Ecuador is not particularly known for its coffee. Nevertheless, for the past couple of months it has been possible to buy a ‘fair trade’ special Arabica coffee from Ecuador in Wageningen, thanks to MAKS student Jeroen Kruft. Trade as aid.
Kruft ‘discovered’ the coffee last year during a visit to Ecuador while on holiday with his father. ‘I had travelled through quite a lot of Latin America although I had never been in the Amazon area. It was through my father, who was in Ecuador frequently for his work as a development economist, that I ended up visiting a project that was too small scale for his work: the EScoffee project in the south of the country.’
While there, Kruft became friends with the man who initiated the project, Miguel Rendón. He used to work for the multinational Monsanto, but had had enough and decided to devote his efforts to supporting organic farmers. Three years ago Rendón set up EScoffee, by helping farmers to organise themselves better and offering them a higher price for better quality coffee. ‘The world market price for coffee has more than halved in the last decade and the overall quality has also declined. Most coffee in the supermarkets is a mix of robusta, a lowland coffee with a more bitter taste, and the milder, highland arabica. The aim of EScoffee is to make a gourmet coffee that can be sold for a higher price. This requires ‘washed coffee’, for which only ripe, red berries are picked instead of stripping all berries from a bush as is done with ‘natural coffee’. What makes EScoffee different is that it is a private initiative. There is nothing wrong with NGOs supporting farmers’ cooperatives, but if the money dries up the whole project can perish.’
The student of Management of agro-ecological knowledge and social change (MAKS) decided after his visit not only to devote his MSc thesis to coffee: in the next few months he will be in Ecuador to examine which factors determine the type of coffee the local farmers decide to cultivate, and the factors that determine which coffee traders buy in Ecuador. But Kruft has also taken an active role. ‘I consider it important that the project succeeds. In my travels in Latin America I have seen what happens when people go to the big cities or abroad for economic reasons, and parents leave their children behind with the grandparents. A higher price for coffee can improve living conditions in rural areas. But I saw that EScoffee had difficulties selling its coffee. If you can do something about that because you come from Holland, then isn’t it obvious that you try? I can help them gain access to a market and they can provide us with a better product. I want to contribute to world development and improve the balance between rich and poor. I am a relative newcomer to development cooperation, but as far as I can see one of the best ways to help countries to develop is through trade.’
The first delivery of coffee, a couple of packing cases, arrived by plane about three months ago. The beans were roasted, ground and packed in Ecuador and it was not difficult for Kruft to get them into the ‘coffee barracks’ at the student complex Droevendaal and onto the shelves of local health food shops. A local internet order company and a café-lounge due to open in November are also interested in EScoffee. The second delivery (five hundred kilos) has just arrived by boat in Rotterdam. ‘It would be great if the coffee were sold in regular supermarkets, but that is a difficult step as you have to be able to trade in bigger quantities than we have at present. At the moment we are looking for an importer of unroasted coffee beans here. Coffee importers in the west prefer to roast and pack the coffee themselves. It seems they have little confidence in the technical skills of roasters in developing countries. It would be nice if that confidence were to grow, as the added value of the product would then remain in the country of origin.’
Kruft recommends students to get experience in a project. ‘Enthusiasm can get you a long way. You do have to be able to find a market, and the project must be organised well enough that they can keep up deliveries if it becomes a success. If you have a good relationship of trust, producers can even finance the transport and you can pay them once the product has been sold.’
Yvonne de Hilster