Loans to farmers work.

When we started working with farmers in the Dominican Republic, we asked them how we could be of service to them. The most urgent need they identified? Access to credit to maintain farms before harvest. Most of the farmers had no access to capital at that time. And the ones that did were charged rates as high as 24 – 36% annually.

In 2010, after discussions with farmers, Liga Masiva tried to partner with a microfinance institution to get the farmers access to the credit they needed.  Yet after 21 different institutions, not a single one had terms were acceptable to either the farmers or us.

But we refused to believe the farmers were as “risky” as the microfinance organizations claimed they were.  So, we decided to try it ourselves. Thanks to an social enterprise investor, Rafe Furst, Liga Masiva raised the capital to launch a pilot project last October.

Again and again, we were told it wouldn’t work. The lawyers said we’d land in jail; the locals said the farmers would misuse the funds; and social enterprise experts said the loans would never be repaid. We went ahead anyway.

Right from the start, there were surprises.  Farmers were very careful about borrowing only as much as they needed for coffee maintenance. Even more heartening was that the farmers talked about the money as a mutual investment and commitment, since it came as part of our broader program.

Today, we are pleased to announce that the Socios program proved microfinance institutions, lawyers, and even community activists wrong.  By the end of the harvest, all of the loans were paid back in full.  The money was used for coffee related expenses, from planting seedlings to repairs on machinery and pruning.

Last week, we issued the farmers certificate sstating they paid the loans in full. We also issued letters showing payment records and “good standing” as borrowers. While a simple certificate may not seem like a lot, the farmers’ payment histories serve as credit histories, something they never had before. We designed these records not just as a point of pride for the farmers, but as a tool to allow them to access other sources of credit in the future.

Were there hiccups?  Absolutely.  Our original plan for repaying a percentage each time the farmers got paid did not to work for them.  Rather, farmers paid off their loan in chunks.  Arriving this summer, we were also informed that there is need for money during this season as well as just preharvest.  This information allows us to iterate on the program, making it more useful, applicable, and tailored to the farmers’ needs.

We’ll keep working with farmers to improve the program.  But so far, this pilot supports the idea that relationship-based business is a viable model for changing the way trade works for small-scale farmers.  Cheers to that.

The Laboratorio of Coffee

Like we’ve been saying, coffee is serious business.  Last week, Hilary, our chief of farmer relations, visited the office of the Dominican Coffee Authority, called the Consejo Dominicano de Café.  This office is responsible for checking every export of coffee that leaves the Dominican Republic, as well as promoting Dominican coffee more broadly.  At the office is the Raul Melo Coffee Laboratory.  There, specialists check every coffee leaving the DR for defects, color, humidity, density, flavor, color when roasted, cupping attributes, and a plethora of other characteristics!

Walk in, take off your jacket, and put on a white lab coat. No food or drinks, except well, the occasional jolt of caffeine from a small cup of coffee.  No nail polish for anyone checking coffee here (really, nothing that could contaminate the coffee).  This is a scientific laboratory, with stalls where coffees are analyzed by three to four different cuppers, where samples are roasted and brewed with specially calibrated water, and where coffee attributes are totally measured and understood.  If you want to know about Dominican coffee, the experts buzzing around this laboratory are the people to ask.  We were happy to do just that.

CODOCAFE maintains records of the blind tests of every export of coffee for five years.  This visit was to see the laboratory and get copies of the records for Liga Masiva imports since our inception in 2009.  Having these records, which include everything from cupping scores to density, helps us to measure our impact and changes in terms of coffee quality.   More information, more power.  And new friends at CODOCAFE.

The Depulper Overhaul.

Early Saturday morning, the Liga Masiva team walked the half-hour to meet our farmer-partners in Jarabacoa. The farmers, as usual, arrived early. Martin was there, and Rómulo, and they stood chatting in the morning fog. Soon, Carlos pulled up on his motorcycle, only the slightest bit wobbly from the giant, rusty, hand-cranked coffee depulper tied to the back. One by one, the other farmers arrived, gently carrying by donkey, hand, or motorcycle these bulky 50-pound machines that were up to 45 years old. As we waited for the last farmer to arrive, the others stood over their machines, chatting about different aspects of them. The mood was excited, and proud. These contraptions so crucial to the farmers’ livelihoods were about to get a complete overhaul.

Why? In analyzing the latest Liga Masiva coffee import, we noticed most of the damaged beans resulted from depulping: removing the fleshy fruit from the coffee bean.  Our farmers do this process on their farms with a despulpadora (see Martin with his below).  If there are issues with the despulpadora, the coffee that goes through it gets damaged.  That one moment negates the care the farmer took in the months and years before harvest, and means those beans can’t be used.

So… how do we fix it?

Collaboratively with the farmers, we decided on a mutual investment.  The farmers bring their depulpers down from the mountain (on a motor, on a mule, etc… no easy trick with an awkward machine that weighs 50 lbs!) We hire a repairman to diagnose each depulper. And together we get the parts repaired or replaced.  Finally, we collaborate on a system for using, cleaning, and maintaining the depulper so it doesn’t damage beans in the future.

The result was… a flurry of collaboration!  Farmers, the repairman, and us shouted out questions and answers:  How do you keep metal from going into the depulper and damaging it? Put magnets near where the coffee goes in!  How to make sure that the guayo (metal casing that removes the pulp) doesn’t degrade? Wash clean each time!  How to check the calibration of the machine? Insert a certain kind of leaf behind the pechera and it should go in easily (but not too easily)!

It’s important for our farmers to use these best practices, but they’re often hard to remember – especially in the midst of a hectic harvest. To make it easier, we’re creating a visual guide of the steps, ensuring our farmer partners have the information they need and that we have fewer damaged beans next year.  That means more money for farmers, better coffee for you… and a more sustainable, direct, and just trade system.

Tastes good.

We’re a B Corporation!

Liga Masiva is thrilled to be certified as one of the newest B Corps! What’s a B Corp? We’re a new kind of corporation that meets rigorous social and environmental standards and seek to harness the power of business to solve challenges on both fronts.

Why go through the process? Well, for you! Liga Masiva exists to create benefit for all of the people involved in it, from producers to consumers and everyone else in the value chain. Becoming a B Corporation allows us to legally build that commitment into our business. Certification represents our commitment to making trade just, sustainable, and direct … and bringing you delicious products that connect you with the people and place they come from.

We’re also thrilled to be a member of the community on the frontier of building stronger, healthier communities through better business practices. In creating their certification standards and evaluation, B Lab, the fine folks who set the standards for B Corp evaluations, have created a common language for these pioneering businesses to use as we collaborate in creating economic opportunity and beneficial environmental impact.

Coffee Cupping: The Basics.

For six weeks this summer, the Liga Masiva team is based in Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic, partnering with our organic coffee farmers on a series of coffee excellence projects. As part of this project, we conducted the farmers’ first ever cupping of their coffee to introduce them to its smells and flavors.  In Part 1 of this series, we provide commentary on the tasting.  Part 2 outlines why coffee cupping might just revolutionize the way trade works for small-scale farmers.  Part 3, this section, will enable you to join the farmers in your own in-home coffee cupping.

So, we’ve been talking over the last few days about cupping coffee.  To many of us, this may sound highfalutin—something along the lines of evaluating different sea salts for their flavors.  However, the basics of coffee cupping can actually be fun to try, and can be as simple as you like.  Really, it’s just a tool to help enjoy your coffee more.

What you need:

  • One or more coffees, freshly roasted, that you would like to taste.
  • A number of cups and spoons equal to the number of coffees.
  • A grinder. *Important note:  You don’t absolutely need a grinder to do this sort of informal cupping.  You can do a cupping with pre-ground beans … but just as with most things, the fresher the better!

Coffee cupping has three phases:

  1. Smelling dry, ground coffee
  2. Smelling wet, brewed coffee grounds
  3. Slurping the brewed coffee into your mouth to evaluate flavor.  (Others talk about this in much more flowery language, but we are going for basics here.)

So, let’s go through it in phases.

Phase 1:  Smelling the grounds

  1. Grind 2 heaping tablespoons (medium coarse, too fine will make the coffee taste bitter!) of each coffee separately, and put each coffee in a separate cup.
  2. Smell them!  Get your nose into it!  Coffee can smell like anything from mandarin oranges and cocoa powder to rubbery, earthy or sour.  The SCAA wheel shown here outlines aromas and tastes.  (If you really want to train yourself, check out Le Nez du Café, a game where you smell essential oils that mimic coffee fragrances.)
  3. Write ‘em down!  Compare with friends!  See what you find!  Liga Masiva coffee scents typically range from chocolate to nuts to caramel and lemon, depending on the roast.

Phase 2:  Brewed coffee aromas

  1. Pour 6 oz. of almost boiling water over the coffee grounds. Steep for 2-3 minutes. The coffee should form a crust or cap on top of the water. While steeping, check the coffee for any sour smells. Sour smells are bad, and could indicate old coffee that has gone bad (technically called “rancid”).
  2. Using your spoon, break the crust by tapping the grounds, just like you would with a crème brulee.  Get your nose in it here too!  The brewed coffee releases a “puff” of different fragrances when it’s broken. The grounds will sink down to the bottom of the cup.  Use your spoon to circulate the coffee to release the fragrances.

Phase 3: Slurping!

  1. This is the tasting part.  Fill up your spoon with brewed coffee from the cup, avoiding the grounds.
  2. Slurp the coffee into your mouth, forcefully (see video below for appropriate noises to make during this process). This mixes air with the coffee and disperses it evenly throughout your mouth.
  3. Swirl the coffee around your mouth to get a good feel for the overall flavor.
  4. Spit the coffee out and rinse mouth with water before tasting another (or if you are caffeine-addicted like yours truly, just swallow the coffee and have a sip of water between slurps.)

Here in the slurping you’re basically looking for four things:

  • Acidity – The sensation of dryness in the back and under the edges of your mouth. This is a desirable quality and not to be confused with sour (which is considered a bad quality of coffee). Acidity creates a lively, bright taste and some coffees have more acidity than others.
  • Aroma – The combination of all of those scents we were talking about earlier.  Since our senses of taste and smell are so connected, the aromas play in to how we taste the coffee as well.
  • Body – The way the coffee feels in your mouth. Imagine it is like comparing how whole milk feels in your mouth compared to water. Coffee with more body feels more like whole milk, coffee with less water feels more like, well, water.
  • Flavor – This is the overall perception of the three characteristics above. Flavor can be rich (full bodied), complex (multi-flavored), or balanced (no one characteristic overpowers the other), among other things.  Take note of the coffee’s natural sweetness and also its finish.  Does the flavor stick around and stay good or great?

Check out this cool How Stuff Works video to get an idea of professional cupping methods and purposes:

So coffee cupping can be a really big deal.  It can also be just a good way to identify what YOU like in a coffee.  Do you like high or low acidity?  Full body?  Tend to go for chocolaty or flowery?  What’s old coffee taste like as opposed to fresh?

Like for the producers, cupping basics are good to have for those of us that want to learn more about the coffee we consume.  Like we like to say, more information, more power.  And well, better coffee.

Taste away!

Cupping matters to farmers.

For six weeks this summer, the Liga Masiva team is based in Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic, partnering with our organic coffee farmers on a series of coffee excellence projects. As part of this project, we conducted the farmers’ first ever cupping of their coffee to introduce them to its smells and flavors.  In Part 1 of this series, we provide commentary on the tasting.  This section, Part 2 will outline why this coffee cupping might just revolutionize the way trade works for small-scale farmers.  Part 3 will enable you to join the farmers in your own in-home coffee cupping.

Yesterday, Liga Masiva brought a barista-style coffee cupping to farmers in the mountains of the Dominican Republic. Why? Well, we think it might just revolutionize the way trade works for small-scale farmers.

Three-quarters of the world’s poorest people are small-scale farmers. These farmers face three major obstacles to getting ahead: access to capital (to pay for improvements on farms), access to new markets (to earn more selling their premium products), and access to information (to hone their products to make them more marketable). Liga Masiva works to address all three obstacles, and yesterday, we worked on access to information in the form of… a coffee tasting!

Many of us enjoying morning brews of the world’s best beans don’t know that many coffee farmers never taste their high-quality coffee.  Rather, they export their best stuff because it earns the most. Farmers may brew lower quality beans on their farms, and drink it as it is drunk locally.  In DR, this means sugary and dark (which can be pretty darn tasty on a foggy morning, truth be told)!  They know more about growing coffee than anyone, but have little opportunity to learn what buyers look for in a cup.

This leaves farmers not knowing how to tune growing practices to buyer preferences. If you’ve been to a coffee cupping, you know coffee can smell like everything from tomato soup to chocolate (kind of like a wine tasting, only with more slurping, if you haven’t been).  For the farmers, this type of knowledge enables them to tweak their practices–say, choosing coffee cherry pulp fertilizer or immediately fixing a damaged depulper–to create the best coffee, and get the highest price they can.

Tasting their own coffees helps farmers understand the qualities of their coffee… and what makes it worth top dollar. We’ll keep up the farmer workshops in coming weeks, but in the meantime, we’re glad to know that farmers have a better sense of what we consider a cafecito delicioso. We’re glad to share one with them, and with you.

Check us out tomorrow for info on how to follow in the farmer’s footsteps and do your own tasting at home.

Barista skills come to the campo.

For six weeks this summer, the Liga Masiva team is based in Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic, partnering with our organic coffee farmers on a series of coffee excellence projects. As part of this project, we conducted the farmers’ first ever cupping of their coffee to introduce them to its smells and flavors.  In Part 1 of this series, we provide commentary on the tasting.  Part 2 will outline why this coffee cupping might just revolutionize the way trade works for small-scale farmers.  Part 3 will enable you to join the farmers in your own in-home coffee cupping.

Today was the big meeting we’ve been awaiting and planning since we packed our bags for Jarabacoa. And… it started a bit awkwardly.

At 11am, the farmers began arriving from the mountains by motorcycle and on foot for their first coffee cupping.  As they assembled, the familiar awkwardness of a first wine tasting (what with all of that uncomfortable swirling, sniffing, and spitting) was palpable in the group.

Jacinto looked particularly skeptical, saying he had never drunk coffee without sugar. (Sheepishly, this blogger admits she’s not terribly fond of coffee without it either.)

The discussion started with the smells and tastes—everything from floral notes to nuts and chocolate—that are present in coffee.  One of the farmers remarked what most first time tasters think but don’t say, “What do you mean the coffee is going to taste like caramel?  It should taste like coffee!”

After the initial moments of uncertainty, the farmers became their typical talkative selves, opining on which coffees smelled and tasted the best.  Smelling the dry grounds, Jacinto asked, “Why does this coffee smell so sweet if it doesn’t have any sugar in it?”

Interestingly, four of the five farmers identified the lesser-quality coffee, the kind they normally drink, as the best brew on the table.  This allowed us to have a conversation about different coffee preferences, and to discuss the qualities people look for in Liga Masiva coffee.  To each his own in terms of coffee flavors, but these farmers now have a better sense of how small actions on their farm– like not letting the coffee sit too long before washing it– affect the cup.

In tomorrow’s post: how this kind of experience is a critical piece of revolutionizing trade for small-scale farmers.

A bean tale…

We are on a great and constant pursuit of knowledge, closer relationships, and well, ever better coffee. Today, that pursuit led us to bean counting.  Literally.  We spent two hours going over beans.

Part of the process of evaluating the coffee each harvest season is to look for defects.  These defects can happen naturally, on the farm, or in the process of getting the bean from being a cherry to being the green coffee bean that comes to the US to be roasted.  Defects are always present, but with specialty coffee they should be at a bare minimum.  We work with the farmers and on processing to ensure that each harvest has fewer defects than the last.

Liga Masiva’s next import is ready and waiting.  The coffee has been through a long process: grown, picked, depulped, fermented, washed, dried, hulled, weighed, sorted by color, and reviewed by hand.  Even with all that care, some defects make it through.  You might find a couple of beans that are “withered” (arrugado), little and wrinkly.  A couple might have “broca”, a little hole that almost looks like where a worm got into an apple, caused by an insect that is a bane to many coffee farmers.  Or, you might find “bitten” (mordido) beans, ones that were slightly damaged going through the depulper.

Today we saw some bitten beans.  This helps us figure out that a priority for this summer is to create a workshop with farmers to make sure their depulpers are in perfect working condition.  It makes your beans even better.  We’ll be sure to keep you up to date on how the workshop goes in the next couple of weeks.

How do we know the coffee is organic? Is there a certification for that?

We’ve been asked this question a couple of times recently (thanks for reaching out!).  So here’s the skinny on how the certification works for this whole organic thing.

Our coffee is certified organic by an independent certifier, BCS Öko-Garantie GmbH, which is based in Germany.  This organization visits a percentage of the farmers that we work with each year to do various tests and inspections in order to ensure that the production and processing used by the farmers meets the USDA organic certification requirements.  The organization certifies a number of different agricultural products, and more than 450,000 farmers around the world.

Our farmers’ certification falls under the BCS Oko-Garantie certification provided by the Belarminio Ramirez, CxA, a company based in Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic, where the farms are located.  Because the organic certification is rigorous and costly, many of Jarabacoa’s small scale organic farmers are incorporated and inspected for this certification as part of a Jarabacoa coffee community initiative.  We get a list each year of the farmers that are certified, which of course includes each of the farmer’s that we work with.

Perhaps most importantly, we work in partnership with each farmer on coffee growing and processing initiatives, which means that we’re on their farms and talking about the “latest and greatest” in organic techniques a few times a year.  If this brings up other questions, feel free to send them to us at team@ligamasiva.com.  Since we are often in Jarabacoa doing work with the farmers, we would be happy to chat with them about anything specific that you might think of or want to know more about!

How to rent an apartment in Jarabacoa

The Liga Masiva team is now successfully installed in an apartment in Jarabacoa, and we have some lessons to share!

How to rent an apartment in Jarabacoa:

  1. Ask/walk/talk all over town.  Preferably, avoid doing the walking in the middle of the day, when the sun is blaring down, and everyone who knows what they are doing is sensibly indoors, in the shade, or in front of a fan.
  2. Write down all the phone numbers that you see, or knock on doors.  Or, stop in the colmado and ask if anyone knows of houses for rent.  Here, you are likely to get a whole bunch of leads, rapid fire questions and conversations, and to make a bunch of new friends.
  3. Once you find something promising, meet the neighbors.  And the people that own the bakery across the street.  And the kids playing with the puppy in front of house.  This is likely to increase your happiness and your bargaining power in entering the neighborhood.
  4. When bargaining with your summer landlord, throw some dinner plans into the mix!  In our negotiations, we offered a nicely prepared meal in our potential home in exchange for a discount.  Somehow, we ended up with a smaller discount than planned, but with our new landlord and friend Raul supplying the food for said meal.
  5. Lastly, for internet, talk to everyone.  Once you have agreed to share internet with your neighbor, run the cable through the kitchen, over the roof, and into the bedroom window.  Not only do we get internet, but a new Spanish/English exchange partner.

Those are the logistical tips we garnered over the last couple of days.  More to come, and farmer updates starting Monday…