INK Fellow, coffee lover and conservationist Arshiya Bose talks to us about her journey to cultivate coffee in a more ecologically acceptable way, her collaborations with other INK Fellows to make it happen and the elusive perfect cup of coffee!
1. What has it meant to you to be an INK Fellow? Tell us a little about your INK Conference experience.
I don’t think I quite realized how important it is to surround oneself with inspiring people. We read books, listen to music or visit an art exhibition but being an INK Fellow has made all of these inspiring people come to life. I have a sense of what makes these people tick and that’s made the books and music all that much richer.
My career and life has also all of a sudden become very specialized. I’ve studied coffee for 7 years (can you believe it?) and even though my work now tries to integrate farming, environment and livelihoods, it is still a very narrow field of view. The INK experience opens this view up to people and ideas that I would not have had access to. For example, I didn’t realize how powerful spoken word was till I was blown away by Sekou Andrews at the INK Conference in 2016 or Naved Shaikh in 2015. In 2015, Emily Levine and Josh Radnor reinforced in me the impact that good (and humorous) storytelling can have. Closer to my own field of work, Anand Varma pushed me to think of communicating science in creative ways – electro dub tunes perhaps! I am always learning from people at INK and its not too often that people are so open about sharing their ideas with you (especially in the field of science) so I’m very thankful for this space.
2. How did you develop an interest towards sustainable coffee production?
I started studying coffee as a PhD student in 2009. I was in the Department of Geography at Cambridge University and my interest was in linking local coffee farming practices (the culture, sociopolitics etc.) to global forces (market fluctuations, certifications and so on). In the course of this 5 year study, I ended up doing interviews with over 300 coffee growers. I didn’t really have a big research budget which meant that a lot of time was spent meeting people first hand and understanding their histories, farming practices and perceptions about coffee and markets. Over many cups of coffee (pun intended!), some of the producers asked me if I would be interested to create a project that could impact them in a direct and tangible way. At the end of my PhD work, all my observations were pointing to the conclusion that except for a few minor modifications, most projects (like eco-certification for coffee) were promoting business rather than creating value. In BR Hills, Karnataka (where we source coffee from currently), growers receive 20-30% less than the market price on any particular day. This concerned me as a conservationist. It was clear that social and environmental problems were aplenty but the current model of certification (indeed this market tool) did not do enough.
3. Your enterprise Black Baza Coffee Co. has been dedicated to growing coffee through biodiversity-friendly farming practices. Can you take us through it’s journey to where it stands now?
I started Black Baza Coffee Co. with the aim of taking my learning from PhD research and creating a more farmer-friendly process. I knew little about coffee and nothing about running companies. I simply felt a restlessness to act on the problems I was seeing and loneliness when I looked around and found nobody else with me. And so I reconciled with the idea of starting an imperfect project and promised myself that I would work on getting it progressively less wrong as I went along.
As a conservation project at its core, Black Baza Coffee starts off with ‘conservation agreements’ with growers. Producers commit to maintaining 100 trees an acre, at least 22 species with no single tree dominating 20% of the total abundance, 60-70% shade cover for Robusta and 70-80% shade cover for Arabica and at least a three-tier canopy structure. Farms also restrict the use of any chemical pesticide. Majority of the farms we work with at the moment (146 of 150 farms) were default organic but for those that did use chemical fertiliser we also agreed that this will be reduced to 1.5 kgs of NPK annual with the aim of transitioning to zero. In return, Black Baza Coffee guarantees a buyback at a 15-20% premium over the market price. Equally importantly we run capacity building programmes throughout the year to improve coffee quality and farm management. We are also exploring price fluctuation buffers and insurance schemes.
We have also mapped farms and done checklists of tree species, monitored shade cover at regular intervals throughout the year, surveyed spider families and documented mammals using our coffee farms. Our biodiversity assessments do not as yet tell us with scientific accuracy whether our approach to shade-grown farming is yielding any biodiversity outcomes. However they do tell us that we could be on the right track! Shade canopy has increased as farms stopped lopping tree branches. Farms look more ‘rustic’ and there is plenty of research from Central America that shows that increased canopy cover and a diversity of trees support birds, insects, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals.
Many people don’t know this but 70% of coffee growers across the world are smallholders which means that individuals cultivate coffee on less than 25 acres. Our collective of coffee growers cultivate on less than 1 acre! This means they face numerous risks and vulnerabilities and our duty as a coffee company is to build in safeguards so that we can strengthen their livelihoods as well as the enhance the biodiversity value of their farms.
As a coffee company we have grown in the market to include many more growers than we originally started out with. We started with 4, then expanded to 35 and this year we hope to reach out to 150 farmers across the Western Ghats. This of course also indicates that the area under biodiversity-friendly cultivation has also increased manifold. Equally interesting is the fact that coffee drinkers across the country now start their day with a tiny conservation story on their breakfast table. You can French Press the Ficus Blend, drink the Otter coffee through an Aeropress, enjoy a Lion-Tailed Macaque (we call the coffee the ‘Wanderoo’, an ancient Sinhalese word for the LTM) or have The Whistling School filter kaapi! This is our approach to consumer advocacy. The vision is that if coffee drinkers demand that their coffee comes from farms that conserve biodiversity, perhaps more farms will be urged to cultivate in ecologically acceptable ways.
4. You’ve had a few collaborations with other INK Fellows and community members. Take us through what those look and any others you’ve got in the works.
The INK network straddles people from so many different areas that its been very easy to forge collaborations. Sandesh Reddy was the first INK Fellow I collaborated with – we started serving filter coffee at Old Madras Baking Co. and also retailing our coffee from all of his 5 outlets! Sarvesh Shashi’s new indoor stadium, Rush in Chennai features our coffee as does Ravi Mantha’s upcoming cafe in Hyderabad. Shannon Olsson’s students have traipsed around our partner coffee farms on numerous occasions searching for beetles and other insects! I’m so hopeful about her team’s research findings because I think it could really input into our farming practices. Kalyan Varma and Prasenjeet Yadav have always been good friends but we have just gotten an interesting conversation going on how to effectively communicate our conservation story to coffee drinkers. More design-thinking collaborations would be very valuable.
5. According to you, what constitutes a perfect cup of coffee?
A perfect cup of coffee: well-balanced, no hotter than 62 degrees celsius, freshly ground and roasted no more than three days ago! I use an Aeropress – its unbreakable and fits in my backpack.
Follow Arshiya’s coffee story on her website https://www.blackbazacoffee.com/ and do remember to check out her delicious (and very biodiversity friendly!) coffee products!