How your flat white can make a difference in the developing world
if there’s one scent most of us think we know, it’s coffee. what few realise, however, is that when it’s in bloom, a coffee plant doesn’t smell like coffee, but like jasmine. it looks like it too. tiny, perfectly imperfect blooms that will each become a cherry, ripening at varying rates on the branch before each producing a bean that will pass through hundreds of hands and likely travel thousands of miles before ending up, eventually, in your cup. coffee, a layman quickly discovers, is a complicated business.
Garfield Kerr, however, has made his living dealing in the complicated. the Us-educated Jamaican lawyer had spent years pulling 18-hour days on wall street, working as an investment fund manager, when, in 2010, he found himself in Yemen conducting a feasibility study for a private equity firm that wanted to export speciality coffee from the country. During the visit, he met Kim thompson and Matt toogood of Dubai’s Raw coffee, who set out to give him a crash course in the realities of the business for those at the sharp end.
“we broke bread with family farmers wherever we went,” Garfield recalls. “the significance of coffee to these farmers was never lost on us and, while i was one hundred per cent certain at the time that i would never pursue anything in the coffee industry, everyone else was joking constantly that i was already in the coffee sector.
“i had become very much interested in the fact that most people drink coffee and never give a thought to the incredibly arduous labour that goes into every cup you have at breakfast or on the go before a workout. along the coffee value chain, the farmer does most of the difficult labour and recovers by far the smallest portion of the profits. and women are present along 90 per cent of the coffee value chain but make up less than ten per cent of ownership or management. i became more and more passionate about redressing that wrong.”
the result was Mokha 1450, a coffee boutique in Dubai’s al Bada that has made a name for itself selling uniqueto-market specialty coffees, primarily from farms run by women in countries including Yemen, Jamaica and Ethiopia, while also acting as a csR initiative for some of its backers. while large-scale producers such as nestlé, starbucks, costa et al have to balance flavour with cost concerns, for speciality buyers such as Garfield, the quality of the bean, the clarity of the production process and, ultimately, the flavour the coffee can offer, is key.
“Fairtrade works really well in some places and is a very good way for companies that can’t travel to meet the farmers directly to buy coffee with confidence. nonetheless, for us, we are working with some farmers that are small and some that are quite large, and their needs are different, so we prefer direct trade. the smaller farmers, for instance, may not be in a position to afford all that is required to obtain fairtrade certification, so we work with them directly so they can grow into larger size farms. and one of the biggest benefits for us from direct trade is that we have coffees that are only available at our café and nowhere else in the world.”
as such, he and his business partners work extensively with the farmers they buy from to make their businesses more successful and sustainable, from providing training on how best to pick
the coffee to assisting with logistical concerns. “our programme varies from paying a higher premium for all of our coffees generally to supporting a new well to provide water to our female farmers,” he explains. “we predominantly focus on ways to help the farmers we work with in whatever capacity they need, whether it is simply being paid up front or overcoming a structural impediment.”
if that sounds abstract, the impact of such a working approach becomes clear when one hits the ground with Garfield and sees the reception he and his companions receive in Ethiopia. the strength of respect towards the impact of direct trade is never clearer than on the Bebeka farm, near the country’s troubled sudanese border region, where the record price Garfield pays for his top-grade Ethiopian Geisha beans sees us granted something of a ViP welcome, albeit one that is initially undermined somewhat by the liberal distribution of aK47s throughout the welcoming party.
indeed, in many ways Garfield is an interesting travel companion, a man who is more than happy to get in amongst the village kids, blowing up balloons and handing out school supplies, but who stands out amongst his fellow industry travellers in their hiking boots and active wear, appearing daily in freshly-pressed clothes and, at one point, a custom three-piece suit. church’s loafers, he discovers in good humour, are not ideal footwear for climbing the banks of a waterfall. and while the irony of his handing out pens to the village kids bearing the names of five-star resorts the world over – he saves them up during his travels – is not lost on him, if the dichotomy between his life and the life of those he’s working to support weighs on him, it does so lightly. “to be honest, i think the reason i’ve managed to gain the trust of the farmers we work with is that i’m from Jamaica and, while my background was more stable than it is for many of them, it wasn’t all that different. i’m not from a fancy background. i’m one of them and you can’t fake that. they’d know if you were faking it. “so i meet people at their level. i’ll happily sit on the dirt to eat lunch. there may be big money investment behind this, and of course i have to make sure that what i’m doing is profitable, but other than that it doesn’t really affect me. i don’t view my interactions here as a rich and poor situation
“MY JOB IS TO PAY A HIGHER, FAIRER PRICE AND PROVE TO OTHER BUYERS THAT WE CAN STILL MAKE A PROFIT DOING SO”
and neither do the people I’m working with. It has no bearing.
“That said, of course, I’m always aware that there is a discrepancy between the way I live and the way they live, so my job is to do what I can to change that as best I can, to pay a higher, fairer price and still make a profit. And it’s important that we can do that, and prove to other buyers that we can do that. We’re still making a profit. The fact that prices have barely changed for coffee for so long is outrageous. We’re here to prove that it can be fairer and everyone can still make a living.”
Certainly, business must be going well, given final preparations are under way ahead of the opening of Mokha 1450’s second branch on The Palm Jumeirah, a venue that looks likely to introduce the brand to a whole new expat market. And while Garfield is loathe to preach to anyone about the impact of their consumer decisions, he’s hopeful that he can harness Dubai’s current interest in ethical consumerism to take the next step forward for the farmers he works with.
“At the end of the day, people should buy the coffee they like from whomever they chose to,” he shrugs. “However, I think it is important to recognise the hard work that goes into bringing them that coffee. It’s a labour intensive endeavour, the farmers are not getting paid a fair share and can’t survive on the low income coffee generates, and that’s a serious problem for the industry.
“As global demand continues to rise, supply is projected to decline as new generations from coffee farming communities decide to move to the cities to pursue other lines of employment – ones that offer a fair wage and allow them, at a minimum, to support themselves. That’s why, from my perspective, it’s important that where we can, we buy our coffee from cafés that know their supply chain and actively support measures to pay the farmers a fair wage. That’s where we can all make a difference.”
“I think it is important to recognise the hard work that goes into bringing coffee to market”
1. inside the horizon processing plant, addis ababa 2. turning the coffee husks into fuel blocks 3. coffee cherries ripe for picking 4. Guarding the coffee on the Bebeka Estate 5. Being greeted at a plantation school
6. Children on the roadside, Gesha region 7. Village life 8. Rural farmers with their donkeys 9. Welcoming guests 8.