Market Reports

Building community through coffee

Kerala is well known around the world as one of India’s most intriguing and popular states. While its beaches, food and culture draw masses of tourists to the area each year, to Indians its rich agricultural output has led it to be known as God’s own country. However, for many farmers in the region, the reality was not so rosy. According to Bijumon Kurian, who is the Managing Director of the organic farming supplies manufacturer Plantrich, the region’s farmers had a massive over-reliance on pesticides that was harming the local environment and affecting the viability of many local smallholders. “A study showed pesticide use in cardamom plantations in the area of Idukki was one of the world’s highest,” Kurian says. “On an average, farmers were using 27 kilograms of pesticides in a hectare of cardamom plantation and nine kilograms per hectare of tea garden.” This was way above the average use in the rest of India, Kurian says: “India’s average pesticide use is half a kilogram per hectare.” Kurian says that this over-reliance on chemical pesticides was not just affecting the reputation of the produce coming out of Kerala, it was also having a huge economic impact on the smallholder farmers, who were struggling to pay for their over-use. “In general, because of the small landholding, poor economic conditions, and non-affordability to buy seeds, inputs, labour charges, and inadequate logistics due to the hilly landscape, farmers suffered for many years and 90 per cent of them relied on hand loans with higher interest rates from local pesticide vendors and traders,” he says. “Because of such bonding, farmers were forced to sell their produce for lesser prices to local traders and ended up with no gain, or even losses due to the cost of servicing the hand loans with higher interest rates.” This had negative social, environmental, and economic ramifications, Kurian says. “It badly impacted their families including education for the farmers’ children,” he says. “Ultimately the farmers were suffering because of inadequate direct market access, dominance of local money lenders, traders, and vendors, and many suicides were being reported.” In 2001, a group of 30 smallholder farmers from the region came together to form the Manarcadu Social Service Society (MASS), a small group dedicated to developing organic and fairtrade farming practices in the region. Under the leadership of Kurian, the MASS set about educating other groups of farmers about the sustainable production of coffee, cocoa, and tropical fruits and vegetables, and helped those farmers to get Organic certification. The MASS also led the way in encouraging the farmers to adopt the Fairtrade system, forming cooperatives and getting Fairtrade certification to guarantee a fairer price for their produce. The project has been a resounding success, with some 2380 smallholder farmers now Fairtrade and Organic certified. Many have become much more involved in steering the direction of their local industries by becoming active in decision-making activities through the cooperative structure that is a requirement of Fairtrade certification. The activities of the MASS have been transformative, particularly for the coffee industry in the region. Previously, the farmers in the area had no access to a pulping centre, so could only sell the fresh cherries to traders. As a result of the activities of the MASS, the region’s farmers now have their own pulping centre, and have gained much more control over the sales and marketing of their produce. In recent years, the farmers have sent their beans to international trade shows such as Coteca in Germany and the Specialty Coffee Association of America Event in the United States for evaluation by foreign buyers. Based on this feedback, MASS has been able to develop its own coffee brand for its highest quality beans, Smart Coffee, which it is introducing to the Indian market this year. The group also has plans to introduce a range of other coffee brands to the market, focusing primarily on online sales as its retail channel. However, not all the gains for the local coffee farmers are in the future, Kurian says, with recent success under their belt. “In the last financial year, MASS in association with Plantrich sold about 200 tonnes of Organic coffee,” he tells GCR Magazine. This has led to US$220,000 being generated as a Fairtrade Premium, which then goes into further economic development projects as determined by the farmers themselves. Kurian says that the MASS elected to adopt the Fairtrade system due to the increased power it gives to local farmers. “MASS feels that Fairtrade is the better platform as its ensures fair and better prices and the extra premium can be utilised for the production and quality improvement, training and certifications, farmers-owned processing units, and so on,” he says. As well as the economic benefits of the Fairtrade system, Kurian outlines how it has led to significant improvements in the quality of the farmers’ output. So far, MASS has organised workshops, field visits, and knowledge exchange and capacity building activities to introduce best agricultural practices, including needs-based inputs usage, use of bio-pesticides, use of self-developed farmyard manure, proper irrigation, and utilisation of rain water. These activities have helped reduce the cost of cultivation over a period of time, and also increase the yield by 8 per cent, which added extra income for each family. Another area where MASS has intervened to improve the local industry is in logistics. “Because of the very hilly geography, MASS established 17 collection centres at remote villages where accessibility is a challenge,” he says, adding that MASS has kept its own vehicles for the movement of the coffee from the collection centres to the processing unit. Kurian says that, overall, the formation of the MASS has transformed livelihoods for the farmers in his region. “Because of better prices, a more stable market, and transparent operation, the involvement of each farmer in decision making about how to spend the Fairtrade premium and the fixing of prices, the farmers feel it’s a great platform,” he says. While the progress that has been made so far is significant, Kurian says the MASS has no plans of slowing down. “We have 2020 plans in place and accordingly we would like to expand our area of operation with 5000 farmers covering new areas,” he says. “Second, we would like to set up a quality lab to ensure proper cupping and encourage farmers to grow better and better quality coffee, year by year.” GCR

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