Why coffee importers should prioritise origin trips

Esther Gibbs
April 7, 2023
An image of a coffee farmer hand picking coffee cherries during coffee harvest season in an article on why coffee importers should prioritise origin trips

Raw Material differs from the average specialty coffee importer, as it is a community interest company (CIC), with 100% of the profits going back to producers.

With a base in Colombia, Raw Material purchases coffees from Burundi, Rwanda, Mexico, and Timor-Leste, the company aims to create a positive impact by focusing on social, economic, and environmental issues.

One thing the company understands is change will look different within each country, region, association, and individual. Therefore, it has tailored its business model to be effective within each context.

In order to have a sustainable impact, Raw Material has built up an in-depth understanding of the country and culture through origin trips to the places they purchase coffee from. Building relationships during these visits to communities, cooperatives, and associations is an essential part of the company’s philosophy.

To learn more about what coffee origin trips can mean for importers and their partners, I spoke with Mat North, the logistics and quality control officer at Raw Material

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Behind the cup: Understanding coffee farm logistics

When it comes to purchasing coffee, it is essential to understand its context. 

Visiting coffee-producing communities can help importers and roasters understand the needs of locals, the region’s politics, and the environment. 

In order to make any sort of impact, importers must be able to provide what the community actually needs – not what the importer believes or assumes it needs. 

“It can be tricky to explain impact without context,” explains Mat, who is also the author of Coffee – A Modern Field Guide. “For instance, in Burundi, there is a mandatory coffee cherry price, so the value cannot be returned to the community through buying prices alone.”

Therefore, it is essential for Raw Material to explore other ways to return value to coffee producers in the region. “We return value by elevating wages for washing stations and health insurance during harvest seasons,” Mat explains.

When Raw Material began buying coffee in Timor-Leste, the company was able to pay more than the market rate. As a result, it was able to raise the blanket price for coffee cherries in the country by 20%.

Notably, visiting coffee producers allows importers to see development within communities first-hand. After visiting El Carmen, Colombia, in 2019 and returning in 2022, Mat witnessed a radical difference in the prosperity of the town.

The price of coffee in Colombia peaked during that period, to the point where coffee farmers made a profit, and the town reflects this. The town now boasts a football pitch, several bars, two pool halls, a variety of shops, a restaurant, and a workshop.

Several locals invested in transportation and storage for their coffees, which had increased in value. As a result, the community was flourishing. 

“Farmers have been making a sustained profit for the first time in decades,” Mat says. “They no longer have to take micro-loans or stretch the gap between crops.” 

With each visit, Mat learns more about the coffee chain. For example, further north in Colombia, at Villamaria in Caldas, coffee cherries are picked by hand. 

The harvest usually consists of about 60% ripe, 20% overripe, and 20% under-ripe cherries, which are then, once again, sorted by hand. 

On the most recent visit to Villamaria’s buying point, Finca La Aurora, it was observed that the seasonal work of hand-sorting the purchased cherry has become a great income stream for community members and most notably, single mothers.

An image of a coffee cupping session at origin, coffee producers cupping coffee samples during an origin trip in an article on why coffee importers should prioritise origin trips

Translating sustainable impact along the coffee supply chain

It is important to note Raw Material makes a significant impact without having to be on the ground.

Through his quality control position, Mat has facilitated improvement in the coffee through remote testing and feedback.

This has been paired with helping the farmers source the equipment they need, such as a water activity metre. 

Technology has allowed producers, importers, and roasters to exchange useful information quickly. 

“The beauty of technology is that anyone can contact a coffee farmer,” Mat says. “Before, we had to rely on email, but it was predominately only the large-scale farmers that had access.”

“Now everyone has a phone, and there is such an exchange of information! It really changes the agency in the supply chain.” 

Raw Material presents these visits to roasters as a business trip to meet their suppliers. “It is a business transaction, and therefore, it’s an equal opportunity,” Mat says. “It is an opportunity for them to meet the producers they trade with.”

The trip often includes cuppings of potential micro lots available for purchase and visits to the local towns, producers, coffee farms, and washing stations. 

An image of coffee producers at origin brewing coffee during an origin trip in an article on why coffee importers should prioritise origin trips

Educating consumers about coffee producers 

For the majority of coffee importers, the ultimate reward of an origin trip is being able to see the impact first-hand. 

“Visiting origin farms and seeing that impact helps solidify our customers’ decision to buy from that association, producer, or washing station,” Mat explains. 

“They can see the impact their purchase makes, and frequently, they choose to commit to buying in following seasons.”

This commitment benefits producers, as the partnership can contribute to the longevity and assurance of the farm’s future.  

Just as roasters want to meet their suppliers, producers want to meet their customers, too. 

“They want to know what the other end of the value stream looks like,” Mat says. “They want to know who is buying their coffee and that there is value in it.”

While coffee tourism has had negative connotations associated with colonialism within the industry, Mat expresses that it serves as an important revenue for the communities. 

Tourism brings people into the community, which can bring income to small businesses such as taxi drivers, hotels, restaurants and more. 

To ensure a sustainable future for coffee, all agents in the supply chain must work together and understand the issues each is facing. 

When executed well, origin trips to coffee-producing countries can be an essential ingredient for change and beneficial to all parties.

For roasters, it can help them understand the processes behind coffee, meet their suppliers, and see the impact of trading differently. For importers, origin tips can help build and maintain relationships, source coffees, and support meaningful impact.

For producers, trips can help them learn about what their customers want, produce revenue for their community, and increase sales while building long-term relationships. 

As a sustainable packaging provider, MTPak Coffee also understands the importance of coffee origin trips and is dedicated to taking a more hands-on approach.

In addition to working closely with our packaging clients, MTPak Coffee is committed to supporting coffee producers at origin.

While participating in PRF El Salvador 2023, MTPak Coffee founder, Mark Zhou was honoured to take part in the Sourcing Trip Experience (STE) in order to develop a greater understanding of the supply chain, as well as the importance of direct trade with farmers.

Furthermore, we offer a range of customisable coffee boxes made from 100% recycled cardboard. These are ideal options for roasters who wish to test out a new design without overwhelming customers.

Choose from renewable materials such as kraft paper, rice paper, or multilayer LDPE packaging with an environmentally friendly PLA lining.

For more information on sustainable, custom-printed coffee packaging, contact our team.

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