Creating a hands-on soil to cup experience for Filipino coffee farmers

Coffee entrepreneurs Basil and Vie Reyes founded Bote Central, a social enterprise that buys coffee beans from local farmers at prices based on fair-trade principles. They are making great progress in reviving the local coffee industry.

The couple conceived their business idea during an encounter with a civet cat whilst on a climbing expedition in the Philippines. The civet cat, or the Alamid, as called by the Filipinos, is a very special mammal whose digestive enzymes add a fragrant aroma and unique flavor to coffee beans that they consume and then expel. Given the uniqueness of its flavor, and the difficulty in obtaining civet coffee beans, these beans command a very high price in the coffee market.

The encounter with the Alamid intrigued the couple. The Alamid is an animal native to the Philippines, yet there was no industry around exporting civet coffee from the Philippines. In fact, the Philippines has been a coffee producing country for years, yet, it is currently a net importer of coffee. What led to this? Why had coffee become one of the least popular products to be grown by farmers in the Philippines?

The entrepreneurs found some answers to their questions by tracking the coffee production value chain, which comprises coffee growing, processing, distribution, to consumption behavior. Tracking this allowed Vie and Basil to gain a better understanding of the various challenges faced by the Filipino coffee industry.

Today, Filipino farmers prefer growing rice to coffee. Coffee was not deemed sustainable due to the low price it fetched in the local marketplace. Instead, farmers chose to plant other crops such as rice and bananas. These crops also provided much higher yield in comparison to coffee. However, Basil & Vie knew that the asking price for international coffee was much higher, and therefore saw an opportunity. This led Basil & Vie to start a social business that would give farmers an incentive to start considering coffee as an alternative source of employment for local communities once again.

In parallel, Basil and Vie also observed that farmer communities were also coffee consumers. However, it turned out that the costs of roasting coffee were too high, preventing them from economically processing and consuming their own coffee. Roasting machines were only available for industrial use and, more importantly, only for even beans (beans that are of the same size and quality). This made it very difficult for the farmers to roast their own coffee beans.

With support from INGOs, these machines were widely distributed among farmer communities, hence enabling them to process and sell coffee that was ready for consumption. This allowed the farmers to move up the value chain and realize more of the value from their coffee production.

The arrival of these machines in the communities incentivized the creation of farmer associations that would take charge of operating the machines and commercializing the ground coffee. In most communities, it was the women who managed these associations and operated the machines. This created new job opportunities that empowered them and equalized the gender disparity in an environment that compelled women to stay at home due to the lack of opportunities.

To further strengthen the supply chain, Bote Central and other like-minded organizations formed the Philippine Coffee Alliance, an organization that explores opportunities to scale up distribution of roasting machines to the farmer communities. The organization also provides training across the coffee value chain, allowing farmers to take on the role of dealers, retailers or ‘nano’ coffee entrepreneurs. This enables farmers to significantly augment their family income. Today, Bote Central operates kiosks managed by these coffee entrepreneurs who sell both regular coffee (a product they brand as “18 days coffee”) and Alamid Coffee.

Bote Central led other initiatives to promote increased awareness on coffee production that is fair-trade and environmentally sustainable. Besides promoting sustainable practices among the farmers, Bote Central has been actively advocating for non-caged civets. In fact, Alamid Coffee is only made with beans of civet cats that are not captured or caged. Ensuring civets can roam freely not only guarantees better quality coffee because the mammals have a more active and healthy lifestyle, but also enforces local communities to protect the forest which is their natural habitat.

An article by ASIA IIX

Monica Ochoa Rodriguez (IIX), Meera Jethmal (Shujog)