Hamidou's sister began shipping samples of green (un-roasted) coffee beans from Cameroon to Vermont for Pierre to see and test. Hamidou hoped that Pierre would see potential for a new country of origin for specialty coffee and that they would be able to travel to Cameroon together.
Pierre indeed saw potential, but also great challenge. The bean quality was nowhere near specialty-grade, an SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) status that mandates careful picking and sorting techniques. The hope was that, by teaming up with coffee workers in Cameroon to elevate the coffee and introducing a new specialty product to the market we could help coffee workers make more money.
In 2009 Pierre joined Hamidou and Ingrid (another long-time Mocha Joe's employee) on Mocha Joe's first trip to Cameroon. They went during the harvest season with an eye to begin the process of elevating the coffee to specialty status.
As a result of this trip, in March 2009 Mocha Joe's Roasting Co. partnered with the Farmer’s Cooperative Initiative, a group of U.S. roasters and investors working with 31 farming families in the Northwest of Cameroon, to pre-finance and import the first container of specialty-grade coffee to the U.S. from Cameroon.
In the winter of 2011, Pierre and his family spent four months living with coffee farmers in the Cameroonian village of Fongo Tongo. They were there from December through the spring to oversee harvest, milling, and export. Pierre hired Philip Younyi, a local agronomist who has worked with coffee in Cameroon for 10 years, to be our Director of Operations in Cameroon.
Philip is our first full-time Cameroonian employee.
There have been numerous agricultural challenges getting the Cameroon coffee up to Specialty and Organic standards which would yield a better price for the farmers. The first step towards specialty qualification process was to teach farmers, pickers and sorters to sort according to SCAA specialty-grade criteria. This has been well recieved and very successful. We also spent time training the workers to pick only the red cherries on the trees and not those that have fallen to the ground. The result is a larger supply of quality beans delivered to the sorters. Cherries that are picked properly yield beans that are devoid of common defects that would rule out SCAA specialty status.
While our initial focus was on sorting techniques, over the next few years we expanded our focus to improving crop quality at the farm level. We and our consultants have been working closely with local agronomists to train farmers to recognize common problems with the coffee that cause defects in the cup and how to combat them.
An abundant coffee harvest begins with good trees. Unfortunately, in the Cameroonian village of Oku, most of the trees are 20 to 40 years old. Trees of this age aren’t nearly as productive as younger trees. It is estimated that the old trees in Oku yield only 25% of younger trees’ potential. This means many farmers are taking away a fraction of their trees former potential. Farmers have a lot to gain from younger, healthier trees.
The Mocha Joe’s team took our first, small steps toward addressing this issue in 2012, when Kevin (former manager of the organic project) and Philip (our agronomist and Director of Operations in Cameroon) planted a nursery that yielded 5,000 trees, which was distributed to farmers in 2014. In addition, Philip is training some of the farmers we work with to run the nursery.
The trees that are planted in the nursery aren’t only young; they’re resistant to coffee rust, a fungus which destroys the coffee plant's ability to photosynthesize. The trees reach the point of maturity needed to start producing coffee within a couple of years, bringing more money to farmers and more coffee to the market.
Once these initial steps were taken, it wasn't long before the first ever specialty-grade coffee left Cameroon. Pierre was inspired to increase the scope of the project, incorporating more farmers into the Direct Trade partnership and beginning the organic project.
In 2012, Mocha Joe’s took on the challenge of getting Organic Certification for a group of farmers. These efforts are concentrated in Oku, a town in the Northwest region where many farmers have traditionally practiced organic farming techniques, although without being certified.
The spring of 2013 brought a huge success to the farmers: the first ever Certified Organic coffee from Cameroon! We had 54 family farmers attain USDA Organic Certification and are looking to bring more into the project. Mocha Joe’s offers farmers 40% above market price for organic coffee.
Clearly, Mocha Joe’s isn’t only interested in Cameroon insofar as it provides us with fantastic coffee. We want the Cameroonian farmers to have a stable, sustainable business independent of our mutually beneficial relationship. The time that Pierre has spent in Cameroon, along with the relationships they’ve developed there, has allowed him a panoramic view of the many challenges facing coffee workers in the country. Part of these issues is a predatory loan system that requires farmers to forfeit their coffee harvest to exorbitant interest rates of 200%.
Mocha Joe’s began a loan program that allows Cameroonian farmers to take out no-interest loans on up to 50% of their coffee before and during harvest season.
Though the Cameroonian farmers with whom we work are under no contractual obligation to sell to us, Mocha Joe’s pays above market price for conventional (non-organic) coffee in exchange for the higher quality of coffee that results from careful sorting and farming techniques. This is not only beneficial to the farmers we work with but for other farmers in the region as well, since other buyers must compete with us by paying more.
By cutting out the middle man, along with paying above market price for coffee, Mocha Joe’s compensates workers in the coffee production chain with a living wage for their valuable role in producing high-quality coffee. The result is mutually beneficial: Workers get paid better and we get to bring you specialty coffee from Cameroon.