We’re 10 weeks into lockdown in the UK. We’ve seen Easter, Eid, and two May Bank Holidays come and go. And don’t forget, even Eurovision passed us by. The sun’s been stubbornly shining almost the whole time - a cruel twist of fate, that’s as British as it comes - and even the phrase “new normal” has already become tired and hackneyed.

We all know it’s more serious than that. Thousands of lives lost, more ill and suffering. Families and friends separated with no clear timeline as to when things will go back to normal - and no guarantee it will. But the world is united in this experience, and we should remember that. It can only make us kinder.

How Pact Coffee has adapted to coronavirus

We’ll be blunt - we’re one of the lucky ones. Even though half of our business has come to a complete standstill (turns out empty offices, restaurants and hotels don’t want bags of coffee building up and going stale), we are still able to send fresh coffee to homes around the UK. But even that’s meant some big changes.

For our roastery, there’s a laundry list of things we’re doing to keep our employees and you safe. We’re talking socially distanced packing benches fitted with perspex glass, temperature tests, split shifts and breaks, measures over and above our usual 5* food hygiene rating, twice-daily deep cleans, no external visitors, and more.

All that affects how quickly and effectively we can work, of course. But we’re doing what we can to get coffee delivered to your door, as usual. But there are other considerations we’ve had to make that are a lot less close to home.

Coffee farming, sourcing & buying in the time of coronavirus

There’s a lot that goes into sourcing coffee directly. It means travelling to 8+ different countries regularly, tracking down talented coffee farmers, negotiating a fairer than Fairtrade deal, checking samples of their coffee, arranging shipment overseas, organising transport from the port to our roastery, and much more. Hard enough at the best of times.

But when borders are closed or tightly regulated, social distancing is vital, and businesses have closed down, everything gets a lot more difficult. We’ve got two priorities here:

  1. Make sure we have enough coffee for each and every one of our customers
  2. Keep guaranteeing farmers a sale, so they’re financially secure at this difficult time

So far, so good on that front. It takes some doing though. Here’s the situation in the origins we’re currently sourcing from, and our approach to mitigating any challenges there:

Peru

It’s arguably the hardest hit Latin American nation - they’ve seen 46,000 cases of Covid-19 in Lima only currently, with the highest rate of infection per capita in the region. The 10% death rate in rural regions means coffee farmers are particularly at risk.

At the moment, they’re in the middle of their harvest flow - and only seeing 20% of expected crops, due to picking issues. Shipping issues also means most coffee harvested might have to go on local markets, risking inflation down the line.

Peru poses the biggest risk of having to default on contracts with us. Shipping issues might be an issue, but we’re having weekly catch-ups with our main contact there to stay on top of things.

Best practice coronavirus training on a farm in Brazil

Brazil

According to the Mayor of San Paolo, hospitals are at 90% capacity - with at least 3000 deaths recorded in the city. Criticism of the president’s handling of the situation is well-know, but whatever the cause, infection rates are rising exponentially.

Coffee farmers have been trying to stop the spread. Cherry picking staff can only live locally, and have to self-isolate before beginning a season of working, and there’s a big demand for mechanical harvesting equipment - reducing the need for people working in close proximity. The large, sprawling, flatter farms of Brazil make this possible.

Our exposure to risk is pretty high. 40-45% of our coffee comes from Brazil, but from a surprisingly small number of farms (due to their relative largeness). We’re keeping a close eye on the Planalto and Zaroca estates - to make sure they’re healthy and thriving - and have moved to ship their coffee early.

Not only does that protect us, but it means they get cash in the bank for when they need it - meaning they can support their families and staff with medical care if required.

Colombia

The FNC are reporting shipments down by 39% from last year - mostly because of the difficulties shipping coffee, or even getting coffee to the ports by lorry as usual. But it’s also harder for farmers to sell their coffee too. Usually they head to local mills, which are open continuously and obliged to buy their coffee on the spot. Now, though, social distancing and restricted hours means everything takes a lot longer.

It’s one of Colombia’s biggest industries, so the government is putting ‘best practice’ guides to coffee farming on TV and radio stations - and the San Isidro Group farmers we buy from are all implementing protocols to stick to those, and keep their staff and families safe.

Picking season isn’t until October - by which hopefully the threat will be lower - but, for now, we’ve shipped San Isidro and Toledo lots early. Again, it means financial security for all the farmers we work with right now and guaranteed coffee for our customers. We’re even trying more samples from Antioquia for future cover…

Guatemala

Last year, we only bought quarter-to-a-half of a container from Guatemala - and we hoped to bump that up to a full container. Not only because it’s delicious, but also because it’s more cost-efficient in terms of shipping - meaning even more of the profit for farmers!

Guatemala’s at risk from coronavirus though, and is severely in lockdown - we had to wait weeks for samples to arrive partly due to travel restrictions, but also because of vigilante violence affecting those travelling through Guatemalan towns.

Honduras

As is the seasonal nature of coffee farming, varied from origin to origin, the situation isn’t as difficult for farmers in Honduras. We’ve just approved the latest batch of samples, and they’re tasting great! That means we’re ready to commit to a sale, and send shipping instructions over - a month earlier than normal.Again, meaning farmers are better off if the worst does happen.

Coffee travelling across El Salvador

El Salvador

It’s a similar story in El Salvador. We’ve approved their offer and samples, negotiated with them and bought our next containers of coffee, which shipped out on Friday and are due to land in early June - meaning they’ll receive payment this week!

There’s an extra layer of security here, as we’ve bought through the Pacas family - an incredible family-run coffee cooperative renowned for protecting, supporting, and growing the local community and keeping them safe. We’ve received a message from Maria Pacas on Friday, thanking us and our customers for our continued support, especially during the pandemic - so thank you!

Kenya

In Kenya, there’s a heavy lockdown right now - vital to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the rural regions which are severely lacking in medical care.

The situation is complicated in Kenya, as many coffee farmers live day-to-day - earning enough money daily to buy the food and staples they and their family need. The humanitarian risk right now has been recognised by several experts, as the risk of famine is very real.A story about a woman cooking stonesto make her children think dinner was coming, and hopefully fall asleep, is a jarring reminder of this.

We’re constantly looking for ways to have an impact outside of our coffee sourcing, which is difficult due to the lack of traceability with sending donations, but we’re doing what we can. For now, we’re making our supply chain even more traceable by switching to working with partners that can help us guarantee coffee quality and the traceability of funds during these opaque times in Kenya. That means we can keep sourcing incredible coffee even while we can’t visit, and keep putting money into the local economy.

Ethiopia

Our next batch of samples have just arrived, and are waiting to be cupped! Last year we bought one third of a container, but we’re planning to up to a full container this year - to keep customers stocked up, and to protect from any missing shipments elsewhere.

We’re always aware of outside influences, though - though some of our coffee has already landed in the UK, others may be delayed by political unrest (as coronavirus has delayed their general election).

A truck ready to take coffee to the port

Rwanda

The current infection rates are thought to be out of date, and underreporting. There’s a closed border with Tanzania, though, which should reduce the spread - but still causes issues with shipping. The most important thing is preventing an outbreak in rural regions though.

Rwanda is at the peak of crop harvest. We’ve committed to buying a certain volume of their crops much earlier than usual, as it means farmers can access credit - giving them cash to buy the equipment they need to grow the coffee, and boost the local economy.

What’s next?

As for everyone, now is a time to constantly react and adapt. We’re talking regularly to farmers, contacts, professionals, and government figures in most coffee farming countries, so we can adjust accordingly. With your support, we hope to keep supporting coffee growing families around the world throughout this crisis.


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