A quick note to say karibuni sana (welcome all) to our first edition of Spilling the Beans – a report on what went well, what didn’t, and what we’ve got planned (until something comes along to screw it up) for the coming year. We know the best way for people to learn about the ups and downs of our work is to come see us, but that’s not practical for everyone – we’re on the opposite side of the world from most of you – flights are expensive, the road is terrible, and most of you have a million and one other things to be doing.
We’ve written this because we want to share in greater detail than a few Facebook and Instagram posts what makes Kokoa Kamili tick. We think it’s important to share the bad as well as the good – we’re all part of a young industry and by sharing what goes wrong, we hope to help others avoid some of the same pitfalls, or at least to know to reach out to us for our suggestions if they do.
Brian and Simran
Really? That happened? Sounds awesome!
Beans! Our main harvest season in Kilombero typically runs from June through November. Due to a late and short rainy season, we opened in June to particularly low volumes. They eventually picked up and by extending our season into February of 2017 we were able to hit our target for the season, getting all of our beans out of Kilombero just before the rains hit.
Farmers! We reached an all-time high of 3,448 registered farmers - this represents each individual farmer who has ever sold to us, received seedlings from us, or asked for agronomy support. Over the course of this season we purchased wet cocoa from 2,042 of them.
The average volume of wet beans per farmer last season was just 162 kilograms. We have a lot of farmers delivering low volumes, and a few farmers delivering rather a lot. In fact, 80% of our volumes from our last harvest came from slightly over 19% of our farmers – 80/20 rule anybody?! We paid our highest prices ever this season, with an average premium of 24% above the local market rate – more money going to more farmers!
Organic certification! We passed our organic certification for the second year in a row – we also added a JAS certificate for our friends and customers in Japan this year. A key part of the certification process is physically going out to visit each and every farmer that we are certifying as organic. We used Android phones running an open-source app to collect all of the data required from the farmers we registered.
Power! Just before the start of the season, we installed a solar power system at the fermentary – for the first time ever we were able to charge laptops and equipment, power security lights, and use our water pump all without running our creaky old generator (no grid yet in the village that we work in!). Not only were we stoked to reduce our carbon footprint, but we were also grateful to have a little more juice available for the day to day challenges of running a business off the grid in a very rural part of the world.
Mo’ trees mo’ chocolate! We distributed ~40,000 of cocoa seedlings to farmers in our community – bringing our total number of trees grown over the past three years to ~140,000. During a research trip that we took to the Dominican Republic, we spotted a dog-eared cocoa agronomy textbook at Zorzal (thanks again for hosting us Dr. Chuck) and since we have never seen an agronomy manual in farmers’ hands in Tanzania, we pounced! Brian spent a good couple of hours taking photos of every page while Simran had a few beers with Chuck #teamwork. One slight problem – the manual was in Spanish which makes perfect sense for the Dominican Republic but is less helpful for our Kiswahili speaking farmers in Tanzania. We reached out to the NGO responsible for the manual and they graciously gave us permission to translate it into Kiswahili. So that’s what we did! New editions of the manual are being printed as we write this and will be in our extension officers’ and farmers’ hands this year.
Wait, what?! That happened? What a disaster!
The weather! Weather patterns continue to grow more and more unpredictable for us here in Tanzania. Our late 2015/early 2016 rains arrived late, and didn’t stay for long enough. This led to a very late start of the season for us, and some truly pitiful volumes once we did begin – we had targets of buying 1.5 metric tonnes of wet beans a day, but at the start of our season there were days where we were receiving less than 100 kilograms of beans. Volumes finally picked up a few months into the season and the short rains failed to show up which meant we were able to extend our season to hit our targets.
Mothra lives! At the end of our 2015 season, we moved our remaining non-organic beans up to the main port city of Dar es Salaam. This is because once the rains hit, the roads in Kilombero become impassable and we want to ensure our beans are nice and safe for when they need to ship out to chocolate makers. In this case, our good friends at Meridian Cacao were eagerly awaiting their end of season shipment. Despite assurances that the beans would be kept in good condition, the third-party warehouse we used stored them next to some very old, commodity-grade cocoa that was infested with moths. These moths saw some nice, juicy, well-fermented Kokoa Kamili beans and swooped in. We had the beans fumigated and regraded and thought we’d managed to nip the problem in the bud, but upon arrival in Oakland, it was apparent that we weren’t able to prevent the spread. Brian was able to go check on the beans together with Gino (of Meridian Cacao). We all agreed that the beans did not meet either our standards or those of our customers. Together with Meridian we’ve spoken to the chocolate makers affected by this and worked with them individually to resolve the issue. If anything slipped through the cracks or you have any further questions or concerns about moth damage, please reach out to us. And if you’re interested in some discounted Kokoa Kamili cocoa with insect damage, give Gino a ring. Since Mothra, we’ve taken steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again – we no longer store beans in Dar es Salaam. Instead, we only bring beans up from Kilombero when they’re ready to ship out. If beans do need to be warehoused for longer periods, we are switching to storing them in GrainPros.
Roads and bridges! As always, infrastructure (or the lack of it) continues to be one of our largest problems. Our expansion plans for a new, custom built fermentation and drying operation had to be delayed - we realized that the access bridge to a piece of land we were considering was barely functional. We found this out while driving across with a group of chocolate makers when part of the bridge broke beneath us. We only lost a few chocolate makers. Oops.
You’re going to do that? Sounds great!
Targets! Our 2017 season has our most ambitious targets to date while ensuring that we abide by our strict quality standards. We’re cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to reach our target. Unfortunately, the short rains (Tanzania historically has two rainy seasons) failed this year, but the long rains came in hard with a vengeance (and still haven’t really left us). We don’t have enough historical weather and yield data yet to know with certainty what this will mean for our cocoa but will keep you posted. The data we collect from our spiffy new weather station and the work that our extension team does on forecasting will allow us to have a better handle on using weather to predict harvests in the future, but that’s a few years in the making.
Microlots! This coming year we are going to continue our experiments with different micro-lots. We’ll look at micro-lots with different fermentation systems (different sized boxes with different periods of fermentation), introducing new materials during the fermentation, and segregating beans according to sub-village. If you’ve got any other suggestions on methodologies to experiment with, do let us know! Please check in for further updates on them as our season progresses.
Visitors! We’ve had interest from a whole variety-pack of chocolate makers (is that the correct terminology for a herd of chocolate makers?) who want to come visit this year and look forward to hosting and learning from our visitors. We encourage chocolate makers to coordinate as early as possible with us/each other so that we can group makers together as we find that makes for more fun and insightful trips. We were pleased to have chocolate makers from six different companies come visit us this year. We love having chocolate makers come out to visit, not only so you can learn about what it is that we do, but so that our team can learn about what it is that you do.
Moving house! Our biggest news is that we *hope* to be breaking ground on our new facility in 2017! For the last few years we’ve been operating out of an old bar and dance hall that we converted to the first commercially-run cocoa fermentary in Tanzania. Every year we lease an additional neighboring plot of land to expand our drying operation and we’ve finally decided to take the plunge and put up a new, custom built facility on our own plot. By being able to design for proper operational flow we will be able to increase our efficiency and our quality. Our new space will be a few kilometers down the road in a village called Njage and we hope to be able to complete the 2018 season in our new space – we’ll be polling for naming suggestions soon!
This report is a bit of a trial run from us, we’d love to hear feedback on what you think of it – is there information that you think we’re missing? Is the format accessible/interesting, or would you prefer a more traditional and formal annual report? More stats? More photos?
For buying beans directly from us, introductions to one of the distributors we work with in Europe or the US, coverture manufacturers, chocolate makers, or just to say hi please click below!