October 27-November 3, 2004
At the 2004 SCAA convention in Atlanta, Craig was introduced to Donough Mahon, who was at the time the Chairman (he has since moved on to Brazil) of the Tanganyika Coffee Growers Assoc, Ltd. (TCGA). A conversation began to try to establish a direct buying relationship-made possible last year, when the laws governing coffee marketing were changed to allow producers to deal directly with buyers and roasters.
Previously in Tanzania, the growers' only option was to sell their coffee through the government-controlled auction, not knowing who the highest bidder, end buyer, or destination would be. Consequently, there was no chance for either buyer or seller of forming any kind of ongoing relationship except through back-channels.
On October 26th, I began the 24+ hour journey to East Africa along with one of our roaster-customers, Mark Stell of Portland Roasting, and his wife, Michelle. Our objective: to meet as many growers and tour as many farms and estates as possible with the hope of gaining insight into production methods, difficulties, and possibilities for improvement among TCGA members, as well as establish an ongoing relationship either with a specific farm or a group of them.
My flight arrived at Kilimanjaro Int'l Airport at close to 9 pm on Wednesday and I was picked up by Rennie Barnes, the Secretary of TGCA. We hopped in his Landrover and headed out towards the town of Moshi at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The first thing that struck me was the absolute darkness. I didn't see a single streetlight during the whole trip. As we cruised along the two-lane tarmac road at about 50km/hour dogs, donkeys, and people walking, bicycling, or pushing carts down the side of the road would suddenly appear in the headlights. Although there were several near misses, I seemed to be the only one fazed by them.
Once we arrived in Moshi, I got a small taste of the generosity and hospitality that was to come in the following week. I had been advised that Tanzania was one of the friendliest countries in Africa, and I certainly found that to be true. After stowing my suitcase in the room, I joined Rennie and the hotel's proprietor for a drink on the patio. A few Castle beers later we decided to go to dinner at the Sikh club nearby which turned out to be some of the best Indian food I've ever had. Between the hotel and the restaurant we passed the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, the Hindu temple, and the Muslim Mosque where the faithful were chanting for Ramadan. I was impressed the diversity of religions and the peaceful interaction between members of each of them. After dinner, we toured Moshi and somehow ended up at a nightclub where I found myself nursing a whiskey with the locals until around 1am.
Not too much the worse for wear, I got up Thursday morning and was picked up by Mr. Ahmed Daya for a tour of Dormans dry mill and offices. This was of particular interest as we currently buy most of our Kenya and Tanzania through Dormans and also because Kevin (our Operations Manager) was the warehouse and operations manager there several years ago. I was able to see the very efficient operation he set up during his time there. At the office we met up with Bridget Carrington, the Dormans representative sent that week from the main office in Nairobi to bid at the auction, and went on to Kahawa House which houses both the auction and the offices of The Tanzania Coffee Board (TCB). I was able to sit in and observe the auction for a little over an hour. Each lot is posted by reference number, kilos, and bags on a lighted "scoreboard" at the front of the room. Bids are in the form of US dollars per 50kg bag-which I found odd since the buyers are mainly European and the export bags are each 60 kg. During the bidding, an initial price is posted and then drops by 20 cent increments until someone puts in a bid. From there, the bids go up in $1 increments until bidding is concluded. If the seller's reserve price is met, a synthesized hammer sounds to note that the sale is final; if the reserve is not met, the price is noted and taken back to the seller to accept or decline. At the end of the auction, the buyers have one week to pay TCB for the lots purchased then the TCB has two weeks to pass the money, minus its fees, back to the seller.
Around mid-day I said goodbye to Ahmed and Bridget and traveled west towards Arusha. I arrived at Usa River Estate and met our host and hostess for the evening, Tony and Eileen Christianakis, and my traveling companions Mark and Michelle-who had spent the previous night in Nairobi. We had lunch and went down the road to Tony's brother's farm, called Manyatta Estate. Here we met with Leon and Aideen Christianakis and discussed the challenges of coffee farming in Arusha. Both Usa River and Manyatta have the advantage-unlike some other farms we would visit in coming days-of year round access to plenty of water in the form of a river that runs along the side of the farms. Tony's farm, inherited from his father, uses a traditional, low-tech flooding method where water is directed into channels that are formed around the coffee rows by dirt and the detritus of pruning. In contrast, Leon's farm was established only a few years ago and he put in a drip irrigation system, which involved a huge capitol investment in the pumps, filters, and pipes, but is much more efficient in delivery of both water and any inputs that are needed. Because the farm is new, Manyatta's plants were just coming into full production, but their irrigation system promises much higher yield in the long run over that of Usa River.
That night we cleaned up and drove into town for a cocktail party at the Arusha Hotel where we met a large percentage of the TCGA members and had many good discussions about the farms and the unique challenges of the different growing areas we were about to see. The jetlag started to catch up with me at the end of the party and I was thankful to get back to Usa River for a good night's sleep.
Early Friday we had a tour of Tony's factory (wet mill) and farm before driving to the headquarters of Burka Estates for a cupping of TGCA member coffees. Burka recently set up a cupping lab (aka liquoring facility) on the premises and hired Edwin Agasso, a professional liquorer from Kenya. As it turns out, cupping their own coffee is a new idea to most of the growers. They have mainly replied on the liquoring report they get from mills, like Dormans, and TCB.
Edwin had prepared samples of 43 coffees which we evaluated. Although there was a wide variation in cup quality-ranging from excellent to defective-a majority of the coffees were quite good and I realized that our main problem would be selecting only one farm to work with. We requested further samples from all the growers for several reasons. First, there was only enough space to have one cup of each coffee so we weren't able to get an accurate look at defects. Second, a few of the samples had not been milled, so weren't representative of the final product we would see after grading and sorting.
We left the lab fully caffeinated and excited about seeing the origins of all the samples we'd tried. After lunch and a short tour of one of Burka's farms, we met our driver for the next few days, Ibrahim, and headed out on safari to Tarangire National Park
We arrived at the park around twilight and drove around the long way from the gate to the lodge in order to get our first look at some wildlife. The light was perfect for snapping pictures of the zebra, dik dik, wildebeest, impala, giraffe, and ostrich that we saw. The Tarangire Safari Lodge had a great view from the tents and the dining room down into the valley below and we enjoyed some local "Kilimanjaro" beer as we watched the sun set and the full moon rise orange into the darkness. The tents were quite nice, although not sound-proof. I was awakened more than once by what I thought was a lion but turned out to be my neighbor in the next tent snoring at an extraordinary volume. Nonetheless, I woke up at 5am and sat outside watching the sun come up. My imagination and the low light had turned some nearby bushes into sleeping elephants and although the daylight proved me wrong, a heap of elephant dung on the path to the dining area gave me pause to think what had been going on in the night.
A few minutes into our drive around Tarangire Saturday morning gave me a pretty good idea-we saw the first group of hundreds of elephants. They were literally everywhere. I took so many photos of elephants that I had to go back and delete a good number of them to have room for pictures of coffee. We also saw vervet monkeys, lions, waterbucks, warthogs, mongoose, a leopard, and any number of other animals that I'm probably forgetting-it was like being on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, but with Ibrahim instead of Jim Fowler. Around lunchtime we had to get back to work so we left the park and drove to the town of Karatu to visit more farms.
The road from the junction of the Moshi/Arusha highway up towards the Oldeani/Karatu farms was built recently with money provided by the Japanese government. It is the best road in the entire country and is appreciated by the locals because it took the place of was reportedly the worst road in the entire country. We heard that during the last El Nino, a section several miles long was flooded for miles and that became impassable-with water coming up to the windscreens on Landrovers. I was on some pretty bad roads (and I use the term "road" loosely) in Tanzania, and the locals tell me that the old road tops all of them. A trip that took us two hours would have taken, before the new road was built, an entire day.
Late in the afternoon, we toured N'gila and Karatu Estates and well after dark made our way to Blackburn Estate. The farms in this area are higher altitude than what we saw around Arusha, so have better acidity in the cup but are short on water for processing and because of the roads and distance from the mills in Moshi, have higher transportation costs. The farms are really beautiful, set on hillsides overlooking the valley below and surrounded by purple-flowering jacaranda trees.
Michael and Tina were our hosts for the evening at Blackburn Estate. Although we arrived nearly two hours behind schedule, they managed to serve us an elegant and delicious dinner on their patio by candlelight. We stayed up late over wine, whiskey, and political debate.
On Sunday morning we drove up to the top of the farm to get a look at some of the pest problems that Oldeani farmers have: elephants and water buffalos! Although we were too late to see any of the animals, the damage they left behind was evident in broken coffee trees throughout large sections of the farm. We also toured the Blackburn factory and as we were ready to leave, discovered the battery in our borrowed car was dead! We were able to get a jump and at our next stop, Nitin Estate, borrow a battery to help us make it back to town.
Blackburn, Nitin, and Oldeani Estates were among the highest elevation farms we saw (and I believe in the whole country). All suffer from chronic water shortages but manage to produce some of the finest coffee we saw. At Bergfrieden (one of the Oldeani farms) our hosts, Bharatt and Praful Patel, took us on a short hike up the mountain to see a spot where elephants regularly dig up and break open the pipes that bring water to the farms.
The Patels hosted an impressive curry lunch for us and the other farmers from the area before we had to leave in order to make it to the entry gate at Ngorongoro Conservation Area-one of the premier wildlife viewing areas in the entire world-before they closed for the evening. We made it with just minutes to spare and checked into our rooms as the sun was going down. Since the lodging is all on the rim of the crater and you can't go down after dark, we had some time to catch up on laundry, send a few postcards, and eat. Note to prospective Tanzania travelers: I read in a travel book that I would be well advised to pack a belt as tourists to Africa usually lose weight. In fact, we were so well fed that I'm lucky I bought my wash'n'wear travel pants a size up or I would have been uncomfortable after the first few days!
Monday morning we got up and into the car early to start the 45-minute drive from the lodge down into the crater. We had just arrived on the crater floor when we spotted a mother lion and her four cubs heading purposefully towards a group of nonchalant wildebeest and zebra. Although we saw a lot of the same wildlife at Ngorongoro that we had seen in Tarangire, the difference in terrain and perspective was remarkable. Ngorongoro is the caldera of an ancient volcano and is nearly flat across the entire 100 square miles of its floor so you can see vast herds of animals in one sweeping vista. Highlights included the flamingos at the soda lake and cheetahs-one with a tiny, unbelievably fluffy cub. On the way out, we stopped at a Masai village and were able to go in and take some photos-for a small fee, of course.
Eventually, we arrived back up at the rim, had lunch, and then made the return trip to Arusha in time to tour Mringa Estate just before sunset. Being lower elevation, Mringa had finished their entire crop save the stripping and there wasn't much going on, but we got a nice tour, and saw a variation on conversion (stumping the tree one stem at a time) that we hadn't noticed on any of the other farms. Afterward, we said goodbye to Ibrahim and dropped him off in Arusha on our way back to Christianaki's for dinner and sleep. Since it was our second time staying with Tony and Eileen, Usa was really beginning to feel like home to us. Their 17-month old son, Clifford, was a special favorite of mine.
On Tuesday, we set off with Tony to Moshi-this time to meet Mr. Leslie Omari, Chairman of the Tanzania Coffee Board (TCB). He gave us a thorough explanation of the TCB's operations-from liquoring to running the auction. After this meeting, we went to the government owned Tangyanika Coffee Curing Company Mill (TCCC). Created during a time when most of the coffee-growing in the country was nationalized-TCCC was the only option for milling. Now that the market is open, there are a host of competing mills and it is working at only about 10% of capacity. It was an interesting contrast to my earlier tour of Dormans, which was perhaps only 1/10th of the size, but much more efficient in layout and processes.
After lunch, we set off with Ralph Medoch who manages Tchibo Estates and with his wife, Bente, owns two of his own smaller farms on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Machare and Uru Estates. Bente, who is the manager, gave us a tour of what were probably the most scenic farms of our visit, and also the only Utz Kapeh certified Estates in Tanzania. The two estates had been formerly been nationalized and Bente was undertaking a vigorous replanting program to replace all the old plants with newer, higher yielding ones. To finish the day, we returned to the hotel for an informal gathering with the Moshi contingent of TCGA and were able to meet some new folks who hadn't been able to attend the Arusha get-together.
Wednesday morning, Paul Bebbington, manager of one of the larger estates near Moshi, took us on a quick tour of his property and then to the Tanzanian Coffee Research Institute (TaCRI). There, Mr. Kilambo, a Senior Research Officer explained to us the work they are doing-mostly the establishment more disease resistant strains, but also such things as determining ideal interplanting schemes for the banana/coffee system used by individual growers. We went round to view the different projects, including a grafting demonstration. Paul had us to his house for lunch and very kindly let us watch CNN and check our email for a few hours-our first and last contact with home on the trip.
The final stop on my Tanzanian adventure was a conclusion meeting at a restaurant near Arusha. Mark and I reported to all the growers we'd met and visited over the last week our impressions of Tanzanian Estate Coffee. We answered many questions as well, mainly about how to make direct relationships work. I'm not sure we really have all the answers yet, but we are thankful for the relationships made and hope to grow them into buying relationships over time. I headed to the airport a few hours later with one entire suitcase filled with samples and my head filled with both memories and possibilities.
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