Project Origin’s quality relationships

Single origin, direct trade, ethical sourcing, sustainability – these terms are hallmarks of the specialty coffee movement. But how does an owner/operator of a small specialty coffee house in, say, Australia connect with producers on the other side of the world to ensure that what they are offering their customers does in fact live up to these terms? That’s a problem that 2015 World Barista Champion Sasa Sestic was trying to solve for his own café, Ona Coffee, when he travelled to Brazil five years ago to source his own lots of green beans direct from producers. After that trip, Sestic decided he wanted to adopt the direct trade model for 100 per cent of the coffee used by Ona. However, what began as a rather narrowly focused adventure to source coffee for his Canberra-based specialty coffee house has since taken on a life of its own. As Sestic’s sourcing and importing experience grew, so too did his networks, resulting in a larger connection of roasters throughout Australia with whom he would cooperate when importing lots of coffee. Over a period of about three years, this grew into the foundation for a viable green bean trading business, founded on the principles that initially drove Sestic to source that first lot of direct trade coffee from Brazil back in 2011. Now two years old, Project Origin has about 60 regular customers spread throughout Australia and the Asian region, and will this year import some 600 tonnes of directly traded specialty coffee from 11 countries. While the type of customer does vary, for many smaller specialty coffee roasters, Project Origin is a way of living up to those direct trade principles that are held so dear within this segment of the industry, even if they don’t necessarily have the means to do the travelling and sourcing themselves. “The bulk of our customers are those businesses that want the direct trade and want the special stuff, but aren’t able to do it themselves,” says Habib Maarbani, who is the Business Development Manager at Project Origin. Project Origin’s ethos is a simple one, and it is evident in all that they do, Maarbani tells Global Coffee Report. “Our vision is to connect communities through quality coffee, so the idea is twofold: we want to have a very community-focused business, both domestically and at origin, but we still want it to revolve around quality coffee,” he says. Maarbani says this focus on quality is what the team at Project Origin hopes will make their work with producers viable in the long term. “We believe that the quality and the flavour is what’s going to make direct trade more sustainable because even people who aren’t necessarily about the feel-good side of it will buy it,” he says. And with that focus on quality also comes empowerment of the producers themselves, who in turn gain much more control over the pricing of their crops than if they simply sell it as a commodity. There is a strong element of trust and keeping faith with the farmers that is needed to make this relationship work, Maarbani says. “What a lot of specialty producers fear is putting all that effort in to create a good quality product, but then not having somebody who wants to buy it for a fair price,” he says. As such, Project Origin has a pricing structure that is benchmarked against quality outcomes, as measured through cupping scores of the finished product. “With a lot of our producers, we give them pricing based on quality – so if they hit this cupping score, we can pay a certain amount for it, and if they hit a higher score, we can pay more for it, which is then balanced against what we know we can sell it for back in Australia,” he says. “So rather than pricing it based on the commodity exchange, which fluctuates for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with quality, we give farmers a market where they are sure they can get a price that reflects the quality of the coffee they are producing.” While Project Origin has been able to form strong relationships this way, it has also found that a relationship-first approach helps to create a strong feedback loop between the producer and the buyers, thus driving quality improvements from year to year. “The other part is teaching farmers how to improve, which can be a little bit presumptuous to assume that we know better than the producer does in terms of how to produce quality, but one of the things that can be lacking at origin is the knowledge of what happens to the product when it gets to us,” Maarbani says. “So if we can tell them that we cupped it and this is what happened, we scored it in this way and based on the experience we’ve had with other farmers you could do these things to improve those features.” In order to help farmers improve their results, Project Origin has begun emphasising teaching them about cupping their coffee themselves. This year, Project Origin ran two auctions – one in El Salvador and one in Honduras. One of the activities associated with the auction in Honduras was a workshop for the farmers to teach them how to cup themselves. “One of the best things we’ve noticed is that, with producers who know how to cup their own crops, when you go over to buy they can tell you how good it is and they can often tell you why – whether it’s in the fermenting or the growing or whatever. But if they don’t know what the end result is, then it is hard for them to improve because they don’t know what needs improving,” Maarbani says. Maarbani points to one of Sestic’s longest standing suppliers, the Lanza family in Honduras, as evidence of the strength of this approach.
Since meeting the Lanzas on a trip to Honduras in 2012, Sestic has formed a strong relationship with the family, buying coffee from them and even buying a coffee farm on the land next to theirs in 2015. “Through that feedback loop they’re producing high 80s and 90-plus scoring coffee and we now buy a lot of their crops,” Maarbani says.
Sestic’s relationship with the Lanza family has borne even richer fruit than that which comes off their trees with the two parties working closely together to stage Project Origin’s Best of Honduras Late Harvest Auction in July this year. With 150 samples, five rounds of cupping by panels of national and international judges, 32 lots making the finals scoring 85 points plus, and 20 lots being auctioned, Maarbani says the auction was a resounding success. The winning farmer at the auction was José Abel Girón Dubón, Owner of Finca Las Botijas in the Comoyagua region of Honduras. Until this year Dubón only sold his coffee through a local cooperative at the New York C market price or just above, which is currently around US$1.40 per pound. He has never had a direct buying relationship with an overseas buyer and usually his coffee is blended with others at the co-op before being on-sold. “This year, however, he learnt for the first time that his hard work and meticulous care on his farm is producing very high quality coffee,” Maarbani says. Dubón entered a small lot (approximately 320 kilograms) of his late harvest production of the Pacamara varietal into the Best of Honduras auction and won, scoring an average of 91.7 points across a panel of 12 international judges. The win meant this year Dubón sold his late harvest production for US$20 per pound. “Given the timing of his harvest this coffee rarely has access to international buyers, because most buyers come to Central America around February/March to finalise their coffee purchases,” Maarbani says. “And given the lot size as well as the late timing he could not enter this coffee into any other competition platform. His only other option would have been to sell through the local market, the way he’s always done. But now José has direct contact with Honey Coffee, the winning bidder of this lot, and through this sale, funds enough to help continue caring for his Pacamara coffee trees and producing exceptional quality into next year.” GCR

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