“If we give these people a little more care, a little more love and we can pay them better wages, do a little bit more…we won’t just have better coffee, but we’re going to make a real change.”
Over the years, I have been known for a few different things. As the founder and owner of ONA Coffee, the founder of Project Origin and of course, for winning the World Barista Championship in 2015. Amongst all the excitement of various companies, adventures and coffees, it’s easy to overlook certain stories and experiences. There is one, however, that I would like to share.
Having recently returned from an origin trip to India, I thought it would be good to reflect on the relationship we have with a particular coffee farm there and what it has meant for us over the years, both in ONA Coffee and our other endeavours.
I first began working with Thalanar Estate in India a while ago, back in 2011. Pathy, one of the relatives of the farmers, came by our headquarters in Canberra, Australia to ask if I would be interested in trying some of the coffee from his family’s farm. Six months later, he brought us some samples from Thalanar Estate – the coffee was tasting, at that point, just as good as some of the other coffees we had received from India. Pathy told me that the coffees produced on this farm had always been sold as a commodity product to a local mill. This means that it was just mixed in with a range of other coffees from other farms and he really had no idea where it was sold, or ended up.
To me, this was really interesting, and strange. When he brought me those samples and I roasted them, it was the first time Pathy had tasted roasted coffee from his family’s farm in his entire life. I saw potential in the coffee and was excited by the prospect of buying coffees in a direct trade relationship from a farm with such potential.
When I travelled to India for the first time in 2012, I took some roasted coffee from Thalanar Estate with me. I prepared coffees and tasting sessions on the farm for the manager, staff and family members. None of them had ever tasted their coffee before, despite some of them having worked there for more than thirty years. I will never forget the feeling of handing the manager his first cup of Thalanar Estate coffee.
So in this way, our relationship there began very…organically. Their coffee was always treated as something to be mixed in a pile and not appreciated for its own unique qualities. It was important to me to not only develop our business relationship there; that was secondary, but also to connect with these people on a social level, to create a supportive community in which we helped one another. In a lot of ways, their growth mirrored our growth. At the time, ONA was getting onto its feet and every day we were feeling more assured about our direction, after years of struggling. The team was happy and exploring new avenues in coffee and the company was gaining a reputation in Australia.
So when I went to Thalanar for the first time, I was shocked. On our end, we have passion, progression and advancement in the industry, largely due to the work of farmers around the world. What I saw at Thalanar, however, was an under-resourced community. They were losing workers due to lack of money, money which they deserved and needed.
I realised that I needed to do more than just buy coffee and return home. I needed to spend more time with the producers, developing relationships and friendships and growing a mutual respect so that we could work together to improve and add more value to their product. Hard work comes from motivation, but that motivation is hard to find when you lack resources.
Project Origin is the result of this. While on this trip to Thalanar Estate, I decided that we needed to do more to build these relationships with and aid these farmers. So, when I returned home, I had a discussion with a few of the ONA team members and we decided to create a second company, Project Origin, which would focus on community-driven green bean sourcing.
Over the years, Thalanar Estate has really reflected how Project Origin has progressed; as we have learnt about ourselves and how much the relationships we form shape and change our lives and the coffee, so to the farmers we worked with have changed and progressed. As we have used our resources to help Thalanar Estate, by building a child care facility, creating a sanitary system throughout the farm, providing medical facilities and so on, we have seen an increase in quality of product and quality of life.
One example is the Deep Purple program, in which full-time, local workers are paid a higher premium to pick only the super dark, purple cherries from the trees. We separate these from the red cherries as part of experimentation, to see what we can achieve with selective picking. This provides an incentive for the workers and the better the product we create together, the more we can do for them. When I went to India, I thought “If we give these people a little more care, a little more love and we can pay them better wages, do a little bit more…we won’t just have better coffee, but we’re going to make a real change.”
When we first decided that we wanted to advance past direct trade and create new relationships, we kept coming up with this project, that project…hence the name, Project Origin. We see it as a collaborative effort with everyone involved and when we achieve something and make a change, we move on to improving the next thing with a new project, new ideas, new purpose. Project Origin is a project that has no end, but is something we are always working on. We strive to achieve perfection and when we get close, we set the bar higher.
The people we work with on these coffee farms aren’t just business partners, or friends; they have become family. Early this year, I took my eight year old son Aleks to Thalanar Estate with me. We ate, slept and worked with the farmers like we were part of their family. We weren’t treated like guests, but like an extension of their community. By the second day, Aleks was eating all the local food with his hands, walking and talking amongst the workers, acting as if he had been there for years. When we left and were dropped to the airport, it was so moving to see Uncle Ravi, the manager of the farm, crying because Aleks was leaving and they had formed such a close relationship. It is these moments that define the world of coffee for me and the reason I love the work I do.
With Project Origin, we now work with coffee farmers and collectives all around the world and own several farms ourselves. In 2016 we launched the ‘Best Of’ Auctions, which saw us organise auctions in Honduras and El Salvador. This year, we are expanding these events and will hold auctions in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras between April and July, 2017. We have built facilities, bought machinery, undergone experiments, made many new friends and have created some of the best-tasting coffee in the world. It is not always easy, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
I often think of my first visit to Thalanar Estate; the land, the farmers, the families, and the coffees we deal with around the world can be traced back that moment in India, when I traveled with curiosity to see that part of the world; little did I know that my life would change forever and I would be starting on the largest project of my life.
Project Origin will be holding auctions between April and July in Central America. For more information, visit projectorigin.com.au
Written by Sasa Sestic
Edited by Jordan Montgomery