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Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity Onlus

In search of the lost coffee

Filippo, Gianfranco and Gianni are just over thirty-five years old. Their roots are deeply entrenched in the Langhe region, and they have the kind enthusiasm that is contagious.


"Ours is a story of passion and friendship that began back in the nineties," Filippo, Pippo to his friends, tells us. "The town of Alba is a small place and everybody knows more or less everybody else. Thanks to some friends we had in common we found ourselves belonging to an association that worked with disabled children. After a while we felt the need to get more deeply involved and find some way of making the work they do more dignified". That is how EquoQui came into being, a social enterprise based in Grinzane Cavour that has been importing fair trade craft produce since 2006 and works with people who are either struggling or live in poverty. "I can remember discussing the name", Gianni says, the quietest of the three.


"We wanted to get involved in fair trade, we wanted to work with producers from the global south, but we also wanted to try and do something for people closer to home, here and now".


Vegetables, gadgets, cushions and panettoni, over the years they have tried all kinds of things. What started out as a nice little job in their free time has turned into something serious that is growing and moving beyond their borders: "This is not our real job - so Gianfranco points out, the heart and soul of EquoQui, - I am a civil servant, Filippo is a geologist and businessman, Gianni is an oenologist and Federico is a farmer. We have always worked really hard with much enthusiasm: we have been to fair trade markets, we have been to local fairs and prepared Christmas baskets. Then, all of a sudden, it struck us: Coffee was one of the products we came across. We did not know much about it, we had no idea about its background or its organoleptic properties or even how the market for this product operated...But we decided to find out more".


So in 2004 Gianfranco decided to take part in the Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre, where he met Manrique Lopez Castillo, the main contact for the Slow Food Presidia for coffee in the highlands of Huehuetenango in Guatemala, a project set up in partnership with Pausa Cafè Social Cooperative in Turin. A crucial meeting: from that moment on, EquoQui began to import coffee from the Presidia.


"Manrique stayed in Bra while the event was being held", so Gianfranco remembers. "So we had plenty of time to talk about coffee and I became more and more curious. Taking advantage of my honeymoon trip in 2006, I went to Huehuetenango. I found myself dealing with an exceptional product that had no market. The producers could not create a cooperative, they were victims of the laws laid down by the coyotes [local agents who speculate on price] and they could not even afford to send their children to school".


A phone call, discussions with other members over on the other side of the world, and Gianfranco's enthusiasm, resulted in a first container of coffee being imported into Italy. The rules are quite clear and still have not been changed even today. The price at which coffee is bought from the producers does not follow either the official coffee exchange rates or the market. It is directly agreed to with the campesinos. Negotiations are held and information is obtained about the state of the harvest or any difficulties at that moment in time.


Bartering and discussions go on, but in the end the right price for both parties is agreed to. For example, this year EquoQui paid producers $100-130 extra for every 45 kg of green coffee (non-roasted) compared to the official price set on the exchange. But that is not all. It pays 50-80% of the overall sum in advance, so that producers have the money they need to keep the coyotes at bay. "That is very important to us," Gianfranco points out. "We come from a country background and know exactly what working the land means, we know it is impossible to have excellent produce without paying a fair price".


With the help of Slow Food, EquoQui can also guarantee all the produce can be fully traced. "In Huehuetenango I realised how much it costs to produce coffee" says Gianfranco. So when I got back to Italy I knew I had a good product with me". The gamble paid off: in just five months the warehouse was empty, thanks partly to the long-sightedness of the coffee-blenders. "Coffee-blenders, all craftsmen working on a small scale, are now our friends, we have a direct relationship", Filippo goes on to say.


"When the coffee samples arrived, we get together to taste them. We have also decided to create an exclusive website for coffee-blenders. We upload photos of the producers, coffee and various stages of work out in the fields onto the website. We tell the story of the entire journey and we would eventually like to have the identity cards of the various producers. EquoQui's aim is to let consumers know that they can see a photo of a coffee producer on the bottom of their coffee cup if they turn it upside down. But EquoQui's horizons are not confined to Guatemala and the frontier is now shifting towards Africa: "Our story will not end in Huehuetenango," Filippo goes on to say.


"Thanks to Slow Food, we have discovered wild coffee in Harenna Forest in Ethiopia and also in Luwero in Uganda (both Slow Food Presidia). We have also decided to work with Slow Food in Ethiopia by pre-financing a small consignment of coffee destined to be sold on the local market". This time it is Filippo who will be travelling. "I said goodbye to my wife and told her I was going to a trade fair... In actual fact I ended up on the highland plains of Sanetti at an altitude of 4000 m!", Filippo jokes.


"I set off with all the curiosity of a novice and came back with a proper understanding of the product we were importing, a clear insight into its value and background. You imagine Africa to be completely different, but when you get there you find wide expanses of fertile land and dark soil. Even the forest is different. In your imagination you think of the equatorial forest as blossoming with vegetation, but in actual fact you find tall-trunked trees and, in the midst of all this, extremely tall plants from which you can pick wild coffee. Seeing first-hand the journey this coffee goes on right through to Addis Ababa made me think". It is indeed an exciting voyage: coffee grows naturally up in Ethiopian highlands, where it is picked, dried in the sun on suspended nets, placed in bags and then transported on the back of mules to mills where the pulp is removed.


The bags are then sent off again along an infernal road full of holes to Addis Ababa, where it is carefully selected by the Oromia Cooperative, removing the outside skin from the beans and then putting it back in the bag that can then be sent off to the Langhe region and eventually get to important sales outlets and bars, like Stratta in Piazza San Carlo in Turin. Filippo, Gianfranco and Gianni now want to achieve with African coffee what they have already managed to do with coffee from Guatemala: "We know we still have extremely wide margins for improvement," Gianfranco admits, "but we are in no rush and we certainly are not lacking in energy."

Article published in La Repubblica, February 23, 2014

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