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Beauty in the beans: the importance of customer visits to origin

By Vancler Candini, Senior Director of Coffee Marketing, Olam International

When people think of coffee, they usually think of Brazil, Colombia or Ethiopia, but the world’s second largest exporter today is actually Vietnam. It is also one of the world’s most competitive coffee producers, with relatively low production costs and yields increasing steadily over the past 10 years, accounting for nearly 60% of global Robusta exports.

Vietnam has been producing coffee for over 15 years now, making the most of a range of initiatives introduced by the Government. These have created an enabling environment – promoting efficacy, reducing waste, lowering costs and promoting land tenure for farmers – all of which have not only catalysed coffee production, but deepened and broadened it too. Production is now branching out from mostly lower quality Robusta beans, which you find in instant coffee, to the less bitter Arabica beans that are superior in quality but require more expensive and complex handling, both at farm level and during processing. As a result, Vietnam offers a good value, high quality alternative for customers looking for traceable, tailored coffee at a good price.

However, despite these promising statistics, I still hear whispers that the quality of Vietnamese coffee is not as good. One of the best and simplest ways to debunk this myth is to ensure that its exports are of the highest quality – which we make a top priority. We have developed a state-of-theart fully equipped quality laboratory in each of our origins, including Vietnam, where we can test everything including screen size (a method used to classify and compare coffee beans), moisture content, blend development (the process blending coffee that results in a cup quality that is higher than any of the ingredients individually) etc., to ensure the quality is on par with its Colombian, Brazilian and Ethiopian siblings and that each lot is uniform. Once the quality of the bean has been assured, we roast the coffee lightly so our coffee cuppers are better able to detect the delicate flavours and notes. During a 2015 origin trip with one of our customers, we did a coffee cupping session together, where we completed a thorough quality calibration, during which they were able to assess the quality for themselves and determine if it fits within their specifications.

Hosting trips like this for our customers are invaluable not only so that they can taste the quality of the cup, but also so that they can meet the producers who grow the beans, which is the kind of access and relationships you cannot put a price on.They are able to see for themselves the measures we take to ensure the transparency and sustainability of our supply chains, and understand through conversations with farmers and our team on the ground how each origin’s soil, weather, altitude and personality can affect each bean.

“It gives me a real sense of pride to be able to show our customers around our operations.”

It also provides a great opportunity to bond with customers and tailor the production by making nuanced changes that meet their individual needs. We can discuss what direction they want to go in the long-term so we can ensure that we’re in a position to meet their needs. These are the kinds of things that we cannot discuss in a four-hour meeting, never mind over a conference call.

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Of course though, there are still some core challenges that we face in Vietnamese coffee production, one of which is imbalanced fertilisation. We have noticed that many farmers are over fertilising their trees, leading to segregation of the soil, which will ultimately affect productivity.

Another similar issue is farmers over irrigating crops. Up to 70% of farmers are applying 30-40% more water to the trees than what is necessary. These are some of the issues that Olam works on with local farmers during our farmer training workshops. The workshops, currently operating in Đăk Lăk in the central highlands, include teachings on Good Agricultural Practices, Integrated Pest Management (whereby natural deterrents are used in favour of chemical pesticides), Harvesting and Post Harvesting Practices and Record Keeping of Farm Inputs. These sessions are led by Olam’s experienced agronomy team and supported by agronomy experts from the local government. We have an interest in ensuring a long-term supply of coffee from Vietnam, so making it sustainable is of paramount importance to us.

As well as external certification or verification with bodies like Rainforest Alliance and UTZ, our sustainability efforts, both environmental and social, are formalised with our own Olam Livelihood Charter (OLC). Now in its second season as an OLC initiative, the Vietnam Coffee business supports over 6,800 smallholder coffee farmers – 20% are women.

In 2015, all farmers were trained on Good Agricultural Practices enabling them to produce over 66,000 tonnes of certified or verified coffee (4C, UTZ, or RA) on their 16,400 hectares. The provision of 750 lockable storage cabinets for crop protection chemicals, combined with training on proper chemical application, helped to promote the safety of farmers and their families.

Farmers increased the shade tree density on their farms to 5% and improved their water and soil management practices as a result of environmental training and support. They were also trained to rejuvenate aging plantations through replanting and grafting techniques. As Mr Bao, 54, a coffee farmer in An Phu hamlet, Ea Drong commune, Cumgar district, says, “I am happy to be an Olam farmer because I have improved deeply my knowledge and skills in coffee farming practices as a result of Olam’s training on better farming practices. We now have more consistent production with less investment thanks to instructions that I got from Olam”.

Vietnam’s coffee landscape has a promising future, but we need to work at increasing the international perception that it is a high quality and genuinely sustainable—not just high value—country of origin. Like many better known coffee producing countries, Vietnam’s coffee beans have rightfully earned their place among the world’s coffee connoisseurs.

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