembe Kawomera was unable to produce a full container of coffee for us and the shipment was eight months late. Orders were coming in and we could not substitute any other coffee for their package. What was going on? Nick came with me to examine the books and help with the supply chain logistics.

Roadside Store in Uganda

What’s going on in this photo? The facade on the store is a Persian mosaic – Muslim occupants I would guess. I probably could have gotten off here and settled into a simple life of walking two miles to get the day’s water from a well that ten kids were filling five gallon plastic containers for their families (40 pounds) and carrying it back many miles instead of being in school or playing little League baseball. Actually Uganda is soccer crazy. They seem to favor Arsenal in the Upper leagues of Europe.

Tomorrow we will visit the Mirembe Kawomera facilities to meet with their Board of directors and talk about their issues and my issues.

To be continued…
-Paul

A Trip to Africa (series archive)
Intro – I’m going to Africa
Day 1 – Arriving in Uganda
Day 2 – Dancing, Mango Trees & the Dry Mill
Day 3 – On the Road
Day 4 – Transparency, Trust & Relationships
Day 5 – Coffee Quality & A New Mystery
Day 6 – The Mystery Coffee’s Story

A Trip to Africa: Day 2 – Dancing, Mango Trees & The Dry Mill

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.

Mango Trees in Uganda

Our first day in Uganda was a real experience. The farmers met under a giant Mango tree that had just produced over 1,000 pounds of ripe mangoes and was beginning to flower for next year’s fruit. These trees grow wild and can be found everywhere. In the shade of the tree people danced and celebrated. The heart of Rock and roll and the Blues came from these people – I could feel the rhythms vibrate my body and I was moved to dance … but just couldn’t get in there with them. I felt the beat but didn’t feel I had the moves.

The kid who was drumming was good! (see below)

 

 

Roadside Crossroad in Uganda

Back on the road north to our primary Destination, The city of Mbale, the home of Mirembe Kawamera Cooperative. This is the famous interfaith cooperative of Jews, Christians and Muslims working together in a small outlying mountain village in the shadow of Mt. Elgon in the northeastern part of Uganda. This photo shows a typical roadside crossroad. Hard to say what is going on there but in the background is another Giant Mango tree and to the left down the road a couple of hundred feet are banana trees.

 

Roadside store in Uganda

This homestead along the road had solar electric panels right in front of their house.

 

Solar Panels in Uganda

The two hour trip from Jinja to Mbale was filled with a life force so different, visually. These pictures show how western culture mixes with people who have too little but need the same things we need. Food, clothing, shelter and commerce. This little store sells what is needed, not what is wanted. The difference narrows the selections down to what is available to sell.

Carrying Coffee Sacks in Uganda

This was our first destination in Mbale, The “dry mill” where our coffee is readied for export after being received from the primary cooperative in the mountains. This is where the coffee is graded (sorted) for defects and the parchment is milled off of the coffee and the burlap sacks are filled with 152 pounds of green coffee beans. Yes, those guys are carrying 150 lbs of coffee.

To be continued…

-Paul

A Trip to Africa (series archive)
Intro – I’m going to Africa
Day 1 – Arriving in Uganda
Day 2 – Dancing, Mango Trees & the Dry Mill
Day 3 – On the Road
Day 4 – Transparency, Trust & Relationships
Day 5 – Coffee Quality & A New Mystery
Day 6 – The Mystery Coffee’s Story

A Trip to Africa: Day 1 – Arriving In Uganda

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.

Lake Victoria - Uganda

We arrived in Uganda (Entebbe Airport) at midnight. In two hours we were in Jinja to visit a coffee cooperative that is producing organic Robusta coffee. This might be the only organic Robusta in the world – so I was eager to meet the farmers.

Our hosts and drivers were from Communities of Shalom, a US-based interfaith social justice organization based at Drew University that has been doing Economic Development work at the cooperative for the past nine months. They work to build community strength and empower coffee farmers to run their cooperatives effectively – so that they can benefit farmers and their families.

We awoke the following morning to see Lake Victoria from our hotel window. Lake Victoria is the headwaters to the Nile. I felt the water, just as I did the Mississippi River 50 years ago when I first crossed it. It felt good!

Coop Chairman's Farm in Uganda

On The Coop chairman’s farm we posed for a picture. Note the large Mango tree in the background and the Banana tree under it to the left.  The weather was mild, about 80 degrees, and the sun was beginning to warm the top of my head. Fredrick’s farm was about as self-sufficient food wise as one would enjoy here in the USA.

Mango & Banana trees
Here you can see the coffee trees being shaded by the Banana trees and the large trunk in the background of a very tall Mango tree shading all the undergrowth, keeping the ground cool and the moisture in this soil. I loved the Sign that reads “Organic Power Plant,” a broad-based double-meaning  set of words. One cow’s manure will fertilize 1,000 coffee trees per year and the urine tea provides nitrogen. No waste here. Plus, milk and cheese for the family. Organic Power Plant indeed!
Robusta drying
Robusta coffee is processed using what is called “The Dry Method.” The cherries put out in the sun to dry. Fredrick had some recent pickings drying on a plastic mat when we arrived and about another 25 pounds of ripe cherries ready for sun drying with the cherry pulp still on the cherry. You can see how they turn black when they dry. In this photo I am smelling the de-hulled and finished coffee that was taken from the paper bag next to the sack of cherries.  The beans were clean and sweet smelling and foretold, I hope, a bright future in the cup.
A job well done!
When I congratulated the farmers on a job well done, Moses (the Community’s political leader) and the farmers were happy campers. This is because last year, the sample brought back to me was dirty and moldy,  so I rejected it and sent instructions for them to follow for the next harvest season. This time, I was there to buy their coffee if it was clean and smelled sweet. Robusta is not a coffee variety that is noted for its flavor but it is useful in many other ways (body in Espresso blends for one). I agreed to purchase the coffee and I became the coop’s first international buyer.

In this photo, my associate and Board member of Thanksgiving Coffee who is an expert on coffee supply chain infrastructure (how to get it from there to here), was explaining something we found by pure luck. It was, as I explained to the farmers, perfect timing that we arrived to see a potential disaster averted. Nick was showing them the problem. On the mat in front of him, the black drying cherries had a white mold softly covering the skins. The cherries were allowed to dry too slowly. They were probably not covered at night and the dew promoted the mold growth.
But, as luck would have it, there was a fresher lot to the right on the same mat and it was mold free. The lessons were there to be drilled home. All it took was a smell test and everyone knew what was needed, especially when I told them that the moldy smell was just a smell, but could they imagine drinking a coffee that tasted moldy ?  The batch was separated and the potential for the coop coffees improved…if word gets out to all the farmers in the Coop.
To be continued
– Paul

A Trip to Africa: Intro – I’m going to Africa

Paul KatzeffBy Paul Katzeff, CEO & Co-Founder, Thanksgiving Coffee

On January 12, I depart my comfortable home on the North Coast of California to visit coffee Farmers and Cooperatives in Rwanda and Uganda. I haven’t visited them on their home turf for almost a decade. Over the last several years Ben Corey Moran, our former Director of Coffee, deepened our relationships with Cooperative leaders and farmers in Africa. It is my intention that this visit will strengthen those ties.

AfricaI’ll be traveling with Nicholas Hoskyns of Etico, an import/export company that has imported our Nicaraguan coffees for the past two years. In 2004 he accompanied me to Rwanda on a USAID consulting job to help The Cooperative Coffee Sector plan its “cupping lab” construction project for cooperatives. He has a vast knowledge of Cooperatives and their organizational structures.

The trip’s focus will be on collaboration: How can our relationship improve quality of life for both coffee farmers and coffee roasters? I believe that quality of life and quality of coffee go hand in hand. There has to be opportunity for a better life in all parts of the coffee trading chain, from the farm to the cup. It is the farmers’ love of their trees that makes good coffee great. Back here in Ft. Bragg , California, it is our pride in what we create for the coffee lover that makes great coffee remain great.

There are some sticky issues that need attention, which have made this trip necessary. Primarily, about crop financing, shipment dates, and creating a system of transparency that demystifies the transfer of money from Thanksgiving Coffee to the individual farmers.

I want to have a first person experience in discovery and learning. And I want to share this 10 day adventure with you. I use the word “adventure” with a certain amount of respect for its broad application. I am not “going on an adventure,” but I know it will be an adventure. What I wish for is the most uneventful yet spiritual adventure. No ceremonial high points and no high fives or WOW’S! I’m hoping for a low key visit with a slow easy gait, and a smile on my face when I return home.

To be continued…

-Paul

A Trip to Africa (series archive)
Intro – I’m going to Africa
Day 1 – Arriving in Uganda
Day 2 – Dancing, Mango Trees & the Dry Mill
Day 3 – On the Road
Day 4 – Transparency, Trust & Relationships
Day 5 – Coffee Quality & A New Mystery

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