Eight Essential Coffee Questions with Jim Ngokwey
A managing partner at Mighty Peace Coffee, Jim Ngokwey is creating pathways for Congolese coffee growers and posing difficult questions about the future of the industry.
This episode is probably the most coffee-heavy one we’ve done in a bit, so if you’re ready to get in the weeds about how coffee gets to you, strap in.
In September 2022, I read an article called “Eight Questions Sustainability-Minded Roasters Should Ask Importers.” It was published on Daily Coffee News, and it was written by Jim Ngokwey, who is our guest for this episode.
Jim Ngokwey is a managing partner at Mighty Peace Coffee, a social impact coffee importer that works with farmers in Congo. Jim is originally from Congo and wanted to use his affinity for business to bring economic opportunity to the country. At one point, Congo produced a sizable amount of coffee, but due to instability and violence, that figured dropped substantially. Agriculture shifted in favor of mining and extracting minerals used for things like phones and electric cars.
Mighty Peace is looking to change that by connecting Congolese farmers to coffee roasters and drinkers, and to promote peace and sustainable patterns along the way. This takes me back to Jim’s piece: In it, he poses eight questions importers should consider if they care about the future of coffee, which we talk about in this episode.
So often, we read or are told that a coffee—or any agricultural product—is sourced ethically, but how do we really know that? Jim notes that there are 27 different actors involved in getting coffee from the farm to your cup. How can we ensure all those folks are treated and paid fairly? How do you know that the price a roaster says a farmer was paid was actually paid to the farmer?
We ask that and more—here’s Jim.
Ashley: Jim, let's start by having you introduce yourself.
Jim: Hi Ashley. I'm Jim Ngokwey, managing partner of Mighty Peace Coffee. We're a social impact coffee importer and we specialize in coffees from Congo—and Congo is where I'm from.
Ashley: Did you grow up with coffee in your life?
Jim: Not really, to be honest. My parents drank coffee pretty much every day, but it wasn't necessarily a big part of my life growing up. I know they had their Nescafé, so frankly growing up, my experience with coffee was mostly Nescafé, the instant coffee that's very commonly consumed across Africa.
So my parents would drink instant coffee, but it was just their morning ritual and I didn't really think about it beyond that. Day to day, as a kid, coffee was not a major part of my life actually.
Ashley: When did coffee start becoming part of your life?
Jim: So four years ago is when it became part of my life, to the extent that's how we know each other now with Mighty Peace Coffee. We founded the company in 2018, but before that, I'll tell you: When I first came to a coffee farm was when I was in high school. I was living in Côte d'Ivoire, the Ivory Coast, at that time.
And part of a field trip, we actually went to a coffee and cacao farm, so that was my first time actually seeing that. It was robusta, which I learned later. So that was my first time as a child actually seeing where the coffee came from. Because before then, to me, coffee was Nescafé, came in a powder, and that's all I knew.
It's not really part of our culture, to be perfectly honest. The average Congolese doesn't really, besides the instant coffee, it's not really part of our culture, but I do know that culture evolves. I know there are people working to change that and make coffee part of their culture and a lot of coffee shops and cafes popping up.
But day to day for average Congolese, drinking one or multiple cups of coffee a day is not really a common thing.
Ashley: You said you started Mighty Peace Coffee in 2018. And obviously that's a coffee company. So what was the impetus for you folks starting this company?
Jim: Mighty Peace Coffee—the founding partners are myself, I'm in New York City. We have Linda Mugaruka, she's our Chief Quality Officer. She's based in Bukavu and JD [Stier] and Liza [Elena Pitsirilos] are also founding partners based in Madison, Wisconsin.
The why for me kind of goes back to, always comes back to Congo, to be perfectly frank.
So again, [I’m a] Congolese immigrant, came to America when I was 17. I turned 36 earlier this summer. I've been here a little more than half my life. And I've always wanted to find a way to connect Congo to America through an ethical business. That's always been something that's driven me.
Being an immigrant here, you kind of get frustrated about how your country's presented in the media. So I always ask myself, ‘What can I do so that the world and the media has a different perspective of Congo?’
So at first I really thought maybe I'll be in media myself and write new stories about Congo. But then I realized that wasn't really my calling, but I've always loved business. The second idea was how can I create a business that connects Congo to America in a way that will actually lead to positive narratives. That was always in the back of my mind, but again, it's tough to be in business unless you're wealthy.
So it's an idea I had, but honestly, I was not really doing much for that idea and I had regular corporate jobs, but also doing pro bono work for the African Chamber of Commerce because I wanted to find a way to do business in Africa, Congo in particular.
Then I finally did a trip to Congo in 2017 with the Chamber of Commerce. The idea was to really do a lot of research on the ground and figure out which industries can really help Congo emerge.
Congo’s population is about 100 million people, but the average Congolese is very poor, despite Congo having the potential to be a pretty wealthy country. So the idea was to research which industries could actually kind of help turn the tide.
I came back with a report focusing on agriculture as an industry that could really do that for Congo, whether it was coffee, tea—anything you could think of. Congo's soil really has very arable land that could facilitate that. So my goal was to bring back investors from New York, take them to Congo, and basically [host] a trade mission where they invest in different projects and initiatives across different agricultural products. Coffee was part of it.
That initial plan for bringing investors with me didn't quite pan out—around the same time the State Department said, ‘If you're American, don't go to Congo. It's not safe.’ And again, I'm Congolese. I was in Congo a few months ago. I'm like, I understand maybe the headlines say it's not safe, but I was just there and I was safe. I have family there, they’re safe.
But the State Department said that it wasn’t, so the investors I had did not want to go because, rightfully so, they listened to the State Department instead of me. I get it. If you don't know, I can understand. It could be very scary.
But just a sidebar, I'm in New York City. I think if you're not in New York, you think New York is very dangerous, but frankly I feel very safe here. With that said, I also know there's some places that I wouldn't go, right? So I think we know, we accept that some places can be safe with pockets of violence. I wish people accepted that for Congo and Africa as well.
But long story short, that plan didn't work because the State Department said, ‘Don't go to Congo. It's not safe.’ But around the same time, I met JD, one of the following partners at Mighty Peace Coffee, and he had produced a documentary called “When Elephants Fight.”
The documentary is very powerful; if you haven't yet, I encourage you to watch it. Very powerful, very emotional. But in summary, it called out big tech companies like Apple and Intel, and basically it called them out in the sense that the materials they need for cell phones, laptops, computer chips—a lot of that comes from Congo and maybe Apple and Intel don't go to Congo directly to buy those minerals, but their suppliers do.
A lot of them indirectly cause chaos, violence, and sometimes straight-up war to access these minerals. So the documentary called out tech companies and said, ‘Hey, clean up your supply chain because you're causing chaos in Congo. You can build a business without exploiting Congolese and their minerals.’ In their defense, Apple and Intel vowed to clean up their supply chain, they issued press releases and all that, there was good press around it.
I think the initial feedback in America was, ‘Hey, we're doing good work and making real change and cleaning up things and businesses and mining.’ But the feedback in Congo was, ‘What will help us the most is jobs. Maybe when you do your advocacy, your film screenings and your advocacy for us in America, you think you're getting good results, and maybe you are—but day to day we don't feel that. What will help us most if you help us find jobs.’
‘We have great coffees here.’—the president of a cooperative that said. ‘Yeah, we have great coffee here, but people are afraid of Congo because they always hear about conflict minerals. If you really want to help us, find buyers for our coffee.’
So we talked to JD about this and we said, ‘Clearly coffee is an opportunity here. Americans drink a lot of coffee and Congo has great coffee. It can't be that hard, right?’ Famous last words. It can't be that hard!
Ashley: And then you look back and you're like, ‘Oh wait, this might be harder than I thought!’
Jim: It’s hard. It's really hard—from logistics to quality control to basically introducing people to coffee from a country they either never heard of or that they didn't know had coffee.
But that was the starting point. That's why I was giving you the background first, because that's really what drove me to coffee. Those early conversations and that desire to truly connect Congo to America through business in an ethical way.
Ashley: That makes sense. I think it's interesting that you almost reverse-engineered the way that your business works, because I think when you hear from a lot of roasters or a lot of importers or things like that, they start with this coffee-first mentality. And we tend to think that's the reason to start a business or to start something. ‘Oh, I love X, Y, or Z, so I'm gonna start a business.’
You said this earlier: You're a social impact business. You started with the mission to really elevate what was happening in Congo and bring more business opportunities to the people who were asking for them.
Jim: Absolutely. Even though we started with the impact first, and also the name Mighty Peace Coffee, because the coffee comes from post-conflict zones, coffee was right after. So even though we had the idea—coffee for peace, impact, and prosperity, shared prosperity—the next step was we actually had to get somebody who knew coffee.
For full transparency you know, I didn't know much about coffee until then, beyond drinking coffee once in a while, with colleagues, to stay up late for exams and things like that. But it really was not part of my day to day and I didn't really know much about the industry as a whole until then.
But we knew we had to get somebody who actually knew coffee quality and was based in Congo. That’s when Linda came in, and we actually read an article about her in the New York Times and the New York Times featured her because she was the only woman at Saveur du Kivu, which is a local coffee festival there, and she was the only woman cupper there.
They featured her as a next generation leader. We read about her in the New York Times and were like, ‘You know what? We have to get in touch with Linda.’ Because of our networks in Congo, we were able to make that happen. We connected with her and we shared the mission of what we wanted do with Congolese coffee in America and changing the narrative and giving opportunities, and she was on board. She shared that same vision and that desire to do a lot for the Congolese coffee sector—of coffee being that vehicle for peace and economic change in Congo.
Ashley: You wrote an article for Fresh Cup Magazine called “The Myth of Congolese Coffee,” and one of the things that you talk about in that article—which everyone should go read, it's a beautiful article—but one of the things that you talk about right in the beginning is someone tells you like, ‘Oh, I didn't even know you could get coffee from there.’
And then you also talk a little bit about market access and how little coffee is consumed from Congo in the United States. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about why it is that we don't see as much coffee from Congo in the U.S. Why can people still tell you things like, ‘I thought Congolese coffee was a myth?’—that’s [the question] you start the article [with].
Jim: Definitely. It was very eye-opening because I was actually taking a class, right? If I'm taking the class, I'm expecting the people to know a lot more than I do about everything about coffee. But I realize that it's the case except when it comes to certain countries, because Congo, for example, unfortunately Congo is one of those countries where most people don't know much about it. The why I want to say it's complex in the sense that Congo actually was known for its coffee back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, both arabica and robusta.
But one thing Congo struggles with is the gift and the curse of its mineral wealth. If you read about Congo, a term that will often come up is ‘geological scandal.’ Literally every mineral the world needs, Congo has most of it—and I mean minerals for industrial development, right?
So if you think about, whether it's a military complex: We have a lot of uranium, we have a lot of copper that a lot of militaries need. We have gold, diamonds, coltan for your smartphone, cobalt for your electric car. So literally the minerals that the world needs to industrialize and be modern and push the envelope of technology, Congo usually has most of it. And it's very rare. That's why they call it geological scandal, because basically the resources the world needs, Congo has them in bunches.
And because of that, there were a lot of discoveries around those minerals in the ‘70s and ‘80s and that basically changed the government's focus. They’re like, ‘You can make money much faster and easier by just digging and selling minerals than you can by investing in agriculture, which can take years to be profitable.’
There was a significant decrease in investment in agriculture because there was an opportunity there to make a lot of money easily and quickly through the mining sector. So that's really part of what led to steep decline in Congo’s coffee exports from the ‘80s on—that was part of it.
And then again, because of that mineral wealth, Congo has faced a lot of conflict and instability as well, because again, the world needs those minerals. If you pay the fair market value for those minerals, everybody's iPhones, laptops, and cars cost a lot more, right? So there's a lot of incentives to make sure you're able to get these resources as freely and as cheaply as possible.
So what literally happens is there are conflicts and those minerals are stolen, they're smuggled to other countries. That's kind of the situation. So the mineral have caused these cycle of violence. Again, the violence is not just around the mineral, but it's a big part of it.
So [there’s] the cycle of violence and a lot of instability, and because of instability, there have been many cases of farmers literally leaving their farms. Because there's been no investment from the government, there's been really no support, so farmers have had to fend for themselves.
So a lot of this the what's happening in the Congolese coffee sector right now has really been driven by the private sector and nonprofit organizations because it really has not been a priority for the government overall like it has been for other countries whose sectors has seen that growth.
Ashley: That's a good point because I think when we look at other countries, there's a lot of government buy-in. I just wrote an article about coffee in Colombia and the Colombian government is very heavily invested in coffee, for better or for worse. I don't wanna talk too much about the FNC because that can go in like eight different directions—which is the federation that controls coffee production in Colombia.
But government buy-in is a huge deal. And I was looking back at your article and you wrote that, and this might have been, I think this is from 2019, Congo contributes 0.014% to global coffee exports, which is really small. So I'm wondering how companies like yours, like Mighty Peace, are trying to increase that market share and how organizations like yours are trying to give more resources to people.
Jim: Absolutely, and one thing I forgot to mention early on was giving you the background about Mighty Peace Coffee—again, there's desire for impact, but also was a lot of literature around that time talking about global warming and basically the need for a new, for other sources of coffee.
Because unless we all move to a synthetically produced coffee, we really need another source of coffee or we need other countries to fill the gaps that may be caused with maybe Brazil, Columbia, Kenya, Ethiopia [producing a] little less, who else is gonna, where else can the world get its coffee from? So that was also part of a problem we identified early on: The world needs other sources of coffee. So that was part of it. That's a challenge.
We believe Congo can be a solution to that, that it can be one of the countries that makes up any production gaps because of reduction in other countries. So that's part of it. And that's kind of how we see the long term—we're in this for the long term, we're thinking 10, 20 years, 30 years ahead of time.
If we’re consistent for the next couple decades, what would that mean for the Congolese coffee sector, the local economy, and for the world really?
Even though I’m very proud to be Congolese, I will admit that it can be challenging to work there because of some of the issues that I mentioned earlier and a lot of our coffee gets smuggled because of that, because of the high taxation, because of the lack of infrastructure and support—sometimes it's actually easier, more convenient to take a boat ride to across the lake to one of our neighbors, whether it's Rwanda, for example, even the mountains of Uganda, it can be easier to smuggle and get paid quickly than to go through the legal process to export your Congolese coffee.
The people that work in Congo definitely see the value, potential, and commitment, but if you wanted coffee that was easy—an easier environment, Congo would not be your first choice. So we were there because we really want to be there. We believe that the longer and short-term impact will be tremendous, both locally and internationally.
Ashley: Something that I think often gets overlooked is how powerful market access is. So even going back to what you were saying about we need jobs, and in coffee it's like we need buyers, we need people who are going to buy this coffee. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you build that market access.
Jim: A lot of hard work and research.
Literally okay, who are the coffee roasters in America? No exaggeration, just attending every coffee trade show we can, calling, emailing, stopping by, dropping off samples. So it's really been straight-up hard work and hustle and doing the best we can in terms of advocacy and getting some press and things of that sort.
But it's really been hard work and hustle. I wish I could say we had a secret formula [laughs].
Ashley: But it's awareness. It's doing what you do. It's writing about Congolese coffee, and I have to imagine that part of writing the articles that you have or just being at trade shows is to hopefully spark curiosity, for someone to say, ‘Hey, this is something I want to learn more about.’
Jim: Exactly. Curiosity, interest, and awareness. That's really the goal and what we do. We're four years in, so we're definitely seeing the traction, slowly but surely. But I can tell it's definitely a challenge, especially if first, you don't know where Congo is [and] you don't know that Congo has coffee.
Or maybe you have Congolese coffee in the past, it was years ago, you didn't like it, so you don't want to have Congolese coffee anymore. So I think it's really dealing with all those possible scenarios. People that don't know, people that had a negative experience, or really don't wanna try anything new.
So I think those are some of the different challenges we can face, but it's really about raising awareness and driving curiosity. There's a lot of great coffees out there. There's a lot of great coffee out there from all the coffee-producing—we just want Congo to be at the table.
As you try coffee, that you think, ‘What should I have next year? What should I offer in my cafe next quarter?’ We just want Congo to be an option you consider because the coffee's good and it's high-quality and when it’s from us, it's ethically sourced. It's really about driving awareness and shaking hands, talking to people and telling our story in our mission.
And over time, if people try the coffee, they like it, even if they don't buy it right away, at least they know that Congo has coffee, has good quality and we can over time remove any barriers to giving Congo a chance. Because even if you don't buy it from us directly, as long as Congo becomes an option, even if you get it from somebody else down the line, it's a win.
I truly believe that the more there are people that bring in Congolese coffee, the more we all win, the more the country wins—because there'll be more awareness where people will hear about Congolese coffee, not just from us, but from others.
But it's definitely a long journey. We expected to take some time, but we work diligently every day and try our best to introduce roasters to the best Congolese coffee we can find.
Ashley: I think one of the lines that I was really struck by in your article about the myth of Congolese coffee was the idea that—because a lot of people maybe haven't had coffee from Congo or maybe are still trying to learn about it—there's a lot of relational expectations, like, ‘It tastes like this,’ or, ‘It tastes like a coffee from this region.’
And you mentioned at the end [of the article], your goal is for Congo to stand on its own.
Ashley: For people to understand like, ‘This is the flavor of coffee from Congo.’ I was wondering if you could talk a little bit what these coffees taste like. I mean, obviously that's a big question ‘cause you can't summarize a whole country. I always say this, I'm like, ‘You can't just say that one country tastes like this,’ but when we get to that point where you hear roasters talking about Congolese coffee as its own thing, what do you imagine them saying?
Jim: One thing I'll say even before answering that question is I really like the answers that I've gotten when people didn't know which coffee it was and they just tasted it with an open mind, the results were always great because I think if you—maybe you've had a negative experience in the past of a certain country, even if the coffee you're tasting now is different, your opinion, more than likely, is probably still affected by that first negative experience.
When you can't add any prejudgments or prejudices that Congo may have in your mind, the coffee pretty much is a stellar option in most cases.
One thing I really love about our coffees is that they’re very versatile and very diverse. So for example, some of our coffees are very fruity—fruit bomb is a definitely common descriptor from our popular Mapendo coffees. So if you talk about blueberry, strawberry, raspberry, those are flavors that come out, so a strong acidity.
We also have the milder coffees that are more chocolate, caramel, vanilla. So I really feel like when I was talking about being a solution to some of the industry's problems that Congo can address, if you're looking for the high-acidity, standalone coffees, if you're looking for coffee for a blend, I really think Congo—and again, I know our coffees that we bring in are very versatile and they address [a lot of needs]. If you like the highest acidity, the fruity coffees, or if you like the milder coffees, Congo has them.
And it's not necessarily trying to be—what's that expression? A jack of all trades. I was like, ‘Master of none, jack of all trades.’ [laughs]
I think there's definitely sometimes a negative perception of jack of all trades or a coffee that you can't fit into a box, but I think at this stage, we really don't want Congolese coffee to be just in a box. We appreciate when we are your special summer or fall offering because the coffee stands out so well on its own. But if you want it to be in your espresso blend, that's great too.
I really want Congolese coffee to not be in a box for as long as possible. People can experience the different flavors, different tastes, and basically have different needs met by Congolese coffee.
Ashley: I think something that you said that it was interesting, and this relates back a little bit to a conversation that I had a couple of years ago with Sahra Nguyen from Nguyen Coffee Supply, is that people have perceptions of what a coffee tastes like that are radically different from what they taste like today.
Robusta is kind of a prime example of that, and I have to imagine too that coffees from Congo are similarly affected by these negative perceptions and I'll even—I'll use robusta just because this is something I've written about—people immediately turn off when they hear that word. They're like, ‘Robusta is bad.’
And it's like, ‘Have you had robusta lately? Do you know its potential?’ And even thinking, like you said earlier, about climate change, where we grow coffee is going to change. The types of coffee we are growing is going to change, places that used to grow coffee may not grow coffee again in five or 10 years. So we really do have to think about how agriculture is changing.
It seems like you're very acutely aware of this and you're having to almost change people's perceptions of something that is no longer true. How do you do that?
Jim: I think the first step is kind of understanding where their current perception stems from. Is it based on hearsay, things they've read, heard from other people, or things they've experienced themselves? I think first kind of understanding where that stems.
And then being open to having multiple conversations, tasting a lot of different coffees, and also being patient. We understand it's gonna take time. If in your first 10 years of coffee, you basically avoided Congolese coffee or coffees from the Great Lakes region, understanding the why behind that and then giving time to be open to changing those negative ideas towards Congo.
So it's definitely being patient, providing information, context, because a lot of times you don't know what you don't know, and if you don't know something I can't fault you for not knowing it. But if I know it's definitely become my responsibility to share that information with you—like there's a lot of conversations, information sharing about the context, the realities, the vision for the future and also tasting a lot of different coffees…
So it comes down to that, right? Tasting the coffee, understanding how we got to where we are and where we want to go in the future.
Ashley: So you recently wrote an article for Daily Coffee News titled, “Eight Questions Sustainability-Minded Roasters Should Ask Importers.” And what I really loved about this article is that sustainability is often painted as one thing. It's often painted as environmental sustainability, which we obviously talked about because environmental sustainability is really important. Coffee and climate change is very much affecting where and how we're growing coffee.
But a lot of the questions that you ask are a lot more focused on economic sustainability and viability for people to be able to live their lives. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about—I'm asking all my questions in this phrasing. “Can you talk a little bit about…” But maybe [you could] share with people why these questions are important, and maybe we can even go through some of the questions?
Jim: Absolutely. So those eight questions that sustainability minded roasters should ask importers—this basically is a summary of some of the questions that I've been asking in my first four years of Mighty Piece Coffee, and I wanna give credit to some of the roasters whose questions really pushed us, pushed us as a company to better understand what roasters that care about sustainability—what information they need? How much information is too much? What is the right amount of information, and what information specifically [is needed]?
So just to give a shout out to, you know, Amaris [Gutierrez-Ray] at Joe Coffee, Scott and Paul at Onda Origins, Okon [Udosenata] at Equiano Coffee. Those are some of the roasters who really inspired some of these questions, because they asked me those questions even sometimes before I had all the answers.
So those questions really are the result of conversations with people that have been Mighty Peace Coffee clients, and trust us, but really pushed us in the beginning—and still do by asking us questions because I know they care about sustainability. They care about their impact as buyers and roasters, and it really pushed us to make sure that we are able to dive in and get the correct answers and understand the realities, understand what a roaster, who's not in Congo, what they need to know, what they want to know, right?
In terms of the questions, sustainability, like you mention, I think it goes beyond the environment, and I think it really starts with the people. Is it worth it for you to do [coffee] again next year? If you grew coffee last year, did you make enough money to want to do it again next year?
Because if you lost money, we have to understand as people—like, the average person doesn’t want to lose money forever and do the same thing over and over, knowing they're gonna lose money. So first understanding the economics—is it profitable to make, is it profitable to be in the coffee industry right now?
And I think a lot of times, particularly when it comes to coffee farmers, people talk about cost of production and break even. But I think nobody gets into business to break even…
Ashley: NO ONE WORKS TO BREAK EVEN! Exactly! No one works to break even. And I think what you just said, and I just wanna make sure that we highlight that: A farmer might look at how much money they made and be like, ‘Did I make money? Did I break even? Did I lose money?’
This is so common in coffee. It is so much more common than you think it is.
Jim: Yeah, exactly. So it's just really important to know the numbers as best as you can because even the farmers, for example, and the cooperatives that give us those numbers, a lot of times they're not readily accessible, right? So with talk about fuel costs and travel costs and things like that … do your best to get those numbers and understand what your break-even point is and what profit margin you need to basically be incentivized to do it again next year.
So that's very important. I think, sometimes, it can be a privilege to think about the long term. You can afford to think about five years down the line if you know what you're gonna eat today, tomorrow, and next week. But some people, they don't know that. Right?
So it's important that they're financially sustainable right now, and we have, as coffee stakeholders, that they make money now, that we don't tell them, ‘Work with us now and maybe in five years, you'll make money.’ That's not enough, for me—we don't wanna break even this year, we wanna make money. We don't wanna break even on a bag of coffee. Cafes don't wanna break even, most don't wanna break even, neither do farmers or cooperatives that support them.
One thing I hope that this article can do is really for us to view sustainability as—to almost be selfish about it in the sense that you have to see that sustainability is good for you. So I think when we're trying to appeal to people’s philanthropic side, there's a limit to how philanthropic people can be, but if you see it as something that serves you, that's self-serving, you're likely to make it part of your habit and processes. But if it's something that's nice to do, people aren't as consistent if they think it's just a nice thing to do.
If they view it as something that they need for their business to grow, I think over time, more people will be sustainable and care about that, but if it's still a nice thing do, ‘Oh, let's help those people when we can.’ I think we are not gonna be sustainable. And this is not for the industry overall.
Ashley: Something that you mentioned in the article is that there are at least 27 stakeholders scattered around the coffee supply stream. And before I started recording with you, I laid out for you what I thought the supply chain looked like when I was a barista:
You have this idea that coffee grows in coffee-growing countries, an importer brings that coffee to a coffee-consuming country, a roaster buys that coffee, and a barista makes it—that's what? Four people in there?
But no, 27. Those are 27 people that need to get paid. Those are 27 people, or 27 actors, maybe even more [people], that are either extracting value or—I guess [they’re all] extracting value, the only people that are actually putting value in is the farmer. I don't know, that's controversial, but let's get past that.
But the idea is that all those people have different amounts of … I'm not sure what the right word is—I guess power is kind of the right word, but power over what that system looks like. And one thing that you identify specifically is that roasters actually have a lot of power.
Roasters have a ton of power because they're the tastemakers, they're the people who are making menus for what coffees they're offering. They're the people who are roasting coffee to whatever [level of] excellence, so that consumers wanna buy it, and they're the direct line to consumers in general.
What I really love about this article is that you point that out very, very directly. You say roasters have power. They have the power to ask these big questions. And if they make these questions part of their everyday working practices when they're buying coffee, they actually have the power to change a lot about how coffee systems are currently implemented.
Jim: Yeah. Absolutely.
Ashley: So let’s talk about one of these questions. One of the ones I was really struck by is: ‘How do you pay producers?’ And it's actually really two questions:
‘Do you pay producers directly?
And if you pay producers through a third party, how do you verify that these producers are actually receiving what they earned?’
And I was wondering, why are these questions important?
Jim: Yeah, they're definitely important. I guess why they're important is the notion is there's so many [actors] and it's very easy to … you can hide the money if you wanted to.
For people involved in getting coffee from the farm to a roaster or coffee shop, it's very easy to basically hide the money across the line and in the end, the farmers and producers—the ones that actually produced the coffee—get the crumbs or get nothing really. It's important to be able to understand how people get paid and to verify that they did get paid.
Let's say for example, we pay a cooperative, we wire the money to a cooperative. We do that through a bank. Through the bank, we wire the money with the bank account and we know the producer that was involved in our coffee. But even though we trust the cooperative, just as a business and our own due diligence, we also do have to verify that the farmers themselves got paid.
Not in our case, but we've heard stories of a coffee being purchased and basically all the people in the middle [get] paid, but the farmers actually didn't get paid at all. So it's very possible to hide that money and say you didn't receive it when you did, or just basically not give the full amount—say the payment was late, we never received the full payment, so we definitely keep track of when we pay, but we also verify.
We have our team on the ground: Linda [Mugaruka], Fidel, Echo, they can literally call a producer and say, ‘Hey, we wired the money that day. Can you confirm you received it? You received it when? How much did you receive?’
So we actually are able to track that and we think that's important. Not because we don't trust the cooperatives, just because it's due diligence. We’re sure that what we say we do, we actually do and verify. Because we’d hate to be in a situation where we just rely solely on the word—
Ashley: Word of mouth.
Jim: Exactly. We need to verify for ourselves to know what's happening.
Ashley: This is not an analogous example, but it's an example that I bring up a lot, and I think it kind of applies here, but Todd Carmichael of La Colombe Coffee wrote an op-ed about how people should be paying $15 an hour, like this was a living wage and three years later, I believe—it might be two years later—it came out that La Colombe did not pay their baristas $15 an hour.
The fact that we didn't even verify that, that this person wrote this article [and] we took it for granted. They’d later go on to say that like, ‘Oh, the $15 per hour is their base pay plus tips.’ But that's misleading.
It goes to show like if this happens in plain sight with customers going up to baristas and assuming that they're getting paid $15 an hour and the barista is in front of them, they can ask them, but we don't. Imagine how much this is happening when you add 27 actors in the middle of that.
Ashley: So I think that these questions are really important and I wonder, as a consumer—because a lot of people who are listening are simply consumers of coffee, they don't necessarily work in the coffee industry—how can consumers be better equipped to buy coffees with kind of these sustainability questions in mind?
Jim: That’s a great question and I think it's definitely tough because we, as individual consumers, we have so much in our mind, right? It's unreasonable to really expect somebody who just wants a cup of coffee to really understand basically the socioeconomic context of where their coffee comes from. Because why stop at coffee? Why not avocados?
A sidebar: I watched a documentary recently about avocados in Mexico. It was basically some of the issues we face in coffee, they face with avocados as well. So I think it's unreasonable to expect somebody who's buying coffee, avocados, or whatever to really understand the socioeconomic of everything we consume. It's too much information. It'll be too much work.
So I really believe it's the role, which I mentioned the article, of roasters. They have so much influence and power, as they source coffee, to really do their due diligence and make the process by which the coffee got to them, that the people they buy it from, that their values match theirs, and that, if somebody goes to Coffee Shop X or Coffee Roastery Y because of certain values, that those values are true across the board.
So I really think the onus falls on the actual businesses, so that we reduce the amount of work the end customer has to do. So if you go to a coffee shop that you like in your neighborhood, you should go there with the confidence that they're doing their job to provide you with ethically sourced products. That the people that you know made the croissant were paid well, people that produce their coffee were paid.
So I think as businesses we really have to do our job and communicate the information to the end user. So if you care about that and you go to a coffee shop, that information is available, you shouldn't have more homework to do because you want a good cup of coffee, you know?
The onus is on the business to do their job so that the people that buy their products can do so with peace of mind.
Ashley: I have kind of a controversial question to ask you, and we can kind of go in any direction this takes us, but one of the things that I've been really grappling with is what defines specialty coffee. So the Specialty Coffee Association's website broadened the definition to essentially include coffees—because for a long time, there was a very linear definition of determined specialty coffee, so was pretty much driven by quality.
Now, I believe the Specialty Coffee Association has extended that definition to include coffees that somehow promote a better future or somehow support others in doing something better than the systems that were before them, and I wonder, if a roaster isn't doing that, are they specialty anymore?
I would argue they are not. Even though the guise of specialty has been so much driven both by quality and, I would argue, by aesthetics, that we are often tricking people, I think now, especially in 2022, you live in New York City, like you've probably seen coffee shops that look like specialty shops, but have no claim to that definition of specialty coffee.
So I wonder: Should we be more … not litigious, ‘cause that implies something legal. But should we be more discerning of this? Should we be like, ‘No, you're not specialty ‘cause you're not doing this stuff?’
Jim: I think specialty, ethically sourced, sustainable—I think we should definitely agree on a definition—
Ashley: And we should be stricter about it!
Jim: Yeah, and that's hard to do because again, there are people that are neither specialty nor sustainable, but they can claim it because there's no standard definition, right? So I think we definitely have a standard that we all abide by, but even that, you know, it's—I dunno that like it can happen, you know? Because there's so many incentives to be able to say specialty, sustainability, even if you don't match those standards.
That's definitely gonna be a challenge to get to that point where we all agree and stick to that definition, to one definition, right. So that's definitely gonna be a challenge.
But you're right. I think the aesthetics—it’s almost become an aesthetic thing. Sometimes I even feel like the quality may not even be a priority—instead mostly the aesthetics and the branding, yeah. So that's a tough question.
Ashley: It's a tough question. It's something that I've been really thinking about. I don't know a lot about their buying practices, but again, you're in New York, so I'll just name them just because there was an article about them in the New York Times and I've been thinking about them a lot.
Blank Street—I think Blank Street 100% co-opted the aesthetics of specialty, but I have absolutely no understanding of how they buy coffee. Maybe they buy coffee really ethically. I have no—the fact that I don't know, and I'm an interested coffee person and I can't find that information very readily, is a little bit concerning to me.
But I wonder if, because we have spent so much time viewing specialty and selling specialty to customers as an aesthetic choice and almost as something that's quality-focused, but quality-focused in a very myopic way, that we've maybe forgotten what actually makes [something] specialty, if that makes sense.
Jim: No, it definitely does. Definitely does. And I think especially even ethically, you mentioned, I don’t know if it's ethically sourced, who decide what's ethical. Because which standards do we go by?
Ashley: Because we don't have those standards really.
Jim: We don't. Anybody can really say they source ethically and unless they show you their books and their processes, you can't really say whether it's true or not. It's definitely tough.
I think there's a lot of nebulous definitions out there and that opens the door for people who may not follow those traditional guidelines to make claims that can be verified.
Ashley: I do a lot of editing work and sometimes I'll read lines that are just like, ‘And this coffee roaster buys their coffee ethically.’ And I'm like, ‘What does that mean?’ That doesn't mean anything unless you tell me, unless you open, like you said, you open your books and you show me. So I think it's interesting that your questions are really specific too.
Jim: Thank you. Yeah. That was really on purpose. Because I didn't want it to be—and again, it's only eight questions. There's a lot more questions. Maybe there'll be a part two to it.
Ashley: Maybe we'll have to revisit this.
Jim: Yeah, but those were the main questions that I think, if you have those answers, you can get a sense as to whether those processes match up with, as a roaster, how you see yourself.
I think those questions around price, gender, equity, and processing, things like that, if you have those first eight answers, I think you get a good sense about the true ethics behind the coffee.
One thing: I don't want to be judgmental, right? I don't want you to leave reading this article, and if you ask your importer the question and they don't know, then you say, ‘You’re a bad importer, you’re unethical’—that’s really not the point.
But it's more so an opportunity to learn. I think the more questions we ask, the more we can learn. And if you don't like some of those answers, then it's an opportunity to be better, right? So I think it's key that no matter what answers you find through those questions, you don't judge yourself or judge your partners.
But more take it as a data point to kind of understand where you currently stand and how far you have to go to be who you want to be. Who you want your roaster, your coffee shop, who to represent you, who you want to be. And hopefully those questions can guide you, from the green side of things.
But whatever the answers, I don't want you to feel bad and feel judged because being judgmental about processes doesn't help anyone. So it's really—it’s more of a learning opportunity.
Ashley: I love that you mentioned that. That's a good point. It's like a data point. Which is a good way to think about it is that you don't want—you wouldn't dismiss a data point. You would say, ‘This is where we're at and this is where we wanna get. This is the way that we measure that.’
Ashley: What are some projects that you folks are working on at Mighty Peace now?
Jim: So a couple of projects we’re very interested in. First I want to give a shoutout to to Linda Mugaruka, our Chief Quality Officer. Last year she became Congo's first woman Q grader. The first and only woman Q grader [in Congo]. And our goal is that over the next few years that she would not be the only woman Q grader. So there's definitely a lot of work in terms of upskilling and doing a lot of education.
Even though we take pride in paying farmers the wages they need to be sustainable and reinvest in themselves, we also understand the ceilings, how much a farmer can make. But if you're an agronomist, you're a Q grader and have more technical skills, it really raises the ceilings, your earning potential.
So we wanna do a lot more education locally, targeting women. We definitely believe in making sure women have capital [because] it’s key to development. And Linda will spearhead that. So a lot of education to have more women understanding quality and really getting the the certification and education they need to move up in the value stream.
That's one project we're interested in, from an education and human capital standpoint. And another one, probably gonna launch late Q1 next year—it's called the Off Grid Box, and it's a box that's the size of a small container, and it's produced by these engineers at MIT and basically, through the technology it has, you're able to provide clean water and clean energy to 1,500 people.
So our vision is to really install these boxes across the washing station communities where we work, because unfortunately, cholera and other waterborne illnesses are still the realities of the region because unfortunately, the average Congolese doesn't have access to clean water—and that’s even in the cities.
So in the rural areas, forget about it. You really have to walk miles to get clean water. As a result, people still get really sick or sometimes die of cholera, and the idea is to make sure that every coffee we import, the people behind it have access to that clean water and energy in their communities.
That's definitely a long-term project. But we're gonna install the first box early next year, and the idea is to spread that and eventually be able to say that for all our coffees, every farmer we work with has access to clean water. If we can dramatically reduce instances of cholera, I think that would be a big win.
And something beyond business, just a legacy standpoint, that’s life-changing or legacy-building—we are literally changing a quality life and health outcomes in your region. And so that's something we're very excited about.
We know it's gonna take time. Everything always takes longer than you want, but we're committed to being in Congo. Not only ensuring economic prosperity, but also improving the quality of life.
Ashley: Jim, thank you so much for taking time to chat with me. This has been such a fun conversation and I learned so much from.
Jim: Thank you so much for having me. I'm grateful you thought to invite me on this platform. Big fan of it.