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Saturday, February 27, 2021

Easy Jose: Sustainable coffee supporting indigenous communities and the Amazon

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Working with the Mayni community deep in the Peruvian rainforest, Easy Jose is bringing sustainably and ethically grown coffee to the UK.

“Dalia is incredible,” says James Higgs. “She’s grown everything herself, processed most of it by herself, and made sure everything is to her standards and the way she wants, which is quite incredible.”

The operations director of Easy Jose Coffee Roasters is telling me the story of what is a very special coffee for the brand. Dalia is Dalia Casancho Rodriguez, a coffee leader in the Mayni community. Made up of 30 families, they are an indigenous people living in the Pango region, deep within the Peruvian cloud forests, for centuries.

Why it’s prized is because this coffee is grown using a pioneering method. Higgs explains that the vast majority of coffee farms around the world are pieces of land that were previously a forest or rainforest that was completely destroyed. “The farmer would then create a mechanical coffee farm — basically growing everything from the ground-up. So slash and burn, and restart the process.”

But that isn’t sustainable. Slash-and-burn agriculture is known for its detrimental impact on the environment and ecosystem. “It completely destroys the biodiversity already within that area,” says Higgs. “It requires a huge amount of a variety of plants and wildlife to survive, and it’s a very delicate balance to make sure that everything is living in harmony.”

To counter that, the Mayni community employs agroforestry; it grows coffee beneath the forest canopy, protecting its biodiversity. “The trees, the wildlife, everything is left in complete harmony, protecting that balance and the ecosystem,” notes Higgs. “Everything has to be picked by hand, there are no big mechanical coffee shakers coming through the ground. It’s just done as naturally as it could possibly be done.”

It’s a project backed by the Peruvian government. It wanted to shield the rainforest from ever-growing agricultural demand, but also be able to provide for the communities. Once the government sponsorship ended, Easy Jose stepped in.

That was in 2016. The brand was founded in 2010 by Jose Melim, who was that year’s South West Barista Champion. When Melim first heard about the government initiative, he travelled with his coffee importer to the community and forged a deep relationship with the Mayni.

By 2018, however, the brand went into administration and was taken over by Greg Campher (currently the head of coffee), Jamie Bryce (a silent director) and Higgs. “We were so mesmerised with the amount of effort that had been put into working directly with indigenous communities,” recalls Higgs.

“There can be some unsavoury things in the background in the coffee industry,” he adds. “Jose had gotten rid of a lot of that by creating a direct link and trade with these communities and supporting them financially with what they deserved.”

And that’s the roasters’ other focus: paying what the producers deserved. The global price of green coffee (known as the C-price) is highly scrutinised for the low and bare margins the farmers receive. Even with the Mayni, coffee buyers were pressuring them to reduce prices without a guarantee of buying the product or being paid in full.

Easy Jose made a long-term direct trade agreement with the community. This ensured that they were paid well and the coffee crop was bought every year. “Every time their coffee is cupped and the [quality] score increases, we increase the pay,” Higgs says. In 2019, the brand raised the pay to a level that made the Mayni community the fourth-highest paid community in Peru. “That was a real stick in the ground for us. We believe they were probably number one last year, but we’re awaiting confirmation.”

But the roasting company takes its sustainability efforts one step further with its packaging. “Some packaging can be biodegradable if you send it to a plant somewhere 400 miles away,” says Higgs. “But this was the first bag that came to the UK market that was truly biodegradable in a home-composting situation. It’s made of all-natural materials that, once placed in a compost heap, will biodegrade within 90 days.”

And while that’s more expensive than regular packaging, Higgs can live with that. “It’s more expensive to be sustainable. Until technology or the demand grows, we’ll continue to see those costs.”

That doesn’t hamper the brand’s ambitions of becoming carbon-neutral and a B-Corp. Transportation is a major factor in coffee’s carbon emissions. The community in the Amazon rainforest lorries all the coffee to Lima, from where it’s shipped directly to Easy Jose’s roastery in Glastonbury. “As much as we’d like to improve the green process of that, it’s very difficult given the circumstances,” says Higgs. “Without an appropriate and cost-effective method at present, there isn’t much we can do.”

To balance that, the independent coffee roaster uses DPD for its delivery, which is a carbon-neutral service. Higgs adds: “Our packaging, all our boxes and labels are made from recycled materials, we’re trying everything to offset that balance.”

Given the pandemic, all current efforts to expand its eco-friendly portfolio have gone into sustaining the business and the coffee-growing community. “At the end of the day, they’re the ones we’re protecting. And if we let them down, everything falls to pieces.”

Easy Jose had to pivot its business strategy after Covid-19 broke out. Primarily a wholesale model, working with 70 cafes and restaurants around Somerset and Brighton, it lost its entire wholesale business due to closures. So the team turned to retail, launching its website. And it was met with immediate success, winning the Independent’s Indy/Best Buy coffee award for 2020.

mayni coffeeHiggs and Campher had no idea they were in the running, but the recognition proved a boost to the brand’s sales. “This isn’t about Greg or me,” Higgs stresses. “It’s about the community. Everything we do is about the community; the people in the background doing all the hard work, which is often lost in the coffee industry.

“I’d like to see more direct trade initiatives started, and less slash and burn within the rainforests to create new coffee farms. I’d like people to really start looking at the providence behind the coffee growers and how they’re protecting the natural ecosystem as opposed to just buying from a sheet of paper.”

Now, Easy Jose is looking to roll out its project across more countries. These include Brazil and areas in Africa. “That’s our aim,” Higgs tells me. “Work with more communities, help protect the rainforest and showcase the amazing skills these people have got.”

Read our interview with Apostle Coffee, one of the UK’s only carbon-neutral coffee brands.

Anay Mridul
Anay is the managing editor of The Vegan Review. A journalism graduate from City, University of London, he was a barista for three years, and never shuts up about coffee. He's passionate about coffee, plant-based milk, cooking, eating, veganism, writing about all that, profiling people, and the Oxford Comma. Originally from India, he went vegan in 2020, after attempting (and failing) Veganuary. He believes being environmentally conscious is a basic responsibility, and veganism is the best thing you can do to battle climate change. He gets lost at Whole Foods sometimes.