Tucked away in the highlands of Eastern Ghats of Hukumpeta mandal near Araku Valley, about 130 kilometres from Visakhapatnam, is Boini Sanni Babu’s four-acre field, which grows speciality coffee that travels the world.
Under the towering shade of silver oaks interspersed with guava, sapota and other 10 varieties of fruit and forest tree plantations, Sanni Babu’s farm has been producing microlots (a traceable, exclusive coffee produced through outstanding effort and great care) that are consistently ranked among the best coffees in India year after year. With good crumb structure and excellent water holding capacity, his farm yielded a bumper crop of 3,300 kilograms of crimson red cherries this season.
Sanni Babu bagged the best farmer family award on the basis of regenerative agriculture practices at the recently-held Gems of Araku Festival, an annual harvest festival curated by Hyderabad-based Naandi Foundation. The foundation is instrumental in introducing regenerative agricultural methodology in the region and taking coffee from this remote region to the world.
Coffee from Sanni Babu’s farm made it to top 20 coffees of the season in the coffee quality analysis by international experts from countries such as the USA, South Korea, Japan, Australia and Thailand. Over 980 lots had been narrowed down to determine the top 40 by the international jury.
As observed by the agronomy jury during their visit, Sanni’s farm had excellent foliar health. The topsoil was carpeted with a natural mulch from bio-diverse trees. The soil had abundant organic carbon and its pleasant odour indicated the presence of an active microbial community.
Sanni is also an active member of the Araku’s farmer cooperative, Small and Marginal Tribal Coffee Farmers Mutually Aided Cooperative Society (SAMTFMACS). The society has about 21,270 registered farmers from 803 villages spread over 12,000 acres of land, and has been crucial in aggregating Araku’s coffee farmers to international markets by giving them shared value and access to the global coffee supply chain.
“This season, each microlot is an artisanal masterpiece, showcasing the nuances of the land from which it came. Prominent flavour notes include tropical fruit, dried red fruits, whiskey barrel, caramel, lime, round body and super sweet,” says Sherri Johns, coffee mentor and head judge of Gems of Araku. The specialty coffee is grown by over 12,000 small and marginal tribal coffee farmers of the region. The world’s coffee guzzling nations including South Korea, USA, Japan, Germany, Thailand and Bulgaria are keen on striking a deal on the produce this year.
The first Gems of Araku festival kicked off in 2009, and coffee from the region got noticed. Since then, it has brought together eminent coffee experts from across the globe, to recognise the ‘gems’ among coffees produced in the Araku region of Andhra Pradesh. Over the years, the international jury has comprised about 42 coffee experts from 18 different countries. The coffee Arabica from Araku has consistently won high scores, often as much as 94, from industry experts.
The seed-to-cup journey of Araku coffee to the global market began nearly two decades ago with Manoj Kumar, the founding CEO of Naandi Foundation, who created the Araku brand and with the establishment of the foundation’s Araku Originals, a social enterprise. Today it has flagship stores in Paris and Bengaluru, with a new one coming up in Mumbai next.
What makes the coffee cultivated by the members of SAMTFMACS, one of the world’s largest fairtrade, organic-certified coffee cooperative, so unique is the biodynamic cultivation process that avoids use of chemicals. The farmers of the valley have a deep reverence for the soil and their agricultural practices have been in harmony with Nature and based on manual labour.
“But they had to be helped to recreate a rich soil and reforest an ecosystem that had been deforested for several decades by the English colonies. The goal was to revive the natural ecosystem with principles of biodynamic cultivation,” says David Hogg, the chief agriculture advisor of Naandi Foundation.
When Naandi entered the region, says Manoj, the problems were manifold. “There were high rates of maternal and child mortality, a lack of schools, and no proper healthcare. The tribal communities grew millets following the slash-and-burn method of agriculture. The first few years were spent preparing the ground for projects,” he says. Apart from creating livelihoods for farmers, Naandi Foundation’s work in Araku spans the areas of healthcare, nutrition and education. “The biggest challenge was to preserve the tribal communities’ traditional connection with the land,” Manoj adds.
In a few months, several million coffee trees were planted. Over the years, twenty million other species of trees like papaya, eucalyptus, cashew were planted to revive the ecosystem. To raise the yield and bring in more farmers, David and his team evolved a simple and effective strategy to help the tribal farmers and handed them an easy-to-read bio-dynamic calendar to follow the instructions for working on the soil.
Apart from this, one in every four households in a village were given a chart to hang outside that helps distinguish between the crimson red grade 1 category cherries (that are sold at a higher price) and the grade 2 ones. The grade 1 coffee cherries this season are being sold at ₹50 per kilogram.
Every village has a collection point where the farmers come with their segregated cherry produce, weigh them and the trucks collect the coffee cherries to be taken to Naandi’s central processing unit in Araku where they are washed, dried and treated further. A member of the coffee cooperative oversees the entire process and the quantity and quality of produce is documented in the farmer’s SAMTFMACS passbook as well as in the procurement sheet for each village.
At the processing unit, a team of experts conducts a second quality check on every arriving crate of coffee. The team also indexes the sweetness of coffee cherries using the Brix meter. Cherries picked for Araku Coffee boast a Brix reading of 20 and above; so any lot that records a Brix reading of 15 or below is composted. Naandi also supports a composting unit from which 1,500 metric tons of compost is generated each year and distributed to the farmers. From the dusty, meandering roads of Araku, the coffee beans arrive at Araku Coffee Cafe in Bengaluru where they are roasted in-house before they travel across the world.