Java Enabled: Brave New Cup

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Zach Dyer is a writer living in Saint Louis. He did his thesis research on coffee farmers in Southern Mexico. Since then, he has visited coffee plantations in Costa Rica and Mexico as well as roasters and cafés across the U.S. He blogs about coffee for Gut Check every Wednesday.

I think it's safe to say that when you think about Uganda, world-class coffee isn't the first thing that comes to mind. A small coffee importer named Crop to Cup is working to change that. Through farmer education and an entrepreneurial market model, their business may succeed Fair Trade as the best way to buy coffee ethically.

Last week, I spoke with Jake Elster, one of Crop to Cup's founders, about how he got into the coffee business and how he thinks Crop to Cup's model can change the way people buy coffee.

"We weren't huge coffee drinkers before all this," Jake admitted to me. In fact, the project that first brought together Jake and his business partner Taylor Mork was opening an Internet café in rural Uganda. While in college, Jake studied abroad in Geneva with the School for International Training. That's where he met Taylor. The two friends studied relief and development organizations, with a focus on their efficacy in the developing world.

Through connections they made during their time in Switzerland, Jake and Taylor moved to Uganda after graduation to open DevelopNET (DNet), a subsidized Internet café. Their plan was to provide Internet access to the community of Iganga and use part of the café's profits to fund leadership and technology workshops for the community.

click to enlarge Java Enabled: Brave New Cup
Wikimedia Commons
While readers of this column might take the Internet for granted, rural farmers in Uganda lack access to some of the most basic services. "We felt that technology was a way to overcome rural problems that kept people poor," Jake said. "Before, a farmer's economic reach went as far as his bike could carry him." DNet aimed to grant farmers access to a wider market and crop prices to help them negotiate the best price for their goods. Without knowing the value of their goods in the wider market, producers are at the mercy of middlemen and the prices they offer.

Jake and Taylor spent a year in Uganda working the café; eventually, they transitioned ownership to a local man. With the café up and running, the friends were looking for their next project. "We were tired of writing grants and were becoming wary of some of the negative effects of charity and aid," Jake said. "We wanted to find a way to inject money into these rural communities. Looking around, we realized that the answer was growing in people's backyards." Building off the coffee people were already growing, Jake and Taylor started Crop to Cup. Today, Crop to Cup represents Ugandan farmers in the villages of Gibuzaale, Manafwa and Bududa.

Java Enabled: Brave New Cup
Courtesy Crop to Cup
Throw out your pinko-commie stereotypes that ethical commodities have to be anti-free trade. Jake is a self-professed capitalist. He feels it's not the free market that promotes these cycles of poverty; it's the business model. Coffee in Uganda is a bulk commodity where value is assigned by weight, instead of quality. By the pound, bad coffee -- even rocks and pebbles -- mixes with great coffee. "We realized that even when the farmers were growing better coffee, it wasn't translating into better prices," Jake said. Crop to Cup was going to have to change the way farmers and consumers viewed their coffee. Traceability was the answer.

"We wanted to apply the same simple, low cost technology like GPS and videoconferencing we used at Development Net to help local producers connect directly with consumers," Jake explains. He and Taylor understood that consumers in the U.S. wanted to know not only where their coffee came from, but who grew it. Crop to Cup builds off of the concept of traceability -- knowing exactly where your coffee comes from, down to the individual farmer -- to distinguish their coffee and guarantee quality.

Similar to fair trade, Crop to Cup tries to move the farmer as high on the chain as possible. The typical coffee commodity chain might involve as many as seven different industries from harvest to roasting. By eliminating as many middlemen as possible, the farmers are able to benefit more from the actual market value of their product. Crop to Cup, however, takes the process one step closer by working directly with the farmers instead of stopping at the cooperative level.

Crop to Cup guarantees their farmers 20% higher than market prices, 5% of every coffee purchase and 10% of the company's profits. Between market prices and community re-investment, Jake told me Crop to Cup farmers saw 55% better prices than market value alone.

Coffee farmer Sam Kauka with his children. - Courtesy Crop to Cup
Courtesy Crop to Cup
Coffee farmer Sam Kauka with his children.
Local farmers decide how best to use the money generated by their coffee. Jake told me that a seedling project was one way the proceeds were spent. Time and the volatility of the coffee market made it difficult for local farmers to re-invest in their fields. As a result, many fields were past their prime and production was falling. Coffee trees aren't necessarily expensive but they take three to four years to reach commercial production levels and this means taking up land that doesn't produce. The axiom "time is money" translates in Uganda, too. Over 10,000 coffee trees were planted in the farms across the Bugisu tribal region and Sironko district to help increase farmer yield thanks to the 5% re-investment.

Today, Crop to Cup specializes in East African coffee but is looking to expand its reach into Burundi, Indonesia and El Salvador. While Crop to Cup's operation is currently focused in Chicago and New York City, Jake tells me they're hoping to expand their retail distribution. You may have already tried some of Crop to Cup's coffee. Using a Google map that shows where their coffee is served, I realized I had some of their coffee the last time I was in New York.

Uganda has a long way to go before its coffee gains the notoriety of a traditional producing nation like Colombia. True, there's no Ugandan Juan Valdez; but with Crop to Cup's innovative model we might not need one. Connecting with the farmers in a more direct way, people have a better idea about where their coffee comes from and who grows it. Coffee may be one of the world's oldest goods, but Crop to Cup shows us there's still new ways it can help farmers there and drinkers here.

The original post transposed Crop to Cup's name as Cup to Crop. Gut Check apologizes for the error.

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