Social enterprise is at the heart of Moka Origins, a bean-to-bar coffee roaster and chocolatier, based in northeastern Pennsylvania. Although they were founded in 2015, Ishan Tigunait and Jeff Abella realized years earlier that they could make a difference in the lives of rural coffee farmers. Sahoja shares this blog published by Moka Origins so you can learn about how they established life-changing relationships with farmers in Mexico.
Retracing Our Steps and Introducing A Direct Trade Coffee
“Last month we re-announced our commitment to direct-trade coffee by highlighting our new single-origin beans from Oaxaca, our deep connection with Mexico’s coffee farming villages and our Origin Adventure Trip in May 2021.” — Jeff Abella, CEO and Co-Founder, Moka Origins
Mexico is alive with color, culture, and passion. The stark contrasts between Mexico’s preserved Native American ruins and large modern cities reflects the sharp distinctions in topography: Mexico’s high level plateaus interrupted by striking mountainous outcrops. You’ll find some of the freshest ingredients used to make traditional Mexican dishes such as hand-made corn tortillas, homemade salsa verde, fresh cheese, and steaming tamales that play off the vibrant colors you find painted all over Mexico's most famous cities. And above all else, this is coffee country.
How We Ended Up In Mexico
After working in Cameroon, West Africa for a few years as part of Himalayan Institute Humanitarian Division, Moka Origins’ Founders Ishan and Jeff had identified the agricultural model strengths and saw potential to expand its impact. Seeing the success of our initiatives, we were invited to bring these projects to Mexico to the rural coffee farming villages, who needed help adding value to their farms and crops. Thus began our journey to Mexico in 2009.
Some of our initiatives in Mexico included:
- Introducing organic pesticides and fertilizers made using natural ingredients
- Nutritional Counseling Services
- High Yield Home Gardening Programs
- Teaching intercropping methods to promote optimal growth and diversified revenue streams
Our time in Mexico was special. And although Moka Origins was founded in 2015 in Cameroon, West Africa, our mission was highly influenced by our time spent in Mexico and the knowledge we learned while working with its farmers.
Cultural Heritage and the Mexican Coffee Industry
Coffee has so much cultural heritage that often times families are not just families… they are coffee-farming families. They grow coffee crops over the course of generations, and identify deeply with doing so. Many families invest all their time and money into their coffee farms, which take years of investment and commitment before they start earning anything back. It is not a seasonal cash crop you can easily change out. After you invest in coffee, it’s important to commit until you can get a return.
Since farmers notoriously receive the least amount of compensation within the coffee supply chain, price fluctuations have a huge impact on the farmers ability to have sustainable income. In most cases, farmers cannot earn enough from the sale of their green coffee because most bulk purchasers do not compensate fairly. As coffee prices fluctuate with market demand, farmers need a way to earn an income and feed their families — which is the very foundation of why we went to Mexico.
“The result for us was a profound understanding: if coffee is going to continue being a crop, we need to be more diligent about finding profitable ways of selling it. Moka Origins was birthed from this idea, and the fair and transparent trade practices needed to make it happen.” — Jeff Abella
Growing Coffee in Jonotla
The region in Mexico where we first began is called the Sierra Norte. We worked directly with coffee farms to effectively grow crops and have more affordable access to fruits and vegetables to help with nutrition so they could keep their coffee income for school and health.
We were in Mexico for a period of 3 years between 2009 and 2012, and during that time we found a great love for the people and their passions they had for their land. We ended up in the the town of Jonotla because the farming community was vibrant and open to new experiences.
From the very beginning, or relationship with the Jonotla farmers was mutual as we exchanged knowledge on sustainable farming practices. We took a lot of what we learned from these farmers to Cameroon, where we still use that knowledge in practice today.
Our First Bag of Coffee
One of our friends named Geovanni is from Puebla, Mexico and has the same passion as us for sharing Mexican coffee with the world. In 2009, we took a road trip in Geovanni’s old Volkswagen Jetta to find the region’s highest quality coffee beans. We ended up at a large Cooperative, and asked for a single jute bag of coffee (approximately 150 pounds).
The team at the cooperative tried not to laugh as the bag of coffee weighed down the back of our Jetta, leaving the rear bumper a few inches off the ground. This Coop produces tens of thousands of bags a year, and this small car requesting a single bag was not part of their normal routine.
What we were trying to do, was validate the quality and efficacy of coffee crops in the region, and how to best showcase this region to world. It sparked many small roasting tests and also marks the time when we fell in love with single origin coffees — as we compared flavor variations between Mexican Coffee and our single origin Cameroon beans.
The early days of sourcing coffee in small quantities allowed us to build trust in our ability to focus on quality, relationships, and standards around premium single-origin beans.
“Last year, we sourced over 15,000 pounds of beans, and I still remember that first bag in Mexico that lead us in this direction. Still to this day, we have kept the same intention and integrity behind our mission. Quality and human connection.” — Jeff Abella
When we visit Mexico as part of our Adventure Trips, we get to harvest this coffee together using our own hands and experience a culture so vibrant and alive its breathtaking.
The importance behind this is beyond symbolism. It shows the farmers our interests go further than consuming cheap coffee. It shows them there is appreciation of every sip, and an acknowledgment that each cup of coffee took 3–5 years of investment to produce, and was grown by families like us. The human connection has more meaning than the coffee itself.
This understanding completes the experience of who we are, from crop to cup. Meeting the farmers and experiencing their culture and lifestyle has the capacity to change your perspective entirely, like nothing else can. Coffee will never again be just coffee.
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