‘Coventry’ – ‘food’ – ‘website’: three words that until six months ago had rarely featured in the same sentence. And yet by far the most rewarding aspect of this food writing gig is the opportunity to hear about the many surprising, intriguing and inspiring food and drink stories that are already happening right here in our city. One business that ticks all those boxes is Changamiri Coffee House in City Arcade, where owner Hillary is on a mission to improve the lives of small-scale coffee farmers in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe.
Hillary first became aware of the farmers’ plight when he was working as a commodities trader. “When I met them” he said “they talked about how they’ve lost their markets. They used to access markets by piggy-backing on larger commercial farmers, but since the farm invasions and land re-distribution, the big guys have pulled out and that route has closed. But the more I thought about it, the more I understood that that was only part of the problem.
“To give you an idea” he continued “for good grade coffee, a small farmer in Zimbabwe – someone with typically 1-3 hectares – will get about $2 per kilo of green bean. What traders do, they take those green beans, and they bring them over to America or Europe, to be roasted by coffee houses there.
“Roasting is a fifteen-to-sixteen minute process, but at the end of it, that kilo of beans might sell for $25-30. Then a coffee shop gets it – in this cup I’m having now, there’s 7-10 grams. Add water – and I’m achieving more than what the farmer achieves for a whole kilo of green bean. That’s a massive disconnect. But it’s not the only one.
“After harvesting, the beans go through a washing process – it’s highly skilled and it’s where most of the quality control happens. If it gets messed up, the quality is going to be rubbish – but it’s not recognised in the price you pay for your coffee”.
To tackle these problems, Hillary is organising farmers into a co-operative and is working on ways to shorten the supply chain, reward vital skills and safeguard their survival, and – crucially – retain in Zimbabwe the monetary value added by the roasting process.
“One of the reasons that’s given for not roasting in Africa is that coffee has a longer shelf life when it’s green” he explained. “Roasting reduces that shelf life, so if you roast in Africa, by the time it reaches Europe, it’s lost fifty-five days.
“But we can get around this with modern, sustainable packaging. We already have a small roasting plant, but we’re looking at scaling up and putting roasted beans into this new packaging ready for export. Zimbabwean coffee is quality. It’s produced at the optimum altitude of 5000ft and it’s washed in spring water. Up to 80% of it already achieves the top A grades, but by roasting at source, we can command an extra premium, like an estate-bottled wine”
So when Coventry coffee-lovers choose Changamiri for their caffeine-fix, how are they helping? “I have a direct connection to the farmers” said Hillary. “If you buy a coffee here, much more of what you pay will get back to them”.
And he’s hoping other independent coffee-shop owners will follow his lead. “If we come together” he said “we can be as powerful as a chain, and we can have an ethos to say ‘this is what we do as independent coffee shop owners’. Our capacity is as big as the chains, but we can still maintain our individuality”.
In the Shona language of Zimbabwe, Changamiri is a word that’s used to mean ‘kings’. “And to me” said Hillary “these farmers, they pretty much define what a king is, because that small piece of land is theirs, it’s their kingdom”. And with a simple cup of coffee, we in Coventry can help restore those kingdoms to greatness.
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