Back in June of this year 2017, I joined a small group of people including students from Dirrum Dirrum -Radford College, Canberra to make the journey to East Timor. This trip began with a chat over coffee with Mathew Hatcher (my colleague) and a few other people, who then approached me about direct trade and proven provenance with coffee.
The conversation then turned into an opportunity to explore coffee grown wild and organic right on our Australian doorsteps - East Timor. This extended into a sudden invitation to visit small-holder coffee farmers in East Timor through contacts in Sydney who still had ownership of coffee plantations through family connections. The journey was captured by filmographer - Andrew Belk, who kindly donated his time for the entire experience and crowdfunded by generous friends and family. Below is a picture of me and Andrew from the last trip.
From the moment I arrived in Dili, (capital of East Timor), I knew it was going to be a totally different experience to any other coffee growing region I'd visited.
Our drive up the mountain of Lissa Veu, (district of Maubara) turned into a 7-hour ordeal instead of 3 hours having almost lost a troop carrier with 11 people over a freshly cut and cleared road that the locals had prepared for us earlier in the day. It almost took a whole village to rescue the troop carrier that got stuck hanging off the cliff of the mountain. This ordeal leads into the night before we were on the road again.
The roads are very narrow and one of the biggest challenges facing coffee growers especially in the wet season when it becomes almost impossible to get through because of heavy rain and landslides. Upon our arrival, we were greeted with a ceremonial welcome by elders and the local villagers. The next day it was time to discuss how we could potentially do business with the farmers of this area.
But first it was about gaining the locals trust and knowing the people and their culture at a personal level, so our interpreters ( East Timorese - Maria Neves and Armindo- Landowner, now reside in Sydney) helped open the lines of communication by inviting all the local farmers for a gathering to meet with us.
We literally sat on the concrete ground in 30-degree heat (where coffee would normally layout to be dried) and were immediately engulfed by not only the local growers but all the village people eager to learn who and what we were about.
What proceeded was an open and exciting start to building a longterm relationship. Once the locals understood that we were there to potentially improve agricultural processes and quality and help them get better prices for their coffees, they were inspired and filled with hope to nurture their crops. They wanted to know more and were eager to learn.
Farmer and his workers - District of Maubara - Lisaveu
We began with openly discussing quality and productivity issues, what is expected by importers and roasters overseas and what we could do at this very farm level to address these issues which would promote and bring better coffees to market. Working with the growers picking coffee with them, showing them by colour what ripeness we expected for a specialty coffee standard and introducing new coffee processing was just the beginning and the results were evident within the week of being on the farm. The farmers are very poor and infrastructure needs to improve. Workers need to feel valued to get better paid, but there is so much potential for this unique coffee of the mountains. We still have a lot more to do as this is a longterm shared relationship.
For me personally, working very closely with the farmers with a hands-on approach, was fulfilling a dream come true as I got to share my 16 years experience with coffee and 13 years in agriculture. As a business owner, knowing people at a personal level brings about respect and trust and I think this is key with a product in high demand. Numero Uno Coffee roasters continue to forge a shared relationship with the producers of East Timor to create a mutually sustainable future and truly add value to the coffee chain.
Be prepared to serve and understand the people of the land.
Gina Di Brita with Mathew Hatcher and Farmworker from Maubara - Lisaveu
On October 21, 2017, I returned to be part of the second annual Festival Kafe Timor Leste to assist Andrew Hetzel (Coffee Strategies) and a team of other international judges to help cup coffees that have been entered into the Coffee Competition by the coffee farmers around East Timor.