Anyone can import coffee

In the specialty coffee world, we’ve witnessed an unprecedented push for openness about the origins of our coffee. We care about each processing step and speak about them expertly with our customers. On the whole, transparency and relationships are cornerstones in our industry, but there is one aspect of coffee that is still shrouded in mystery to most: coffee logistics. The trick of getting coffee from origin to a roaster is known to shipping companies, ‘the shipping guy’ at an importer, and a handful of roasters, but more often than not, people who want to import coffee themselves are completely in the dark about where to start. There are still no small-scale import guidelines readily available, as the entire shipping world is still geared towards huge volumes. Small players and newbies have to figure out the secret of direct trade for themselves: creating a supply chain that is strong instead of merely direct is the key to transparent and sustainable coffee importing.

The truth is this: importing coffee is not hard, but you only find out after first inadvertently making it as hard as possible for yourself. I myself started importing with the best intentions but hardly a clue about international logistics. I had seen the rural development potential of direct trade as a student in Tanzania and the Dominican Republic, but also saw its problems — mostly pertaining to its small scale and roasters’ lack of time and shipping knowledge. I set out to radically open up the coffee value chain, but it turned out that to effectively empower farmers, I had to infiltrate this world and become a trader myself. Now, four years later, I feel I know a bit about what it’s like to be disillusioned by bureaucracy, shady dealings, and unreliable partners. So for the sake of preventing headaches for newcomers who have the same good intentions, it’s time to reveal the opaque and faceless world of coffee trade.

… it’s important to make sure you have the right people in place at origin.

You might think that I’m giving away trade secrets, but I believe that if we all understand how this unromantic part of the value chain works, we can get to the point of what really matters in coffee trade: relationships, relationships, and even more relationships.

HOW TO IMPORT COFFEE: A ROUGH GUIDE

So, you went on an origin trip, found the ultimate life-changing coffee, and wanted to buy some of the crop directly from the farmers so you can guarantee that they’re getting a fair price for their work. I found that this scenario sounded familiar to micro-roasters worldwide either as an ultimate dream or an experience they had already had, but as something that could be put to action ‘when we’re big enough’ or ‘when I have more time to figure out how’. In fact, you can start right now. Below, we’ll go through the main things to consider as you begin your importation journey: laying foundations in origin, how to get your coffee home, making payment, handling documents, and finally, whether to outsource or not.

ORIGIN PARTNERS

Before we talk about the overseas logistics part, it’s important to make sure you have the right people in place at origin. Many, including my former self, imagine direct trade relationships as consisting of two parties: a smallholder coffee farmer and a micro-roaster. In reality, there are almost no trade relationships that look like this, and for a simple reason: making specialty coffee export-ready requires careful drying, hulling, and sorting — processes that are difficult and expensive to manage alone. Therefore, unless your coffee comes from a wealthy estate where they own all the equipment to do this, more than one party is usually involved in your coffee’s value chain. In other words, if you want to support a smallholder farmer (who represent 80 per cent of global coffee production), you’ll often need to find a local partner whom you can trust to dry mill and export.

The exception is when you buy from a farmer group or cooperative. The specialty coffee world has often bashed cooperatives for being corrupt and inefficient, but the best ones are managed by a board of educated farmers, trusted by the members, and democratically governed. Although they often receive some form of aid to start up, they have the power to spread better prices and job security throughout their rural environment. To safeguard their independence, cooperatives might outsource the dry milling but still take care of the export. This is a great model that helps them stay connected to the buyer’s world. In time, the group might even have the means to buy hulling equipment and own the entire local value chain. Of course, you still have to ensure that you are dealing with a functioning (and not corrupt) farmer group. Our negative image of cooperatives has some basis in reality.

But how to find these good cooperatives or export partners? Alas, the unsatisfying answer here is to follow your gut — and recommendations don’t hurt either, especially from within the farmer’s circles. I’ve been given at least a dozen false promises and overoptimistic shipping dates before striking gold at most origins, so take your time. A coop or milling and export partner that shares your ideals is worth as much as a good producer!

Once you have all the right people in place at origin, you’re ready to seal the deal in the form of a sales contract. This contract should be drawn up intimately with all partners and contain details about your coffee’s quality, quantity, agreed price, packing material, and of course, how you plan to take your coffee home.

PLOTTING THE ROUTE

Chances are there is quite some distance between you and the farm you want to buy from, and that neither of you owns a ship or aeroplane that can carry the coffee. You might consider taking it aboard a plane, but the amount of fuel needed to transport a pound of coffee in an airplane is up to a factor of 40 higher than on a ship — not to speak of the absurdly high environmental burden if you decided to do this regularly. The most realistic and practical option is to put your coffee aboard a ship. You will need to find a shipping company who will load your coffee into a shipping container and then pay for the transfer of your coffee from the seller to the shipper. Once your coffee arrives in your country or economic union, you need to pay the port to unload your coffee and find a customs broker to clear the coffee past customs. Finally, you arrange the physical pickup of your coffee from the port to your doorstep.
Anyone can import coffee

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