Over a cup of coffee

Talking with Chit Juan about relationships, farmers, and what is a fair price

HOW much are you willing to pay for a cup of coffee? The question of fairness lies in the coffee value chain, and apparently, the answer should lie with the farmer.

This is what we learned from a fireside chat with ECHOstore co-founder, coffee and social entrepreneur Pacita “Chit” Juan. Ms. Juan founded the sustainable lifestyle store in 2008 with Reena Francisco and Jeannie Javelosa, after a storied career founding local coffee chain Figaro. The talk was one of the events slated for last week’s Coffee Expo Manila 2021, and was moderated by April Ong Vano, another social entrepreneur behind Collabox, a social enterprise that curates sustainable brands for gifting; as well as offering learning sessions and collaborations.

“There really was no store that you could get eco-friendly products,” remarked Ms. Juan when prompted to speak about ECHOstore’s founding. While the store offers childcare products, clothes, chocolates, and jams, among others, one of the products that stand out is their coffee.

“We’re all black coffee drinkers,” she said about herself and her co-founders. “Not to say that it’s not good with milk. Coffee, if you want to taste it in its purest form, you must know how to taste it black.” She intimated at the beginning of the talk that she was on her third cup that day.

She talked about literally being hands-on when it comes to sourcing coffee. “You have to know how to pick coffee,” she said, which was the pitch for taking her colleagues to a harvest trip up Benguet. “You have to pick the right coffees, the right cherries, and I introduced them to the people in the coffee neighborhood.” She pointed to her shirt, emblazoned with the logo of another initiative they founded, the International Women’s Coffee Alliance. This resulted in one of their brands of coffee in ECHOstore, Women in Coffee.

“It’s really the role of the women in the coffee value chain to be nitpicking, if you will, and it’s really picking every bean to make sure that what gets into your cup is really picked right by women.”

She also said that they grow their own coffee, albeit in a very small farm.

“To have that experience: what does a farmer experience, when he or she grows coffee?,” she said. She talked about droughts, the wet season, and climate change; and in seeing how these affect their own small coffee farm: “You feel with the farmer. You feel what the farmer goes through.”

Some entrepreneurs, however, might claim the buzzwords of sustainability and fairness, but purchasing directly from a farmer does not a relationship make. “Everybody wants to meet a farmer. Fine. But it is not something like, you meet a farmer today, buy a sack, and it’s a relationship.”

“These relationships are nurtured over time. You have to be there even if there’s no demand for coffee. You have to be there for the farmer through thick and thin.”

Ms. Juan, also an advocate for the Slow Food movement (and is in fact listed on her LinkedIn profile where she is identified as the Slow Food Movement’s Councilor for Southeast Asia) discusses what makes “slow coffee,” well, slow: it has to be good, it has to be clean, it has to be fair. “‘Fair’ is fair to the coffee farmer. What is a real fair price for the farmer?”

“The fair price is the price that a farmer gives you. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t negotiate. I also have to be sustainable, and the farmer understands that. Fair is also fair to the consumer. If I cannot sell it for a reasonable price to the consumer, that’s unfair.

“How can the farmer be sustainable if you don’t pay them the right price?”

She talked about the math that goes into a cup, and how all the hours, days, and months of labor becomes quantified. Women in Coffee, for example, goes for P175 for a 120 gram bag in the ECHOstore, for instance. “When you compute coffee, and this we do in a lot of our training, people just say, ‘it’s expensive; it’s organic.’ They haven’t even computed that they’re willing to pay over P100 at a cafe, but they don’t want to pay the farmer fairly, which is the equivalent of let’s say, P5 per cup.”

“People don’t do the math sometimes.”

She takes into consideration not just the labor costs, but the prices paid in transportation and processing; and then a cafe owner could charge P80 or P100 (and above) to prepare a cup of it. “And you complain. ‘How mahal naman (how expensive), this is local right?’

“Exactly. It goes through the same tedious process that every coffee goes through in Vietnam or Brazil. But why not pay that to a Filipino coffee farmer?” — Joseph L. Garcia

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