The journey. Part 1.
We would be living with our heads in the sand if we said that today’s world wasn’t driven by business! In business, money is the agreed form of value that 99.9% of the world uses to trade for other products of value (food, oil, haircuts, chopsticks, advice, metal, therapy, barbie doll dresses, and every other product or service on earth). Money comes in two forms: 1. The physical note perfectly designed to fit in your pocket. 2. The electronic number that gets sent digitally to your account. The use of money makes perfect sense. We can’t be shipping camels all over the world as our form of currency for trade, and try fitting one in your pocket!
You might say that all of this is obvious and no graduate of Harvard Business School is needed to figure that out. You would be correct in saying that, but it is important, for this story I am about to tell you, to take note of the underlying structure that commands and forms our very existence. The world is shaped by the flow of trade, and every human on the planet is influenced, if not governed, by this extremely complex network of value exchange.
I am extremely interested in the business and trade of one particular product. This minute jewel fuels most of the planet! Even though each unit of this valuable product only weighs one gram, over 20 billion of them are ground up, mixed with hot water, and consumed every day! Over 25 million families depend on this little treasure as their economic livelihood. What is it? You guessed it…coffee.
I am one of those people who depends on this beautiful little gem to put food on my table. The last quarter of my life has been sustained by it. It has provided me with the capacity to not only put food and education on the table of a few families in need but also to follow my dreams and engage in a life that I feel is worth living. How can it be that this tiny seed has so much power? This small stone can dictate my, and 24,999,999 family’s very existence?
It comes from a small cherry, that grows on a little bush, that originated close to the birth of humankind in the heart of Africa. Interesting.
Was it not that the garden of Eden was located in Africa and not the middle east? Was it not that the forbidden fruit was a cherry that Adam and Eve encountered and not an apple? Were Adam and Eve expelled from the garden of Eden because they ate the ‘fruit of knowledge of good and evil’ which was actually a small cherry from the coffee plant? It must have been a coffee cherry. I can’t think of another fruit that has shaped as much of the world in terms of agriculture, business, world trade, philosophy, politics, and even revolutions, as the modest coffee berry. The mystical powers of good and evil are easily recognised in the history that surrounds this humble bean.
I recently returned from a trip to Central America. I spent two weeks in Nicaragua and three weeks in Guatemala. It was a beautiful experience meeting so many lovely people and learning so much about the beginning of the coffee chain. I have experience in relation to ‘the final step’ of the long journey, in the delivery of the product at the end of the coffee chain, but not so much in relation to the beginning of this interesting and complex trade expedition that is coffee.
I visited my first coffee plantations in Kenya 9 years ago so I know a little of how the cycle works. There I saw coffee plants for the first time. I saw how they processed the cherries from this plant, how they dried the seeds that came from the cherries, how the seeds were separated and graded by quality, how it was put it into sacks ready for exportation. I remember everything about my first short experience at the beginning of the coffee journey.
The one thing that I remember more clearly than anything else was the people. The Kenyan ladies in their brightly coloured traditional clothing sitting on the ground manually classifying their harvest of coffee cherries that they had picked ready to be weighed. I was this young white dude with a fancy camera asking if I could take their photo. To this day I ask myself ‘what they were thinking?’. Were they thinking ‘oh what I nice young white dude wanting to take my picture’, or was it ‘here is just another white dude taking our picture who has no idea of what our lives are actually like’, or, nothing of the sort? I will never know. I can also remember being affected in a way that literally changed my life. At the time I couldn’t put all of the pieces of the jigsaw together. I saw poverty first hand and I didn’t know how to feel about it!
This time it is safe to say that my experience in Central America was different from that of Kenya 9 years ago. Maybe it is because of the type of work that I have been doing over the last few years or maybe it is because the idea of my trip was to scout out a location for a new project, but I definitely observed through different eyes. Eyes that have 9 years more of life experience. Kenya had been the catalyst in a big change and had given me a hint of what happens at the beginning of the coffee chain, but I wasn’t ready for it. It was the little push that I needed, but I had also needed time and experience to be able to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
This time in Central America I was able to observe the beginning of the coffee journey as part of the bigger picture. I absorbed everything and the learning excited me, like when the caffeine starts to take effect as it spreads through your veins entering your system after your cup of morning coffee. It blows my mind thinking about the number of people working in coffee at any one time.
I was sitting on a farm in Nicaragua of about 10 hectares, or around 10,000 square meters. The movement was incredible. There were people coming and going, picking coffee, dropping off coffee to be processed, processing coffee, drying coffee, strategically planning for the sale of the coffee to particular markets, maintaining the garden that feeds the coffee workers, cooking for the coffee workers, and managing the people who manage the coffee workers. All of this so that people all over the world can sit down in coffee shops and drink a cup of coffee. And this is only a small piece of the pie.
What power has the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. The power to move and sustain millions of livelihoods, but I couldn’t help but see the other side of the coffee business that I have been involved in for so long! There is a dark side to coffee (pun intended) that I couldn’t help but feel partly responsible for…
To be continued…