Manoj Kumar Of Araku Coffee: A Man For All Seasons
In mid-June this year, Manoj Kumar tweeted: “Writing is a very lonely voyage that needs a lot of space and quiet. I am learning this the hard way as I attempt writing the story of @ arakucoffeein (the voyage may well be lifelong).” The story of coffee grown by adivasi farmers in the eponymous Araku valley in northeastern Andhra Pradesh achieving global acclaim has been told often in the last six-odd months, but no one will quite tell the way Kumar will. After all, in it will be largely his own story.
It is a story that he does not tire of retelling, as we found out on a muggy Mumbai evening not long ago. He calls Araku Valley a ‘mystical’ place, not just because of its stunning greenery, but also its unique status as a notified tribal area. “There is very little an outsider can do here,” he says, “Nobody can own any land, not even the adivasis living here. But they can farm anywhere they want, grow anything they wish, and live any place they choose. It is after all their land. But they can never mortgage or sell the land or pass it on to their descendants.”
For Kumar, though, the restrictions presented the opportunity that he was looking for as a social entrepreneur — a chance to creatively help thousands of women and men in an extremely poor part of the country work towards improving their lives using their own natural resources, while simultaneously creating something long lasting that they would be proud of.
Kumar these days is synonymous with the growing fame of Araku Coffee around the world. But to term him simply as the man who facilitated its meteoric rise is only a small part of what he has achieved. If you were to perchance consider hiring him, the 50-year-old’s CV would tell you that he has been a sort of Indiana Jones of social enterprise and activism, plunging headlong from one adventure to another. As he puts it, farmers, have “always been a keeda (a Hindi colloquialism implying obsession)” for him. He always tells people that in India, there are only two seasons: monsoon, and bad monsoon. “Because, so much of what we do as a country is still dependent on the state of our rural economy, which is entirely dependent on the rains. This whole nation is running on rural areas, yet we do nothing for them. The only thing we do for them, as a nation, is give them more subsidies. And when news breaks of more farmer suicides all we do is either increase subsidies or give them loan-waivers.”
Kumar, who trained as a developmental economist in Kerala, started his career in the early 1990s with SIDBI, a Mumbai-based RBI-promoted bank that helps small industries. He followed it up with a stint at BASIX, a social enterprise company set up by Vijay Mahajan, a pioneering social entrepreneur, to help improve the lives of small and marginal businessmen in small towns and rural India. Then came a stint with the World Bank, where he worked on urban poverty as a Robert McNamara fellow, before moving to Hyderabad to lead the India operations of international charity Foster Parents Plan International.
When he was with BASIX, Kumar lived in Raichur, in northern Karnataka, where he worked with marginal cotton farmers. He still can’t get over the poverty that he saw there out of his mind. “Raichur is one of India’s 50 least developed districts. It is full of sixth and seventh-generation money lenders, and their sixth and seventh-generation borrowers. Those days, the area had a turnover of Rs 600 crore per annum in cotton, but small-time borrowers were paying interest rates as high as 600%. Nothing works there. I saw poverty at its worst in Raichur. It was my baptism in real-life business economics and provided me with an understanding of how poverty needs to be dealt with at a micro level.”
While working in Hyderabad for Plan International, Kumar met the late Kallam Anji Reddy, the founder-chairman of Dr Reddy’s Laboratories. The philanthropist and entrepreneur was looking for someone to head his newly founded NGO, Naandi Foundation. He had set it up in 1998 and had the likes of Anand Mahindra, chairman of Mahindra Group, and Kris Gopalakrishnan, co-founder of Infosys, on his board. Naandi’s mission was to foster sustainable livelihoods in rural India focusing on improving the quality of delivery of public services, children’s rights, safe drinking water, etc
Kumar had gone to meet Reddy to talk about opportunities for his international charity to work with Naandi, but instead ended up being offered a job to run the foundation. It presented a great opportunity to do the kind of stuff he always wanted to do. He took his time coming on board, but once he did, he knew he had made the right decision.
His first big success was to get state governments to outsource large social service delivery projects to Naandi. “We started the midday meal programs through which we fed 1.4 million children everyday in Rajasthan, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The governments would pay us, and we would create big, state-of-the-art factory kitchens,” Kumar says.
Naandi’s first kitchen was set up in Uppal, in Hyderabad, in partnership with the local state government. It was, at that time, the largest such operation in the world, supplying over 70 million meals daily — each with a minimum of 500 calories — to over 900 schools in Hyderabad and Secunderabad area. Kumar also steered Naandi into working on irrigation projects on the Krishna and Tungabhadra Rivers, which, while funded by the government, were taken up in an association with farmer’s co-operatives. Another area where he worked was education, a plan that was first implemented in Chhattisgarh. “We worked with 200 schools and created a model in which the children would stay back after school hours for about an hour. Then, our teachers would move in and give free tuitions,” he says, “It had nothing to do with how bad the earlier teachers were. It’s just that many of the children were first-generation learners and they needed this help to catch up.”
While Naandi had the who’s who of Indian industrialists on its board and funding from the likes of Michael Dell, working with the government had major challenges. In Andhra Pradesh, for example, while Naandi had the backing of the chief minister, that was no guarantee against bureaucratic obstructions created by Indian endemic scourge — corruption. Naandi’s first payment took well over a year and a half to be disbursed, and the foundation was regularly besieged with demands for a ‘2% cut’. Kumar says he stood his ground and instead reworked his contracts with the governments to ensure he didn’t pay a single penny. “If you make them think that you are doing a contract for them, then you are finished, “he says, “So I told them that I won’t submit myself to a bidding process. Instead, I will give you a bank guarantee, and, if I do badly, you can encash that guarantee.” This proved to be a much easier way of working.
Eventually, though Naandi took a decision to move away from government-funded projects. It began looking for work which the government either did not have a budget for, or was unable to allocate funds despite being budgeted. The required funds was raised by Naandi from local and international philanthropic organisations. Kumar says that this approach worked much better. He was not subject to any budgetary restrictions, and “It allowed us to work with the government more freely. We could approach the government and say, I am doing this for your state, and I don’t need your money. That was a much more powerful equation than, ‘Could you please tell your bureaucrats to get this sanctioned for me?’”
When Manoj Kumar first arrived in Araku, which is an overnight train journey from Hyderabad, coffee was nowhere on his mind. He had grown up at home in Kerala drinking the traditional home-brewed black coffee called ‘kattan kapi’ but was no great fan of the brew. He knew less about it than his knowledge about place he was visiting. Located about 115 km north-west of the coastal city of Visakhapatnam, Araku Valley is part of the densely forested area of the Eastern Ghats that includes Ananthagiri and Sunkarimetta Reserved Forests along the Orissa border. Its elevation of around 3000 feet above sea level provides the whole area a pleasant weather throughout the year.
The valley’s impossibly green surroundings and becalming beauty though hid an uncomfortable reality: the 35 or so notified tribes that inhabit here lived on the margins of poverty. Not surprisingly, it has been for long a part of the Red Corridor, wracked by governmental apathy and Naxal insurgency for decades.
Naandi’s initial foray into the region, in 2001, was propelled by a desire to leave behind a legacy, to create a sort of centerpiece project. Several associates of the Foundation had pointed Kumar towards Araku with the idea of making development an antidote to Naxalism. “Our initial work was in the area of maternal health and then looking after the children. That’s how I broke the ice with the people there — you save women’s lives and they become your friends for life,” he says, “We set up early childhood development centres and schools in a large number of places, over 500 of them. Many were conducted in the open, under trees. Then we converted them into early childhood government schools and handed it over to the government.”
Araku had a history of growing coffee. The iron-rich soil of the valley along with its high-altitude weather of warm days and cool nights makes the area ideal for the crop. The British brought coffee here in the early part of the last century setting up a few estates. But unlike the tea gardens elsewhere in the country, after Independence, these coffee estates were taken over by the state government. As a result, the estates remained what it always was, selling ordinary coffee, marketed by government agencies.
When Kumar first approached the state government with a plan to get the adivasis to grow coffee, he was warned about the many impediments he was likely to face. He was told that the adivasis were not interested in working and that they believed that the forest will look after them. As for growing coffee here, he was told that the adivasis are unlikely to have the patience to wait four to five years it takes for the harvest. Most of these of course were of typical Indian character stereotypes about forest dwellers. When he spoke to the farmers, Kumar had an entirely different experience. They had no issues with working hard, but they did not trust the state government. They were willing to work with Naandi, as long as the conditions were fair.
Kumar was quite clear from the beginning that all farming that he would help undertake in Araku would be sustainable, aimed at preserving the rich organic diversity of the region. He started the coffee project with just a few advasis, but by 2005 he had managed to convince nearly 1000 families to join, a large enough number for him to help them set up a cooperative to manage the farms. As things got more organised, more farmers joined in. Araku is a vast valley and the way it works here is that no outsiders are allowed to own or cultivate land here. The adivasis also don’t own the land they till, but are free to farm anywhere in the area and grow what they wish. They usually farm on small plots with their homes built nearby. For Kumar the task was to persuade them to shift to coffee cultivation and work with the cooperative. Five years later, by the time of the first big coffee harvest, the production was large enough for the cooperative to set up its own central processing unit to process the coffee beans.
Getting the adivasis to cultivate coffee and then come together to form a cooperative is only one part of Kumar’s success. The other equally important part was in acknowledging his lack of knowledge about coffee cultivation and bringing together a bunch of local and global experts to help the farmers do the right thing. As he told an interviewer not long ago “I believe it was the authenticity of my ignorance that won the world experts over.”
A key ally from the early days is David Hogg, who is now designated as the chief agricultural advisor to Naandi Foundation. Kumar first heard of him from Tata Trusts with whom he had worked in the past. A New Zealander, Hogg, is known in the agricultural circles for his ‘hermit-like’ lifestyle in Kodaikanal. An Indophile, he came to the country when he was 18, and lived at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry before moving to Kodaikanal after the death of the Mother in 1973. Now 69, he is famous for his expertise in an area of agriculture called Biodynamics. His own description of it is quite vivid: “As the name suggests, biodynamics is about life and energy. In biodynamic agriculture, we use natural biological processes that help achieve a balance and the right chemical make-up that living things need in order to grow. We only use compost made from locally sourced plant or animal waste, which gives the soil all the best microbiological matter it needs through the energy in natural microorganisms.” He is the founder of an organisation called Biodynamic Association of India.
Hogg’s expertise also extends to understanding India’s agricultural topography as well as the effects of planetary influence on farming. “I’m talking about a combination of biodynamic agriculture, Vedic agriculture and so on,” says Kumar. “When I first met him I told him, ‘Look, the only thing you do is conduct training for some 20 rich people from around the world every year. They learn and go back to their farms and may or may not apply the knowledge. If you come to Araku, we can democratise this knowledge. That’s how I convinced and brought him to Araku in 2007.”
Hogg’s idea of agriculture — sustainable and organic — its espousal of limited use of water, and thrust on the interconnectedness of things is, Kumar believes, the primary reason for high quality of the Araku coffee beans that the farmers produce. His approach from the start was very radical. He first asked the adivasis to get rid of the silver oak and other trees that grew on their farms and provided shade to the coffee trees, but were not native to the area. He argued that because they were alien to the area birds and bees refused to nest in them which resulted in the shortage of bird droppings and bee pollination which are essential ingredients for the growth of good quality coffee beans.
Once the harmful vegetation was cut, Hogg’s plan called for a massive new reforestation programme involving more than a dozen native trees. This required funds, but Kumar was up to the task. He used the knowledge, expertise and network of international corporate connections he had developed during his social enterprise days with foreign organizations. He devised an innovative barter arrangement where the carbon credits that Araku’s farmland ecosystem generates every year would be exchanged for funds. From his early days at Naandi he knew that the French yoghurt and food giant Danone took a keen interest in reforestation involving income generation schemes. He convinced the company to put together a consortium of dozen European corporates that were prepared to buy the Araku carbon credits in exchange for social sector funding.
“I told the adivasis that the Europeans believe that if you plant trees and look after them there will be rain everywhere, and that the Europeans wanted a letter from you stating that they can take credit for the rain that the Araku farmers helped create. They were very amused, but that helped raise the funds required for the reforestation drive,” he says. The reforestation drive has seen the plantation of as many as 23 million new trees in the last decade, all of them indigenous trees. For the coffee farmers, these trees like jamun, avocado, mango and pepper serve a variety of purposes. “Some became boundary trees, some are useful for timber, and some for fruits. They have over the years become a second source of income for them,” says Kumar. In addition, the coffee growers were encouraged to grow wild flowers like yellow dandelion to help develop a vibrant soil, and white yarrow for Sulphur and micronutrients.
Small and Marginal Tribal Farmers Mutually Aided Cooperative Society (SAMTFMACS), as the adivasi cooperative that Kumar helped set up is called, currently has over 25,000 farmer members, making it one of the largest fairtrade and organic certified coffee cooperative in the world. They cultivate coffee in 10,000 or so individual farms spread over 50,000 acres of land in and around 740 villages in the Araku Valley, makes it easily the largest organic coffee plantation in the world. Coffee production from the cooperative now exceeds over a 100 tonnes a year. Farmers here are constantly trained and re-trained in the finer aspects of organic farming including biomass composting, shade tree plantation and the right time and method to pick the coffee cherries. The idea is to better the quality of the coffee beans with every harvest. Besides the soil, cultivation methods, the weather, the small size of the farms and the fact that the farmers themselves hand pick the coffee cherries, are important elements in the growing stature of Araku coffee around the world.
Coffee is among the most traded commodity in the world, and the issue of the shamefully low amount of money that growers get from the global transactions is an increasingly controversial issue in many countries. A recent report in the Financial Times talked about the farmer’s share being less than 10 per cent of the global coffee price in most countries. In Araku though, because the farmers manage the cooperative themselves, their share of the sale price is as much as 80 %. An average farmer ends up making about Rs 2 to 3 lakh an acre annually, which is further supplemented by the income from the tree produce on their farm. As part of another innovation at Araku that Kumar introduced, the cooperative disburses the money to the farmers on a monthly basis rather than as a lump sum. “That way they are never out of cash. This is what Raichur taught me when working with small and marginal businessmen,” he says.
In his autobiography, An Unfinished Agenda: My Life in the Pharmaceuticals Industry, Naandi founder, Anji Reddy, had much to say about Kumar’s work: “It was not an easy task to sustain the effort at Araku. Coffee is a commodity and the second-most traded one in the world. The margins in the business are wafer-thin. Prices fluctuate but are usually unremunerative for the small grower. The export markets are perhaps better, but it is difficult to break into them and chain of intermediaries limit the benefit to the grower…Something radical needed to be done. Manoj…argued that the only way to increase returns to the coffee growers was to transform his produce from being a commodity to something special that would command a premium price.
“What were conventionally seen as weaknesses could be transformed into advantages. The coffee growers in Araku were too poor to think of pesticides, so the coffee was truly organic. Yields being poor, the supplies of coffee were limited, adding to its appeal of being special…Naandi’s trade practices would enable fair-trade certification, which would make Araku a preferred source for certain kinds of buyers. The story of the people who produced the coffee would be the clincher. All this, Manoj said, added up to an ideal branding opportunity, and potentially a substantial premium in price over commodity coffee beans. Fine organic coffee. Nature’s flavours from Araku. I swirled the phrases around in my head and savoured them.”
Araku coffee journeys through two institutions that Kumar helped set up and still manages. SAMTFMACS, the cooperative that cultivates and processes the coffee, and Araku Originals, a Naandi for-profit social enterprise subsidiary focused on providing end-to-end services to SAMTFMACS, including state-of-the-art biodynamic farming techniques and processing, and equally important, the marketing of the coffee around the world. “The farmers sell coffee to their own co-operative, and we at Naandi buy it from the cooperative. The cooperative is run by a board of 30 Adivasis. They are not legally bound to sell the coffee only to me,” says Kumar
Besides being a premium Arabica coffee, what Araku produces is ‘specialty coffee’, a high-end premium coffee that until recently was grown only on small farms in countries like Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya. In the rarefied world of coffee connoisseurs ‘specialty coffee’ refers to the highest quality coffee money can buy anywhere in the world. The American high-end roaster Royal Cup Coffee calls it the ‘best of the best’ on their website, a term that should be used for ‘no more than 10% of Arabica Coffee beans in existence. And no Robusta’.
Specialty coffee constitutes less than 5 percent of the $ 200 billion world coffee trade. One of the reasons for this is the fact that to be called ‘specialty’ the coffee has to score 80 points or more on a 100 point scale during an official ‘coffee cupping’ or tasting sessions by experts sent by the Specialty Coffee Association, a worldwide non-profit, member-based body. Additionally, according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, the tag of Specialty Coffee is given only to coffee that is produced at “… the appropriate intersection of cultivar, microclimate, soil chemistry and husbandry.” Of course, for Kumar and his team at Araku. this social and environmental dimension was always at the core of what they did.
With consistent official cupping-based gradation of 80 points of more, Araku is now ensured a seat at the high table of global high-end coffee makers. By 2017, Kumar felt confident enough not just to export the coffee to the most prestigious European markets, but also to open the first Araku Cafe and store in the heart of Paris on rue de Bretagne in the fashionable Marais district of the French capital. Why Paris before India? “It was important for us to establish our credentials successfully in the culinary capital of the world,” he says, “After that going anywhere else would be much easier.” A year later, in early 2018, Araku won a gold medal for the best coffee pod at the prestigious Prix Epicures OR 2018 awards in Paris. The coffee is now available at more than 50 outlets all over France.
It was on Hogg’s advice that Kumar originally took the premium route with Araku Coffee. He was the one who introduced Kumar to the world of specialty coffee and the Specialty Coffee Association. “He wanted us to raise the quality of the beans to the level of those produced by specialty coffee beans grown in countries like Ethiopia and Rwanda. That way, he told us, we would be able to attract the snobbish buyers who pay obscene prices for specialty coffee, to come to India as well.”
Taking this cue, Kumar approached one of India’s best-known coffee experts for help – Bangalore-based Sunalini Menon, Asia’s first woman coffee taster and founder of Coffeelab, which evaluates and advises growers on quality. After signing her up to work on improving the quality of Araku’s coffee, Kumar himself travelled around the world — “to coffee-geek places such as Norway, Japan and Sweden” — to learn more about the way people drank specialty coffee, and to seek advice from more experts on everything ranging from agriculture, soil conditions, handpicking of coffee beans, roasting, brewing, cupping, etc.
He persuaded many of them to head to Araku for help and advice. Hippolyte Courty, a French vinologist-turned-coffee expert and the owner of Paris’s famous L’Arbre à Café, was among the earliest to come, in 2013. He helped out in each stage of the coffee cultivation process to upgrade quality. He has a threefold mission. On the plantation, he identified the finest terroirs and helped farmers use the most appropriate coffee farming techniques. After harvest, he performed quality checks and taste tests, and supervised each stage of the coffee cherry’s transformation into green coffee. He created each Araku coffee blend and developed their roasting profile. And at the company’s facilities and shops, he explained the art of brewing coffee and conducted tasting events.
Employing his vineyard experience, and based on factors such as pH level, acidity, and alkalinity of the soil, Courty divided the Araku farms into different terroirs on the lines of what is done on wine estates in France and other countries. And based on the terroirs, he classified Araku coffee into six varieties — Signature, Selection, Grand Reserve, Micro Climate, High Altitude and Early Harvest, each with a distinct body, aroma and taste.
It took almost four years to divide every parcel of land into homogenous clusters. But it had the distinct benefit of Araku being known around the world as a terroir-based coffee. “I can now tell you which farm grows each of the variety,” Kumar says. And like Courty, many other experts make periodic trips to Araku to advise on a variety of areas. “These were the guys who would come, cup, and then tell me about the idiosyncratic ways of making it world class.” The advice ranged from handpicking only the perfect red cherries, to separating cherries of similar size and ripeness into different batches and processing them separately, drying the cherries in the sun rather than using industrial blowers.
With so much expertise going into the cultivation and production of the coffee, it is not surprising that Araku coffee continues to score consistently high marks in annual cupping ceremonies. At the most recent one in Hyderabad in March this year involving 10 international judges, a staggering 70 percent of the coffee got world record scores. Grand Reserve scored an average of 90.5 out of 100, with two judges giving it scores of 92. Only the best coffee that scores at least 84 out of 100 goes into the coffee packs that are sold in Europe, America, and now in India.
The consistently good grading of the Araku coffee by international experts and the resultant publicity is essential for Kumar as he prepares for the next stage of Araku’s growth — to market and sell the coffee in India. Indians have been drinking coffee since the time when Sufi saint Baba Budan brought seven coffee beans from the Yemeni port of Mocha in 1600 AD on his way back home from Haj and planted them in Chikmagalur. Mass cultivation began with the arrival of the Dutch and then British in South India a few hundred years ago. But specialty coffee like that of Araku though will be a relatively new experience in the country.
Earlier this year Araku Originals began marketing and selling four of their varieties, Signature, Selection, Micro Climate, and Grand Reserve online, through the company website, along with expensive specially designed brewing equipment like Mokapots and French Press. The initial response, Kumar, says has been encouraging. With prices that are much higher than what others have been selling at (Grand Reserve sells for as much as Rs 3400 a kilo) there is no doubt that it will take some time for Araku to develop a market for their specialty coffee.
Towards this effort Kumar has taken on the task of spreading what is called ‘coffeeology’ or rituals and practices that go with the art of appreciating fine coffee in the country, much like one would do with wine and single malt. He has got the best people in place to help him do this. Andrew Delgado, an award winning brew master from Honduras, is Araku’s Chief Brewmaster and Roaster. Sherri Johns, an American coffee expert, is designated as the Coffee Mentor and as Head Judge. Besides conducting Araku’s official cupping sessions with international experts, she travels around the country talking and doing coffee tasting and appreciation sessions for potential customers among the well-heeled in the major cities. “My focus is to educate the diverse Indian market on the nuances of specialty coffee,” she told Outlook magazine in an interview recently, “Over the past year, I have conducted numerous cupping and brewing sessions for select consumers in various cities. I was pleasantly surprised to see the coffee boom in India, with people across cities showing interest in high-quality coffee. Araku has given me the opportunity to shake and stir the vibrant Indian coffee market by offering not just the world’s best coffee, but also introducing Coffeeology – which is the art of enhancing the coffee experience.”
Kumar’s bigger move though will come in the next few months when Araku Originals will launch its large 6600 sq. ft cafe and roastery in Bangalore. A small one has already been functional at Q-Mart in Hyderbad’s Gachibowli serving a range of coffees. But the Bangalore one, in Kumar’s words, will be a ‘disruptive’ one, much like a premium restaurant. It is to be followed with one in Mumbai. With so much happening, it would seem that Kumar has his hands full. But apparently not. He still finds time as the head of Naandi Foundation to try and replicate the Araku organic farming model in places like Vidarbha in Maharashtra.
Instead of coffee, this time he is working with pomegranates. In early July, when he visited the farms in Vidharbha, the harvest season had just begun. “All the trees were ready with bountiful fruit,” he says. “However, one has to remember that it took us five to six years of harvest in Araku to reach the top potential despite it being a virgin area with no chemicals. For a chemically abused region like Wardha on the other hand, we may need to wait another year to reach the standards we aspire for.”
Good pomegranates and gourmet coffee though is incidental in Kumar’s larger scheme of things, and he is characteristically modest about what he has achieved so far. “Twenty years from now, for me, Araku would be a greater achievement than my coffee story if it becomes an agricultural success story and a climate change reversal bio reserve,” he says, “Coffee is a good conversation starter, that’s all.”