In the Mountains with Permata Gayo: Part One

In the next two days I’ll be posting stories on my time with the farmers of Permata Gayo. Today’s will deal with their cooperative structure and tomorrow’s will discuss the process of growing and selling high quality, export-grade, kick ass coffee here in Sumatra.

We stopped buying coffee from Sumatra when our partners– the PPKGO co-op– collapsed back in 2006. At the time it was a difficult decision because Sumatran coffee was our best selling single origin and many of our customers had become dependent on it. However, at the time– without understanding the Sumatran cooperative landscape– we weren’t comfortable with what we knew and what we knew was not much.

The knock on Sumatran coffee co-ops is that there is a historical cultural barrier that prevents the cooperative system from operating in a transparent way. Cooperative Coffees– our importing co-op– has spent a lot of time sorting out the scene and over time decided that Permata Gayo was the right co-op to partner up with. We finally decided to take the plunge with Sumatra again and began selling their coffee just a few months ago. This trip is our attempt to get to know them better and to understand their processes.

This “delegation” is truly multinational. It is being led by Florent who is Co-op Coffees expert on the Sumatra coffee scene. Florent is pulling double duty getting information for and representing Co-op Coffees as well as his own roasting business (Esperanza) in Paris, France. We are joined by Fabien and Natasha from Boreal Coffee in Geneva, Switzerland, Tobias from Fabrique Coffee in Vienna, Austria, Justin from Trade Aid in Christ Church, New Zealand, Joey from JustUs Coffee in Halifax, Canada, and Casey from Thread Coffee in Baltimore. We have turned out to make a good team with similar goals and business practices. It is nice to be in this with the UN of mission-based coffee roasters.

My impression of Permata thus far is that they are a co-op that is trying to blaze some new trails in terms of how their co-op operates. A historical issue with Sumatran coffee is that there are layers within the system that are hard to overcome or to remake in a transparent way. Co-ops have generally been run by strong central administrations that make the bulk of decisions for the general membership of farmers without much consultation. There are also roles in the cooperatives here in Sumatra that are not seen in coffee cooperatives in places like Mexico or Nicaragua. For example there is a person in each producing village that plays the role of “collector”. This person receives and actually buys the coffee from the producer and then processes it from the cherry to a semi-washed parchment. He then sells the coffee back to the cooperative. He is affiliated with the co-op, but he is not an employee or a member. And he traditionally does not disclose to the farmers what his final price to the cooperative is leaving it to the co-op (and buyers) to make sure that the farmers are receiving a good price at the farm gate.

After spending the better part of two days with Permata Gayo it is clear that they are taking steps to become more member-driven and more transparent. Their Annual General Membership meeting was full of lively debate with members feeling empowered to ask questions of the Board of Directors and staff even demanding an explanation and adjustment to the way that the Executive Committee is chosen. They also formed a formal committee to propose projects for the “fair trade social premium” that is included in the sale of their coffee. We were able to have some good discussions about how our co-op(s) work and how some of the basic ideas of “workplace democracy” work on the ground. They are still building processes of transparency in the organization and are definitely a work in progress. Just Coffee Co-op is also busy reorganizing our cooperative and building better processes of transparency and participation, so it is cool to be working with a co-op on the farmer side who are also “a work in progress”.