In honour of our 20th anniversary, the African Fine Coffee Association has chosen to highlight Mercanta’s ongoing commitment to quality coffee in Africa by publishing a profile piece on our approach to sourcing and client care. The piece will appear in AFCA’s April-June 2016 Newsletter.
Mercanta, the Coffee Hunters was founded in 1996 – even before the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE) (1999). We have pioneered the import and distribution of specialty coffee in Europe, and in 2016, we are delighted to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of our founding.
Years ago we also foresaw the importance of training, education and consultancy in the field of specialty coffee. To this end, we set up our sister company – the London School of Coffee – which is dedicated to empowerment through information and training.
Mercanta’s primary mission has always been to seek out best of harvest, specialty coffee lots from a multitude of origins. To this end, we have established cupping laboratories and offices in key consumer and producer markets. Our highly experienced team of expert cuppers cup a wide range of coffees daily.
Sustainability, to us, is a simple proposition. Genuine sustainability is achieved by paying prices above the cost of production. It means abandoning and forsaking any reference to the commodity coffee price and de-commoditising the special agricultural product that millions of producers rely upon for their livelihood. Nearly uniquely in the coffee world, ALL of the coffee we purchase is contracted at OUTRIGHT prices with absolutely no commodity market linkage.
The age of technology, social media, and rapid technological advancement has not replaced the importance of genuine, personal and durable relationships with producers and customers alike. In fact, we consider the opposite to be the case. As people become more embedded with technology, we believe the virtual has not displaced the reality. Our founder, Stephen Hurst, built the business upon knowing customers and suppliers in-person, and it is our aim that each and every of our customers and suppliers have a direct link with someone in our organisation.
Africa has featured strongly in Mercanta’s portfolio of fine quality coffees through the years.
In particular, we have developed and expanded our sourcing in Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia and remain constantly alert to the production of top quality Arabica beans from a number of other African countries.
Recently, we have heard concern that there will not be enough production area for coffee in the future and that a shortage of coffee beans is imminent, leading the industry to widely speculate various fanciful scenarios of run-away prices and global coffee shortages. Whether the culprit is global warming and climate change, population growth or coffee tree disease, we do not subscribe to this hypothesis. Yields of 30 bags/hectare are not uncommon in many coffee producing countries, and 20 bags/hectare is a very achievable ‘’global’’ target. Given that many African countries have coffee yields of fewer than 10 bags/hectare, we believe yield improvements, husbandry improvements and above all genuine sustainable pricing to the producer will ensure a more than adequate supply of coffee beans well into the future.
Not only do Mercanta recognise the crucial role of Africa in the production of some of the best coffees in the world, we also celebrate one of our best and longest established CUSTOMERS in South Africa with whom we have been working for more than a decade. In this respect, we must look to Africa as a potentially huge consumer market for speciality coffee.
As the global growth of consumption moves on, we look forward to initiatives in African countries to promote CONSUMPTION of coffee as much as production. Take the example of a farmer producing 100 bags of coffee a year. With beneficial conditions, good harvest protocols and benign climate factors, perhaps this farmer could gradually increase his crop to 125 bags. Yet this 25% growth so happily celebrated by the producer will NOT currently be met by 25% year on year growth in consumption. This extra production will most likely be sold to the buyer of last resort (the commodity market) and at an unsustainable price.
More must be done to recognise that significant production growth is NOT always ’good news’ unless it is met by an equal growth in sustainable coffee consumption. Producing countries in Africa and elsewhere must do more to recognise this reality. Increasing production to sell at commodity buyer-of-last-resort prices is not a sustainable agricultural strategy.
As we move into our next twenty years, we look to Africa to provide some of the unique flavour profiles that are increasingly sought out by discerning specialty coffee roaster clients the world over. The bergamot jasmine elegance of a fine Ethiopian, the blackcurrant boldness of a top Kenya, the juicy tropical fruits of the best Rwanda, and the fine crisp acidity of some Tanzanians will be the foundation of our commitment to the African coffee sector.
Mercanta’s first twenty years have seen profound improvements in the specialty coffee market, and we expect the next twenty years will see equally dramatic advances in which we fully expect to see Africa play a leading role.
Author: Stephen Hurst, Founder and Managing Director