How Black Baza Is Championing Fair Trade Practices Within The Coffee Industry
On a slow February afternoon, Bengaluru is uncharacteristically hot — but Arshiya Bose, founder of Black Baza Coffee, has preempted this, choosing to meet in a cafe that is dense with plants and the ripple of a cool breeze. This change of weather, in what is popularly known as the Garden City, is one of the consequences of the urbanism that Karnataka has seen in the last few decades. Loss of tree cover, heat trapped between buildings — these are phenomena its residents could not have envisioned at one time.
As the air wilts and swelters, Bose is fresh with anecdotes from the city’s Unbox Festival, a tech and innovation conference where she recently presented her speciality brand that sells locally produced coffee. Its name is derived from an endangered bird indigenous to the forests near where the coffee is cultivated and is symbolic of the company’s goal of growing coffee while simultaneously conserving the crop’s habitat.
‘Our coffee is radical’, the brand states, a claim they follow through with in their three-legged business model that comprises only a grower of beans, the company, which roasts and sells, and the consumer at the end of the chain. “A lot of our focus is on smallholder farmers, who cultivate on the edges of the forest and are often the most marginalised, simply because of their remote locations.” Bose is opening up a market to them, and Black Baza’s focus, she makes clear, is on the producer — not the beverage, or appeasing the consumer. She aims to condense the supply chain of the crop; while coffee is expensive to grow and maintain, it has one of the longest supply chains, which often leaves growers at a huge loss. “In many cases, more than 50 people are involved in the journey from bean to cup,” says Bose. “The middlemen are innumerable.” And even with speciality coffee that follows fair trade and practices, the return to the grower is a tragic two to six per cent. At Black Baza, the restricted supply chain provides the smallholder farmers with autonomy. “Our coffee gives back 18 per cent of the fiscal output to the grower,” says Bose. “I’m proud to say that it is quite a lot.”
The team is divided between those who handle the operations and others who work on the ground conducting surveys and engaging with growers on behalf of the brand.
“It’s a simple process. The beans are picked, pulped and dried, then sold to us for hulling, grading and roasting,” she explains, as she drinks a cup of black coffee — Black Baza Coffee’s mild, soft-tasting Ficus bean brew. “After that, we produce blends, grind on demand and ship the coffee to consumers who order it through our website or over the phone. The coffee that is roasted by Black Baza is also free of pesticides. It is cultivated with the goal of maintaining harmony with the forest and its dwellers — both human and animal — and is building a ‘movement that attempts to reconstruct marketplaces so that coffee as a commodity is re-embedded in place, people and ecology’.”
Black Baza works predominantly in Wayanad, Kerala, and the Biligiri Rangana (BR) Hills surrounding Bengaluru — where the Soligas are the company’s primary coffee growers. They are an ethnic group indigenous to the region and erstwhile practitioners of shifting cultivation for ragi and other millets before beginning to grow coffee. Shifting cultivation is an agricultural process endemic to tropical parts of Asia and Africa, in which a piece of land is cultivated and then abandoned for a new one till its natural fertility is restored.
It was in the ’60s that coffee became the predominant crop in the area. “This came as a downward protocol from the state — the government doesn’t like people moving around of their own will.” She goes on to explain, “More than 70 per cent of coffee is grown by smallholder farmers who have centuries of knowledge but no access to the essential resources required to implement it. To establish Black Baza then, became a necessity.”
‘Soliga’ translates to ‘the people of the bamboo’ which, according to Bose, possibly indicates the historical significance of bamboo in the tribe’s ecological heritage and traditions. “The Soligas, like many indigenous peoples, are forest dwellers, and they like to grow crops in harmony with nature, of which their knowledge is innate. The challenge is then to create a market based on this.”
While Bose was born in Mumbai, where she really grew up was Rishi Valley in Andhra Pradesh. More at home in the countryside that enveloped her boarding school, she found her sensibilities influenced by the abundant world that surrounded them. “It was the small things — like we used to shake our shoes in case scorpions had crept inside them!” she recalls. “From that time on, I knew I couldn’t live a claustrophobic city life,” asserts Bose, whose connections with the forest were cultivated early on. She soon developed an interest in working with and fostering systems to support them.
During her PhD studies at Cambridge University, which focused on the role of the marketplace in forest dwelling communities and examined the ‘human dimension to an ecological storyline’, Bose began working with the Soliga people. She discovered that while the information available about coffee growing was immense, the proper application of the knowledge remained scarce, and she recognised the potential to save forest livelihoods and spread awareness. “When I was working with them back then, they used to say ±— ‘When you finish, come back and do something useful.’ So I kind of got arm-twisted into this,” she laughs. “I also realised that there are a lot of notions about empowerment and sustainability that are paraded around globally but these are not transformative in the Indian context.”
Black Baza’s coffee does what the sustainability dialogue often holds sacred: it looks to native techniques to create an eco-friendly future. ‘At this time, the surrounding forests were dense and rich in biodiversity’, says the website, referring to the regions in southern India in the 1600s, where tea and coffee used to be backyard crops before they became cash crops for colonisers. Coffee plants, unlike tea, Bose elaborates, can be grown in forest cover because they bear fruit under trees but are not eaten by wild animals, and can therefore be assimilated into the ecosystem. Many Western models, however, instruct growers towards clear-felled estates,” she adds. “While this might give rapid output, we are trying to convince people about the quality of the yield under forest cover. Besides, in retaining the fertility of the land, you are giving it a longer life span and keeping it disease-free.” Bose adds, this time more indignantly, “Isn’t this more important than optimisation?”
In challenging the omnipresent dicta about coffee production, Bose undertakes a mammoth task. Coffee, a crop and beverage that has been the centre of human interaction and life for centuries, comes with the baggage of industries past and present, and vicious competition in the field of ethical and non-ethical brands alike. But Bose is less concerned with profit than she is with impact.
“We started by addressing the questions of why the consumer only has access to coffee that is damaging to the environment, and why growers have to follow instructions that prioritise mass production, which comes at the cost of other (plant and animal) life. It helps when the producer and consumer can ‘see’ each other. And not in a superficial way, by printing the faces of a certain community on a coffee bag. But here, the consumer is supposed to understand the process. We don’t really give them a choice!” Bose says, laughing. The brand exemplifies their transparency in many ways. One of those is a ‘Postcard from’, a branding collateral, in which the brand sends out field notes with their packages that show a day in the life of someone who works at Black Baza: grower, roaster or office manager. “It’s a kind of unscripted note about our processes — I could also be doing this, just after a meeting with a trader, or a farmer or something.”
“It is a sort of low-key, friendly way of introducing the work we do,” she says. “We decided early on that we weren’t going to be pedantic about it, but would be playful instead. We want the people drinking the coffee to know where it comes from and feel connected to these producers, their knowledge, wisdom and struggles — and not in some romantic, fleeting way.”
Today, both state and private capitalist clampdowns on forest dwellers have reached a brutal high. On the 21st of February, the Supreme Court evicted more than one million Adivasis from their homes in the forests of the Subcontinent, continuing a trajectory that has systematically robbed indigenous people of their rights for decades. “The state is afraid of Adivasi communities. Their rights and lives have been at threat for centuries.” To be able to provide an ownership to their crop, to reclaim their kinship with the land, is a fundamental need of the hour. “Coffee is just the gateway,” says Bose. “It is power we are here to restore.”
These days, she has begun to receive calls from farmers — from the north-east of India and other regions — asking for help to access a market for sustainably grown coffee. As the brand grows, Bose and her team are looking to create more blends, and keep educating people about the ways in which to drink coffee that salvages the forest and provides recourse for growers. The association of coffee growers that Black Baza brought together has 396 members, with 134 women at its core. “Women are involved in the process, but men make the decisions,” says Bose. “Everywhere, most often, men are the gatekeepers of information and access. As a woman, I face challenges routinely too. Very remote locations have to be travelled to, or I am not taken seriously just because I am a woman,” she adds. “And there’s also the problem of communication. Often to get information out, you have to be nice or sweet, and it is truly fatiguing.” This year, she plans to take the women growers of the association on a coffee trip to various farms in the country to introduce them to the methods that other producers use. The trip will culminate with the creation of a blend inspired by the journey.
In a world where campaigns around sustainability often border on poverty porn or are actually distant from those whom they are supposed to empower, Black Baza is a standout. The brand moves slowly but steadily, armed with intuition and knowledge, but also with deep compassion. Bose, on her part, asks for attention and consideration, educating her consumers and speaking on behalf of the growers she so ardently admires. “Ours isn’t a programme rolled out in a boardroom somewhere far away from the people it wishes to address,” she says.
As the temperature drops to a pleasant degree, reminiscent of the breezy Bengaluru vivid in everyone’s minds, Bose gets up to greet friends at the cafe. “Maybe, if I had been a rich man, Black Baza’s aspirations would have been entirely different,” she had chuckled earlier, as a joke. But the values revealed to me in the past three hours — humility, determined altruism towards her team and deep preservation of the forest at all costs — are at a large distance from the profiteering that usually comes with business models centred around coffee. “We’re not in a hurry to become a massive brand,” she says, as she sips the last of her second coffee — as soothing, mild and fragrant as the last.