Gombe Coffee Project: Kanyovu Coop 2009

We were still hours from our destination, Kigoma, Tanzania, when we told our Rwandan driver, Saidi, to keep the Land Rover in the “ruts of the road.”

It appeared to be the safest place to ride. The “road” was really more of a trail left by Chinese contractors creating a new modern highway through the heart of Tanzania. But that dream of a road is three to five years from being finished. There are no caution signs in this part of the world. No orange cones to mark the way or flagmen to tell you which direction to travel that is the safest. This was nothing more than a rain soaked trail of orange clay that was often as slick as an oil spill on a glass plate. Unless we stayed in the ruts of the road, it was nearly impossible to stay on the road.

Moments later the unstoppable Land Rover, in 4-wheel drive, veered from the rut we had hoped to guide us and came[singlepic id=34 w=320 h=240 float=right] to an abrupt halt in the ditch to the left side of the road. We were stuck; no, we buried the front left side of the vehicle.

When in the middle of Africa, American style tow-trucks are not really an option. We were still hours from our destination, and our vehicle was buried so deep, I didn’t think we had any chance of unearthing it in a short period of time. This was officially the first time in two weeks of traveling through Africa I had a moment of trepidation. It didn’t look good.

A month earlier I was told the story of a group of Europeans who were traveling along this same road.  They hey were robbed of everything, including their clothes, and left naked with nothing but their pride. This was the worst case scenario that was coming to my mind. Hopeless in Tanzania; a long way from Kansas! But since I knew the worst case scenario, it was time to try and improve upon that scenario. We needed to dig out and quick!

Fortunately, a mini-van loaded with locals behind us had come prepared with shovels for just such an occasion. Apparently, this was not the first time this has happened. Our new friends quickly offered up assistance and nearly an hour and $20 later, we were back in our rut and safely on our way.

That $20 bill is close to a months wages in Tanzania but it was worth every penny to us. Kigoma and a warm bed awaited after a 14-hour drive that was easily the longest 4-wheel drive adventure I’ve taken to date. Sleep never came so easily as it did that night. Day one in Tanzania was under our belts and day two would be filled with beautiful coffee trees and new friends. Surely nothing so eventful would happen again.

Mubanga Primary Society

As the sun rose over the sleepy town of Kigoma, the rains from the previous day seemed miles away. My friend and colleague Sara Morrocchi, of Sustainable Harvest Kigoma, met me at the hotel ready to lead the way.

[singlepic id=30 w=320 h=240 float=left]Morrocchi, a young Italian woman, is Sustainable Harvest’s Tanzania Office director. She has a master’s degree in Peacekeeping from Universities in Italy and the U.K. and somehow found her way into the African coffee industry. She’s fluent in four languages, including Spanish and Swahili which comes in handy every day in Tanzania. Many locals speak English, but in the more rural parts, English is rarely spoken and Swahili is the standard language.

Her leadership and respect is apparent as she is able to quickly befriend almost everyone she meets. As we get closer to our destination, neighbor children shout her name as we pass by – “Sara, Sara” – the children scream as they run towards the vehicle. It’s very charming even though Sara seems slightly embarrassed by the whole event.

Morrocchi is charged with assisting the Kanyovu Coffee Cooperative.  She represents nearly 5,000 Tanzanian farmers who work in one of the world’s most threatened ecosystems. She is helping them improve coffee quality, decrease pressures on the landscape and achieve a profit for their harvest, creating a sustainable income for the Cooperatives members.

This project started a couple of years ago when members of the coop sought assistance for improving their coffee[singlepic id=32 w=320 h=240 float=right].  Farmers were not receiving a sustainable price for their coffee. The price the farmers were receiving was directly tied to the quality of the coffee they produced. Unfortunately, they had little knowledge of proper coffee farming techniques and a lack of water complicated the task even more. With the help of Sustainable Harvest and a group of coffee roasters from the United States(including PTs Coffee Roasting Co.) , training is being implemented and quality is improving.

The Kanyovu Coop is an umbrella organization that represents 10 smaller primary societies in the Kigoma region. The washing station that I was visiting, Mubanga Primary Society, is next on the list for upgrades in water conserving processing equipment that simplifies the process for farmers and reduces the loss of this precious natural resource. This area is one of the most remote and impoverished regions in Tanzania. However, it possesses all the essential elements needed for quality coffee: high altitude, fertile soils and heirloom varietals called Bourbon.

[singlepic id=31 w=320 h=240 float=left]Until the new equipment arrives later this summer, the washing station is still processing coffee with a hand operated de-pulper and using the traditional method to ferment the coffee. (see Video) With technical assistance provided by Sara and her staff, quality has improved enough to garner a higher price, and this higher price has already improved living standards of the people in this region.

I arrived just before noon and waited as the producers began to arrive with the day’s harvest. In order to receive a higher price for their coffee, a lot has been required of the coffee producers. They can no longer simply strip the trees of all fruit; selective harvesting and proper sorting techniques are a must. Sustainable Harvest is holding a ripe cherry competition this season where the farmer with the most ripe coffee cherries will collect an additional sum of money.

Producers weigh their harvest using a hanging scale that checks total weight of the coffee. Then the coffee cherry must[singlepic id=33 w=320 h=240 float=right] be sorted to select only the ripest of red fruit. Under-ripe or over-ripe cherries are not permitted and are rejected if not sorted properly. This system is not perfect, but the coop is a work in progress. And progress is being made on a daily basis.

Specialty Coffee of the nature we purchase requires attention be paid to every detail of the harvest. We don’t purchase coffees where corners are cut, mills are left dirty or selective harvesting is not employed. This may seem harsh, but it is the nature of the specialty coffee industry. One cherry that has mold can ruin an entire day’s harvest for every member of the cooperative.

Since I visited on the first day of harvest, there was indeed a lot of unripe cherry that was harvested. Sara and her staff have their work cut out for them, but they are up for the task and have indeed shown great progress in other regions.



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