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A Not So Short Story on Relationships in Coffee

Five Senses CoffeeShaughan Dunne 3 July 2012

When I first travelled to Bali for the 2008 Harvest Trip, I thought I was the only West Australian not to have visited this popular tourist destination. To be honest, the stories I heard of the ‘Kuta experience’ didn’t enthuse me a great deal and it was really the opportunity to attend my brother’s fortieth birthday whilst in Bali that convinced me to go (did somebody say junket?) Little did I know that this magical island was going to capture my imagination and play a big role in my personal and professional development.

I still remember the heady sensory experience of getting off the plane and being enveloped in the smell of incense, the close humidity and the faint smell of sewage! I was totally unprepared for the traffic experience as we departed the airport. A couple with a new baby on a scooter sat perilously close to our taxi as he manoeuvred his way through the swarming traffic. They seemed totally at ease as she swung the baby from arm to arm looking for a comfortable position. My heart was in my mouth at the time, but I soon began to trust in the incredible intuitiveness of Bali driving.

On my first trip (the second for FSC) we were hosted by Indocom, the local branch of the international coffee trader E-Com. The inimitable Uliana was our guide and she expertly steered us through the mountains and plantations of Kintamani whilst she juggled calls on her three mobile phones! Having a partner like Indocom on the ground was a great arrangement as they could drive programmes and monitor progress while we were back in Australia. The big project on this trip was to narrow the large selection of 11 Subak Abians (co-ops) down to just two through a blind cupping process. These two would then become our ongoing partners. We were fortunate that our trip coincided with a visit from industry legend Ted Lingle who was gracious enough to attend our monster cupping. After much deliberation, we picked our two favourites and were thrilled when we realised they had been two of our most favoured farms when we visited in the previous year. After some consultation with Uliana, we negotiated to bring about five tonnes of coffee to Australia and things were underway.

The first Bali coffee arrived in Australia, and its heavy, sweet profile made it a great blending option in espresso blends and it quickly gained a loyal following. We started to plan for the 2009 harvest when the full impact of the GFC was sending tremors through the business world. Not long after that, we were advised by Indocom that they were pulling out of Bali and leaving the farmers on their own. Deano and I immediately got our heads together to work out a plan. The thought of leaving our new friends in Bali without a market for their coffee was not an option. With the help of Uliana we hatched a plan and soon we were winging our way back to Bali.

Effectively we needed to deal directly with farmers and, despite the language barriers, we managed to forge a deal based on trust and a strong commitment to each other. With Indocom out of the picture and no access to their dry mill facilities, we still had the problem of removing the parchment from the green coffee and undertaking the complex bureaucratic and logistical challenges required to export coffee. Again Uliana came to the rescue, and Dean and I were soon jetting over to Java for a meeting with a potential exporter. This was a whole story in itself, but to keep things concise we managed to find a brilliant company who have done an excellent job. My most vivid memory of this trip is Dean, myself and our driver sprinting to the servo toilet in fits of laughter after hours stuck in a traffic jam in rural Java. (Note to self; drink less water on long road trips!)

So a few years and many visits later, we’ve learnt a few things along the way and have undertaken and completed some admirable projects. Here are a few of the notable lessons and milestones;

  1. Learn to listen! It’s easy coming from a wealthy country like Australia to fall into the trap of thinking you have all the answers. Full of the best intentions, we charged into the relationship thinking we could single-handedly change the lives of the farmers. The reality is that they didn’t need saving, they just needed a business partner to trade with who kept their promises and allowed them to plan and grow their business with confidence.
  2. Be careful about charity. Giving things away without any reciprocal obligation can damage and erode relationships. Treating people like adults and expecting them to keep their part of the deal builds a depth and strength to a relationship that charity never will.
  3. Meeting the farmers of Tri Karya and committing to the nursery project was a daunting, but ultimately enormously rewarding, experience. Armed with a photocopied nursery manual and a ‘fake it till you make it attitude,’ we have managed to get 6,100 seedlings into the ground with another 20,000 seeds now securely planted and ready to germinate. Seeing cafe owners and baristas plant coffee that will ultimately produce a crop they could be using in their own cafes in a few years time is an amazing experience!
  4. Never underestimate the ability of smallish girls to eat massive plates of ribs!

So, a big thank you to everyone who has come along on the Bali harvest trips over the years and made it the amazing experience it is. And a huge thank you to the farmers and entourage of drivers, friends, hotel staff and people of Bali who have enriched our lives and taught us many lessons along the way. Suksema and sampai jumpa!

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