Coffee has become one of the many components of our daily lives. The average Australian consumes between 250 – 350 cups of coffee per year and, whether it’s an espresso or a cappuccino that takes your fancy, many of us have become dependent of that caffeine pick-me-up every morning.
Given the amount of coffee we drink one must wonder where it all comes from and what it takes to bring you that enticing, heart-shaped frothy beverage that you enjoy so much each day? There are people behind that cup of coffee and it’s not just the Baristas.
I was recently travelling through the Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos, a place famous for it’s coffee plantations in the rich, high-altitude lava soil of an ancient, inactive volcano. The Plateau is located in the Paksong District of the Champasak Province in southern Laos. There are roughly 5000 families in the area that work in the coffee industry, some farmers, others sorters and packers, and some purely traders.
The processes involved in getting the coffee from the farm to your cup are quite complex. The harvest season from November to February can be very labour intensive as the farmers pick the fruit off the trees at an average of 70 kilograms per day, which is the equivalent of 25 kilograms of coffee beans once the outer skins are removed. In places like Paksong many of the processes for coffee harvesting are done manually as they do not have the money to invest in high-level machinery. This means that the drying process is also quite labour intensive with beans set out to dry in the sun, often in peoples yards or on the sides of the road, raked and then turned over by hand several times a day.
After the drying process the beans must be hand sorted to ensure only the best quality are used for roasting. The women in the local villages will often take on this role as it allows them to work from home while they care for their families. As you drive through the rural villages many of the traditional bamboo houses will have sacks of coffee beans stored away from the sun, under their homes ready for collection by the traders.
The traders drive through the town collecting the coffee and providing the families with income for their work. It will take a woman an average of 3 days to manually sort a 50-kilogram bag of coffee, for which they will receive an income based on the amount they sort rather than the time it takes. In some ways it’s beneficial that the women can earn an income while working at home however in some circumstances their wages aren’t sufficient in comparison to the amount of money earned by the trader or the seller. For one 50-kilogram bag of coffee sorted a woman may earn as little as $10 in 3 days. Most of the profits that are made through the coffee trade are at our end, the point at which we hand over our $4 to the Barista and receive our daily cup of coffee.
While there is much being done to bridge the gap between coffee farmers and coffee sellers, including the wonderful work that Fair Trade International are doing to promote the rights of growers around the world, it is always important to remember that there are people behind your coffee. By making small ethical choices, such as choosing fair trade or ethically sourced coffee, those choices will go a long way to improving the livelihoods of many people around the world.
Special thanks to Mystic Mountain Coffee for hosting me and educating me about the coffee plantation process. You can source some of their organic, ethical Laos coffee from their website.