Most of us take the coffee supply chain for granted.
This is not a call-out, it's just a fact, and I include myself among the accused. If you live in a city and like going to coffee bars, chances are you spend more time thinking about what's happening inside that cafe than you do on how the coffee got there. For many that relationship between the raw, living coffee shrub and the cup you exactingly brew feels distended, divorced from reality, devoid of connectivity; it's this thing from the other side of the world, and it just kind of shows up. Some of that can't be helped: coffee is the most international thing you do on any given day, and very few coffee drinkers—heck, very few coffee professionals—ever have a chance to visit where coffee actually comes from.
But come from a place it does, managed by real people, touched by real hands, through different steps and processes around the world. And when an opportunity comes to forge some of that connectivity, it's precious.
Raw Material is a new specialty coffee supply company, forging relationships between leading roasters and the daily realities at coffee origin. Right now in Calarcá, Colombia, they are planning work on a new project that could help transform the lives of coffee farmers in the region, by improving the coffee they produce and facilitating better access to stable, growing income. This project has big dreams, and because the guy at the center of it is a millennial westerner—New Zealander Matt Graylee—he's using that most archetypical of millennial mechanisms to make those dreams a reality: he's funding the mill on Kickstarter.
The project seeks $100,000 NZD, or roughly $70k US, for the building of a professional coffee mill due west some 300 kilometers from Bogota. Raw Material have raised in excess of $30,000 as of press time. It comes with a set of donation prizes like we've never seen before, from roasted coffee produced by remarkable roasters around to the world, to the opportunity to give processing input, reserve future buys, and put your own name on 1000 tree lots of rare, coveted coffee varieties.
We've covered a number of Kickstarter projects here at Sprudge, and so believe me when I say that stories like this don't come along every day. I had to know more, and so I sat down digitally with Raw Material founder & director Matt Graylee from London, to learn about the project's origins, the unexpected challenges and difficulties, and where it goes next.
Your coffee comes from real people, from a real place. From the lifer coffee pro to the most casual of Sprudge readers, this stuff matters.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
For readers who are unfamiliar with your project, give us an overview on Raw Material — what do you? Whom is it for?
Raw Material is a green coffee production and trading company focussed on main two areas: removing barriers that are inhibiting farmer’s access to the specialty market, and supply to independent roasters.
Most of the coffee we work with scores 85 to 89 points, with some limited edition coffees scoring over 90 points suitable for competition, and some coffees closer to 80 points made available to NGOs and social enterprises at cost. Currently the countries we are currently most deeply involved with are Colombia, Rwanda, and Myanmar via the CQI and Winrock. The market has evolved to create an opportunity for producers; a rapidly growing number of coffee drinkers now desire specialty coffee from independent cafes, those cafes want coffee from skilled roasters who take pride in using quality ingredients, and these new independent roasters want the best quality green coffee possible for reasonable prices. Now we see a much larger number of diverse smaller businesses, with more holistic value sets, compared with the monolithic coffee market of the past.
You've recently launched a Kickstarter to fund a wet mill in Colombia. Why fund via Kickstarter?
Through crowd funding this project can be opened up to people for whom getting involved in coffee production is otherwise quite out of reach. This is a community wet mill we are building, and so having the international community of roasters, barista competitors, and coffee enthusiasts deeply engaged is a very big positive for everyone.
As for Kickstarter over any other platform; that was a decision made through weighting what seems to be the use of “Kickstarter” as an almost household name, making talking about what we’re doing much simpler compared with explaining first the intricacies of the various options before talking about the project.
Some of your prizes are pretty interesting, including naming rights for 1000 tree lots of coffee. Does this mean we could have like, Finca El Sprudge?
Exactly! I’d suggest you consider “La Sprudge” also, as much like the Académie Française does for French; you are in a position where you can define the gender of yourself through the pronoun. My strongest recommendation however is to go with “Sprudgy McSprudgeface”, as an expression of solidarity with those who were vetoed after the successful “Boaty McBoatface” campaign for naming the Natural Environment Research Council’s new ship. Do it Jordan, do it in the spirit of democracy and humour, and also to subvert the tradition of assigning words a gender.
Your Kickstarter mentions the following: “Across the last five years of coffee farming in Colombia we've seen multiple nationwide riots during seasons where this is the case.” This kind of news isn’t typically reported in the US media or the coffee press. Have you or your business partner experienced this first-hand? What is it like to be working in this milieu?
I recall you published an article during the 2013 riots, by the fantastic writer Michael Sheridan. This was one of the clearest and coherent accounts out there. I most easily recall late August, when at least three civilians and one policeman died in demonstrations. Many were injured, and hundreds were arrested. Comparatively, the effect on us was negligible. Practically it meant large delays in shipping, but we were only waiting on maybe a couple of containers.
There was a network of truck drivers and demonstrators using text messages to keep everyone informed of where the gatherings were becoming violent, so in that sense it was possible to avoid the most risky zones. However, there were some workers from Helena, our farm commodity-to-specialty transformation project of the time, who went to join the demonstrations and roadblocks to apply pressure to the government to install the subsidy (the PIC) while the market price was below cost of production. In other regions entire farming families marched to demand loudly and clearly that a “minimum price needs to be set” for parchment coffee.
For us—myself and my fellow Raw Material owner and farm manager Miguel Fajardo—this stoked our fire. Seeing how far producers would go to ensure their message was heard underlined our purpose one hundred times over. Which potential solutions to pursue (in order to maximise impact, and given our limitations) remained the only question.
You're working with some interesting roasters for Kickstarter prizes. Why work with these particular roasters? Flight and Caravan have the obvious NZ connection, but how did you pick the other ones?
Those other roasters are Grace & Taylor (Australia), Wrecking Ball (USA),곰 Coffee Roasters (Korea), Common Grounds (Indonesia), Azahar (Colombia), and Good Karma (Germany).
Each one is its own story, but basically I either know them all and love them, and you can print that, or in the case of Wrecking Ball, we haven't known each other long but I think it's going that direction. It's an alignment of culture. These are all brands run by people who don't take themselves seriously at all, but take the goals of their comapnies incredibly seriously. It's uncommon and all of these characters here have that.
As someone from New Zealand, what have been some of the challenges of living and working in Colombia? What's been the biggest surprise?
Top two are easy, I think about it often. First would be the spectrum of trust and wariness, what sort of expectation is reasonable or required, and how the disparity between our cultures formed. The second most salient difference is the consistency of my poops.
Quickly back to first difference. Due to NZ being made up of towns with very small populations, our culture has developed to include a prevalent nature of implicit trust. If you’re a jerk back home, doors will shut all around you very quickly… and heck there are only seven or so doors. So though not conscious, being an insulated island, we are generally a trusting people. The anonymity of large populations means different cultural norms cultivate, not the least of which is caution when dealing with acquaintances, for reasonable reasons.
Some populous countries have balancing mechanisms, for example suing being normalised and being prepared to defend your rights in the USA. That difference alone is quite a shift from NZ, but now imagine the cultural distance in this respect between NZ and a populated country without the countering institutions. Naturally this has been shaping my personality consistently to a more internationalised level of expectation.
You've got another interesting line in your Kickstarter info and I wanted to ask you to expand for us: “The elusive promise of development through trade by de-commoditising specialty coffee, and ensuring coffee is a sustainable and logical choice for farmers to invest in.” Why is this elusive? Do you think this is the “promise” made by terms like Direct Trade, for example? How do you measure development?
The “…promise of development through trade…” I refer to is the understanding that wealth is generated through producing and selling things, and that if those producing and selling things are generating profit through doing so, then as a whole they should see economic growth, financial success, and a movement towards a society that has more than it needs. There has been a growing consensus in both developing and developed countries, from policy makers and donor communities alike, that those in poverty should be able to trade their way out the situation rather than relying on a endless aid cycle. The proposal for achieving this is pretty sound: remove trade barriers, reduce subsidisation of farmers in developed countries, provide access to technical assistance…yet for decades now coffee producing countries have remained poor though being part of the global trade. This is what I mean by “elusive”.
Colombia was a bit of a success story during the 1920s, but time has shown us that they, like fifty-odd other coffee producing countries are stuck in something of a commodity problem. Let’s do another piece one day after the Kickstarter has concluded about the commodity problem, and differentiation of coffee material quality for capturing value for producers as opposed to differentiation post-roaster.
Again from you Kickstarter text: “We help transition producers to specialty coffee and sell to roasters all around the world as a full-time gig.” What do you think is the biggest challenge you face in that transition?”
Funding is one of the largest challenges. Currently we are a small group of people working on this without any outside investment.
You mention crop diversity—what coffee varieties are you planting?
We are currently planting Tabi, Pink Bourbon, Wush Wush, Gesha, Caturra, Moka, Castillo…and we are considering others. There is a mix of varieties all the way through to very resistant types as a risk-hedging method.
For many of our readers this will be their first touch point with Raw Material. Is this the primary project of Raw Material right now, or are you juggling other stuff? Are there more projects like this one to come?
We have a range of projects on the go, but this is the focus in Quindio at the moment. With other groups we are part of similar projects in other parts of Colombia and in Rwanda, some market research and opportunity discovery projects elsewhere, and personally I’m very committed to Winrock’s work in Myanmar as a volunteer. We will be bringing a container of the 3rd Myanmar production competition winners to Australasia and another to Europe early 2017.
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Jordan Michelman on Sprudge.
All photos courtesy of Raw Material.