We sat down with our supply partners from Karst Organics to have an open and honest conversation about their work with their coffee farming partners in the Southeast Asian nation of East Timor.
Creating full transparency for our value chain including price transparency, transparency in environmental practices and the social context in which the coffee is grown has been part of our vision here at Kontext Coffee Co. from the beginning. It took us a few years to find our footing in the business, find the right questions to ask and build relationships based on trust and honesty with partners who are willing to provide us with the answers to those questions. We are currently working on finding a meaningful way to present that information to you without distorting it, instead of dumping raw numbers and data on you that won't actually hold any meaning without a proper context. Bear with us as we are working on this and watch this space for more on how we establish transparency to ensure more equity in our coffee trade.
Two of the partners we have come to trust in this process are Kar-Yee Cheung and Stewart Hamilton-Deans from Karst Organics.
Kontext Coffee Co.: Hi Stewart, hi Kar-Yee, thanks for taking the time to talk to us and giving us an insight into your work! We have bought our first coffee from Timor-Leste from and through you this year and it has been a huge crowd pleaser because it is absolutely delicious! So please tell us more about this coffee, who grows it, where it comes from - in fact let's start there: Where is Timor-Leste?
Stewart: Timor-Leste is quite a young sovereign nation in Southeast Asia. It only gained its independence from Indonesia in 2002. Coffee was brought to Timor-Leste under Portuguese colonial rule in the 1500s and has been cultivated there ever since. As a people, the Timorese have gone through centuries of occupation, war and civil unrest which have left Timor-Leste behind in economic development.
Kontext Coffee Co.: That's quite literally the other end of the world - you are both from the UK, what brought you to Timor-Leste of all places?
Kar-Yee: We first came to Timor-Leste after the independence to support the Timorese government in building up their diplomatic services. Through this work we gained a fairly good insight into the budding Timorese economy which up until recently heavily relied on the oil and gas industry. But coffee has always been an important export commodity and the coffee quality has been increasing drastically over the last 10-15 years. However, farmers are still facing challenges regarding the country’s poor infrastructure and their access to international buyers. We feel very strongly that there is enormous potential in the beautiful and organically grown coffee that is produced there and decided to strike up a partnership with local coffee farming groups to support them in developing that potential and gain access to international markets more easily.
Kontext Coffee Co.: We chose the coffee from the Tau-Rema farmer group this year - what can you tell us about the place and the farmers?
Stewart: Tau-Rema is a small village located in the most easterly part of the district of Letefoho and sits at an altitude of 1,950masl. Timor-Leste’s soil is sediment based (which helps to distinguish itself from neighbouring Indonesia’s volcanic islands) with a high clay content contributing in plant fertility and nutrient retention. As with the majority of coffee at this altitude, the coffee plants are a mixture of Typica and Timor hybrid varietals which have developed a resistance to certain pests and plant diseases and are well adapted to the environment here.
The Tau-Rema group who produces your coffee is made up of 9 farmers and led by Domingos de Jesus Lima. They control the whole process from harvesting the cherries, pulping, fermenting, washing and drying of the parchment.
All coffee is grown under a canopy of shade trees and the farmers of Timor-Leste refer to these areas as coffee forests. The farmers from Tau-Rema harvest their cherries from early July to late August and because they pick the coffee cherries selectively, picking only the ripe cherries off the trees, this requires multiple harvests. Once picked, cherries are taken back to individual households where they are sorted to remove small or rogue unripe cherries before being manually pulped and then anaerobically fermented (submerged in water) for a period of 40-44 hours. Usually, this would see a pH level of between 4-4.2, which with all of our coffees seems to be the ideal point for a balance of sweetness and acidity. After this, Domingos and his colleagues will wash the coffee which will be dried close to the main central household in the Tau-Rema village on raised drying beds. The drying time for this coffee in 2022 was between 11 – 15 days which was longer than usual in Letefoho due to challenging weather conditions.
Domingos de Jesus Lima, lead farmer of the Tau-Rema group and his family (photo courtesy of Karst Organics)
Kontext Coffee Co. : How big are the plots the farmers of Tau-Rema grow their coffee on and what kind of average farm size are coffee farmers in Timor-Leste working with?
Stewart: We are currently measuring farm sizes for each of our partner farmers in all of our groups. This is yet to be carried out in Tau-Rema as this is our most remote group but we anticipate that this will be completed by the end of 2023.
Based on our initial GPS measurements from our other partner groups, we are seeing that the average farm size in Letefoho is around 1.5 hectares.
Kontext Coffee Co.: How long have you been working with this farmer group?
Stewart: We’ve been working with the Tau-Rema group for 2 years. We were first introduced to the farmers in 2020 by Maun Simao (Kontext Coffee Co: check out our virtual farm visit with Maun Simao) after he suggested that this was a potentially suitable group for us to work with. We went to visited Maun Domingos and his family to see what potential there could be to work together and visited the community’s coffee forests. Having taken Brix readings from various cherry samples it was clear that the coffee had a high sucrose content and therefore potential to do well given the right processing. The coffee that the Tau-Rema group produced from the 2021 harvest (the first harvest we worked with them) received an SCA score of 84.5. Given that this was the group’s first attempt in processing speciality coffee, this was certainly a landmark moment worth celebrating.
Kontext Coffee Co.: Can you tell us how many links, how many people or companies are involved in this value chain? In getting the coffee from Tau-Rema to Monmouth, how often does it change ownership and who gets paid what?
Stewart: So in the value chain that we have built here, we as Karst Organics are the only intermediary between you and the farmers of Tau-Rema. They sell their parchment coffee directly to us - this past harvest season at a rate of $3.00/kg of parchment coffee at the farmgate. We then get the coffee to the hulling station where the protective parchment layer is removed at a cost of $0.08/kg. After that a team of approx. 40 women are employed to hand sort the freshly hulled green beans for quality at the dry hulling facility and each worker will sort approx. 60 kilos per day. The cost for this hand sorting process is $0.12c/kg. Whilst technically dry-hulling is usually not seen as a part of the supply chain, we feel like it is still a point of interest as it adds further value to the end product and the women doing it are often overlooked. There are also packaging costs of $0.20/kg to consider. The green coffee is now ready for export by us, Karst Organics (registered company in Timor-Leste). We used the container shipping company ANL to transport the green coffee to the UK. Container shipping has become a major cost factor since Covid as we all know - prices have been all over the place and we have tried to absorb some of the extra costs but had to pass some of it on as well. The coffee was imported into the UK by us, Karst Organics (registered company in the UK) and sold directly to you and our other UK customers at a price of £7.50/kg.
Kontext Coffee Co.: With the state of the planet being what it is due to our intervention as a species, it is imperative to reflect on the impact our actions have on the planet. Can you tell us a bit more about the farming methods used in Tau-Rema as well as important topics like biodiversity, water management and waste disposal?
Kar-Yee: As Stewart already mentioned, all coffee in Tau-Rema (and all of Timor-Leste) is shade grown although it would be fair to say that the majority of our farmers don’t refer to their own coffee in this way. Many East Timorese coffee farmers grow other crops alongside their coffee, but wouldn’t use the term ‘agroforestry’ to describe their farming practices either. Effectively though, Tau-Rema, and most of Timor-Leste’s coffee farmers, are operating within an agroforestry system largely due to the Casuarina shade trees that were introduced to Timor-Leste during Portuguese colonisation. In addition to the shade they offer, the Casuarina trees are a legume which is important because their root system is packed with nitrogen-fixing bacteria which increase nitrogen levels in the soil, arguably the most important nutrient for coffee production.
Farming methods in Tau-Rema can be called traditional, with the entire process being completed by hand and no industrial machinery being used in any stage of the process. Essentially, our partner farmers approach to farming is guided by their animist beliefs which recognise the intrinsic connectivity between them and their surrounding natural landscape (including plants and animals) and their belief that this land should be respected and not dominated. The forest is integral to their life as it supplies food staples for daily consumption in addition to providing income through coffee. Some of the crops that we have seen alongside the coffee trees in Tau-Rema include banana trees (a good source of potassium for the soil), mango trees, avocado trees and root vegetables including yams, potatoes and taro. For our partner farmers in all of Letefoho, the forest is also a source for building materials and plants from which traditional medicines are made. From a Western perspective you would certainly say biodiversity is of crucial interest to this group (and all our partner farmers) as they are so intrinsically linked and reliant on the forest to supply them with their needs. From their perspective, they would not use the term 'biodiversity', but mainly refer to this as being a synonym for their animistic cultural practices. The canopy of the shade trees in Timor-Leste have created a biodiverse environment where in addition to the other crops growing alongside coffee plants, there is also a thriving bird population with approx. 250 different species, although we don’t have any data on what species are native to Letefoho. Native mammals living under the forest canopy in Letefoho and that we have personally seen include deer, civet cats, possums and shrews. There is also a large bat population, many geckos, snakes and the forest floor is rich in insect life.
Kontext Coffee Co.: Sounds absolutely beautiful and like a place we would love to visit! As we know, water use and availability can pose challenges in the coffee production process. What does the water situation look like in Tau-Rema?
Stewart: In Tau-Rema the individual households do not have a direct supply of water but the village has a reliable and plentiful well that serves the community and is fed from a source within a mountain located directly behind the village itself. Villages in Letefoho situated at lower altitudes do not have the same access to water as Tau-Rema and it is still common for households to have to walk 2-3km to collect water at centralised wells.
Washed coffee processing leaves the coffee farmers with very acidic fermentation water which is disposed of in a centralised pit located sufficiently away from any other crops or plants. Large stones are placed at the base of the pit, which combined with the heat of the sun, work as a natural filtration system to neutralise the water which is slowly reabsorbed into the earth.
Beautiful landscape surrounding the village of Tau-Rema (photo courtesy of Karst Organics)
Kontext Coffee Co.: Do the Tau-Rema farmers use any fertilisers or pesticides to grow their coffee? Are there any coffee-specific diseases they have to deal with?
Kar-Yee: There have been some isolated incidences of coffee rust (a fungal disease affecting the leaves and productivity of the plant) on some of the trees, usually older trees that need rehabilitation and these are not treated with chemicals. At the moment, rehabilitation is a key focus in Timor-Leste, so older trees are being prioritised for stumping and regeneration.
There have also been some isolated incidents of coffee borer beetle in Letefoho, mostly with our groups at altitudes below 1500masl. No chemicals are used to treat this problem either. We are currently working with 2 agronomists to see how we can lessen incidents of this.
None of our partner farmers in Letefoho currently use chemical fertilisers or pesticides. Only organic fertilisers are used, which is a mixture of coffee cherry skin, cow or chicken poo and other plant matter. This is placed at the base of the coffee trees prior to the wet season arriving so that when the rains do come, the fertiliser will be diluted and slowly absorbed by the soil. The idea of using chemicals on the land to control pests or increase yields does not align with our partner farmers animistic beliefs. Timor-Leste’s lack of development has meant that chemical fertilisers have yet to be introduced into agricultural practices, although as the country develops, this is an area that we hope our partner farmers won’t compromise on.
Kontext Coffee Co.: You mentioned your collaboration with agronomists for the farmer's support - are there any other support measures Karst Organics provide for your partner farmers?
Stewart: It is important to us to be culturally sensitive in the way we provide support. First and foremost we want to build equitable partnerships. That being said, because of the underdeveloped infrastructure of the country and the isolated location of some of the farming communities we work with, we feel like beyond paying truly fair prices for the specialty coffee they produce, supporting them in building better infrastructure at farm level is a straightforward way of improving their capabilities to produce better quality. All materials for processing the coffee including two manual pulping machines, 3 fermentation buckets and netting for African drying beds were provided by us. Training on quality processing was also provided along with weekly site visits which were carried out during the harvest to ensure QC and provide support to the group where needed.
Coffee farmers of Tau-Rema sorting and washing their coffee cherries (photo courtesy of Karst Organics)
Kontext Coffee Co.: Would you say that climate change has an impact on this producer group and if so, what does it look like?
Kar-Yee: Most definitely. This was our second year working with the Tau-Rema farmers and the 2022 harvest was significantly more challenging than our first year of collaboration in 2021. Last year’s extended wet season meant that drying conditions were challenging with early afternoon clouds creating more moisture in the air and rain sometimes falling around 2pm in the afternoon. The farmers had to carefully monitor their parchment which needed to be put away earlier in the day, resulting in a longer drying time of between 11-14 days (the previous year was around 7 days). This then means that the processing of coffee becomes more labour intensive in addition to having less available drying space. The remote location of the village and its inaccessibility by road has meant limited opportunities for the Tau-Rema farmers within Timor-Leste’s developing coffee sector to start with. Extended rains make this situation even worse.
Even though we do spend 6 months of the year in Timor-Leste, this is during the dry season so we have not truly experienced life in Letefoho during the heavy wet season. We have however heard from Domingos, Tau-Rema's lead farmer, that during this time, food can be scarce, not to mention that none of the farmers from Tau-Rema have a fridge/freezer to store food or immediate access to a shop to buy pre-prepared, processed or imported food.
Timor-Leste’s soil can be loose and the heavy rains during the wet season can cause soil erosion in the coffee forests, depending on how steep the mountainside is upon which the forests are located. As of 2022, the government has allocated a budget to the Association Kafe Timor (ACT), an organisation which supports the coffee industry in Timor-Leste and which we are a part of, to promote coffee tree rehabilitation. This includes the terracing of steeper hillside locations where soil may be prone to erosion and in worst case scenarios, prone to landslides.
Kontext Coffee Co.: Can you tell us a bit more about the social context that the farmers of Tau-Rema live in? What are some of the challenges they are facing?
Stewart: I'd say there are 3 areas that are of particular importance here: lack of access to education, lack of access for youth employment and shortage of food. Unemployment continues to be one of the biggest issues in the districts and mountainous regions of Letefoho, Ermera. Youth unemployment is particularly high and the government states that at a national level, '30.5% of youth aged 15-24 are not engaged in education, employment or training’. As would be expected, this figure is much higher in remote locations such as Letefoho where access to the above is virtually non-existent. This fact is reiterated by UNICEF who state that 37% of rural youth are illiterate (compared to 6% in urban areas) so when employment opportunities do present themselves, clearly those with a limited education are at a distinct disadvantage to move to the city and secure work. It is also worth mentioning that Timor-Leste’s much talked about oil and gas sector has done little to create employment opportunities internally so it is our belief that coffee, the country’s second biggest export, has the potential to create paid employment opportunities, in addition to the 10-week window that the annual harvest creates for farmers. With regards to food security we can say that whilst we live and work in Timor-Leste we have an abundance of locally grown fruit and vegetables that form the staple of our diet. Therefore, it is surprising to learn that Timor-Leste is a food-deficit country that imports approx. 60% of food and agricultural production is considered low according to the World Food Programme. Retrospectively, the 6 months of the year that we live there during the harvest, the land is at its most fertile so during the wet season, food will be harder to come by and most of the mountain communities will rely on government handouts of rice which will form the main nutritional component of meals. Statistically, 50% of children are stunted and close to a quarter of the women of reproductive age are anaemic which clearly is not ideal in terms of early years development.
Female coffee farmer in Tau-Rema sorting parchment coffee (photo courtesy of Karst Organics)
Kontext Coffee Co.: What about gender equality - what does the situation of women look like in Timor-Leste?
Stewart: Timor-Leste is a largely patriarchal society and more needs to be done to acknowledge the role of women in the coffee sector. We have tried to encourage more inclusivity with regards to recognising and acknowledging the role of females within the community. Having Kar-Yee front and centre within our business has definitely had an impact - Kar-Yee do you want to take this question?
Kar-Yee: Women tend to be overlooked when it comes to decision making, especially when it comes to coffee, despite the fact that they are heavily involved in the entire process. In this case, we are looking to reach out further to our female partner farmers and bring them closer to the forefront and give them an opportunity to voice out their opinions and ideas together. Through my role here at Karst Organics, I try to offer women a first hand insights into how they can take a leading role within their respective communities and every year we are continuing to try to actively provide opportunities for them to come together in a safe environment to find their voice and share their stories.
It took some time to be accepted by Letefoho’s community, to learn their language and to gain their trust. We need to be very respectful of complex societal dynamics and whilst we would like to see more progress in this area, these things take time.
Kontext Coffee Co.: Thank you to both of you for sharing all this information about your work and the coffee farming communities of Letefoho, Timor-Leste with us. We can't wait to get a 2023 update for our new favourite from Tau-Rema!