Timorese Specialty Coffee and working through COVID-19; A farmers perspective

With the coffee harvest due to start in Timor-Leste at the end of May, we at Karst Organics should be packing our suitcases and setting out to join our partner farmers in preparation for the first cherries to be picked and for processing to begin. With the UK under lockdown, borders closed and Timor-Leste extending a National State of Emergency until the 26th May, it seems unlikely that this will happen for the moment at least.

With global uncertainty in the coffee sector, we took the opportunity to speak with Karst Organics’ lead partner farmer and head of the Rotutu cooperative – Francisco de Deus, about the successes and challenges of the coffee industry in Timor-Leste and how the current situation could potentially affect 2020’s coffee harvest and impact the lives of farmers, their families and communities in general.

Situated in South East Asia with Australia to the South, Timor-Leste holds the unenviable accolade of being one of the few countries in the world to have been both colonised and annexed; colonised by Portugal from 1600s to 1975 and annexed by Indonesia from 1975 to 1999. Having finally gained independence in 2001, Timor-Leste is the world’s second youngest nation state and still finding its feet in the geo-political world of the 21st century. Coffee was introduced to the island by the Portuguese and went on to become the country’s leading export by the 1900s, however the industry suffered greatly during the years of Indonesian annexation when the sector was largely ignored. 

It was in 1995, towards the end of Indonesian rule in Timor-Leste, that Francisco de Deus inherited his farm from his grandparents. Nestled high in the mountains of the central highlands of the country in the district of Ermera, conditions are ideal for coffee harvesting with warm, blue skies during the day and cool evenings at night allowing for consistent growing and processing conditions. Francisco recalls, ‘I always knew that I would one day return to work in Letefoho to work on the family farm and it was not long after I took over harvesting responsibilities from my grandfather that more coffee exporters came to Timor-Leste. This motivated many farmers to once again look to coffee as a potential sustainable source of income’

Francisco’s story is one of many in Timor-Leste. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates that coffee is grown by approximately a third of all households and that, with the right investment, this sector has the potential to play a vital role in the country’s development. In addition, World Bank research has shown that chemical pesticides and fertilisers have never been used in most coffee producing areas, making Timorese coffee truly wild and organic, a fact that Francisco is very proud of. ‘We work hard to produce the best quality coffee and although the methods we use are time consuming, they’re worthwhile. I have heard about how chemicals can be used to improve production but we believe that Mother Nature has already provided the best conditions to grow coffee. We also have better processing facilities now which we would not have been able to construct ourselves without external support and we know that this improvement in processing has brought our coffee to a quality that can compete in the international speciality sector.’

Francisco’s thoughts on improved processing reiterate those of the ADB’s on the need for investment in certain areas of production to truly realise the potential of Timorese coffee as a speciality origin. Unfortunately, investment in agriculture has not been prioritised by the government with only 1 percent of the 2019 state budget afforded to this sector (when compared to the 33% allocated to the development of off shore oil and gas reserves, it is clear where the government’s priorities lie). With over 67% of Timor-Leste’s population living in rural areas and being mainly dependent on agriculture for their source of income, investment in the coffee sector (the country’s most dominant crop) would seem like a good starting point to tackle the country’s current youth unemployment, a point that Francisco agrees with; ‘Almost every stage of coffee processing is very labour intensive, from planting and harvesting to the drying process and then sorting and packaging. The potential for jobs is immediate’, he comments. ‘Most investment in the coffee sector since independence, has come from not for profit organisations or private companies brave enough to support us with a belief in the potential of our coffee, but this has been limited.’

As with most people around the world right now, Francisco deliberates on the need to safeguard the health and well-being of his countrymen and the potential economic fallout and future problems the Timorese will face because of Covid-19. The Timorese government acted swiftly in responding to the outbreak and a State of Emergency was declared in March with the land border closed to Indonesia and all air travel suspended in and out of the country with the exception of emergency flights to and from Darwin. This decisive response seems to have contained any immediate spread of the virus and government statistics state that as of May 1st, there had been a total of 24 confirmed cases with no deaths.

Francisco reflects on the last 5-weeks, ‘When the State of Emergency was announced, the Timorese people knew that measures would need to be put in place to protect any spread of the illness. We know that our health system could not cope with a pandemic similar to what we are hearing about in Europe. This initially caused some people in the capital to panic buy essentials, but supply is ok at the moment in Dili. However, life is very different for people living in the rural areas of Timor-Leste. The government has temporarily shutdown all public transport in the country which serves as a lifeline for farmers to get their goods to market and sell their produce, as well as buying essentials such as rice. Everybody in our rural communities is worried about the future and what will happen if the government has to extend the current lockdown and I have already heard that in the more remote areas of Ermera, people are struggling to provide food for their families.’ (Since speaking with Francisco, some public transport services have resumed in the capital, Dili.)

Francisco leading a pre-harvest processing training session

Francisco’s concerns are not without statistical backing and in 2019, Timor-Leste was deemed to be the 8th hungriest nation in the world according to the Global Hunger Index (GHI). The GHI states that a third of the population of Timor-Leste suffers chronic food insecurity and according to the government’s agriculture and fisheries minister, this figure rises to between 55-58% in the coffee producing region of Ermera, where Francisco’s farm is located and the region in which around 50% of Timorese coffee is grown. ‘We are all very worried about the financial implications if we can’t sell our coffee this year’, he tells me, ‘if the lockdown measures continue it could affect the ability to transport our parchment down from the mountains for hulling and sorting. If international buyers are not able to export from Timor-Leste then we are worried that they will not buy from us. This will almost certainly have a direct impact on farmers being able to provide food for their families.’

Currently Karst Organics is working remotely with Francisco to ensure that we can continue our partnership with the Rotutu cooperative and fulfil our commitment to buy their coffee whilst also ensuring the health and safety of the farmers, their families and the communities at large. The global pandemic is an incredibly complex issue and as with all countries, it is not a simple choice between protecting people’s health or saving an economy. It seems that Covid-19 will be with us worldwide for the immediate future so finding a way to work in the ‘new normal’, is imperative right now, a point that Francisco agrees with. ‘The government of Timor-Leste must take action to protect its people from hunger and not become victims of the consequences that could materialise as a result of the current state of emergency. They also need to consider the country‘s economy and ensure the livelihoods of Timorese farmers. We hope that the government will support the coffee industry in these difficult times and communicate with the private sector in sharing information and knowledge on how we can all work together.’

Although Timor-Leste is only 17-years old, it is growing up quickly and its complicated history has made it incredibly resilient and tough. Whilst Covid-19 will become yet another another hurdle that the coffee farmers of Timor-Leste will learn to overcome, now more than ever, it is important that the coffee community shows solidarity and finds ways to continue to work together. I will leave the final word to Francisco, ‘I want to say thank you for all those people in the UK who have supported Rotutu coffee and Timor-Leste as a new origin. We know we are a small country and new to the speciality sector, but we are constantly learning about better processing techniques and plant rehabilitation so we are confident that the quality of the coffee will remain high and continue to improve. I hope all of you, your families and friends stay safe and well in these difficult times. Obrigado barak no ate logu!’

Karst Organics – freshly roasted coffee available now!

To celebrate and share our huge achievement of completing our first coffee season here in Timor-Leste, for a limited period only, our coffee loving friends in Dili will be able to purchase Karst Organics roasted coffee in stores now.

Lovingly roasted by our good friend Omar, a great coffee roaster and barista at Letefoho Cafe, our coffee is available to purchase from select locations in Dili – Centro Supermercado, Pateo Supermarket and at our good friend Fatima’s cafe.

Having been involved in every step of the process, we are proud to be able to see our coffee on sale in the shops, knowing that all profits earned will be donated back to the coffee community in Letefoho, from which the coffee comes from, to contribute towards supporting local projects within healthcare and education.

This is a limited quantity only, so be sure to stop by one of the select locations and pick up some Karst Organics Speciality Arabica Coffee.

Support Karst Organics and help to make a difference.

2019 Coffee Harvest; Done!

2019 has been a big year for Karst Organics what with it being our first year to export coffee out of Timor-Leste.

Having experienced a whole coffee harvest in Timor, we are excited and proud to be able to say that we ourselves have been personally involved in the processing of the coffee every step of the way, from picking the cherries all the way through to hand sorting the processed green beans.

It has definitely been a great experience to be able to see the whole process of how the coffee cherry is processed to produce the delicious coffee that we all know and love. Coffee processing is probably one of THE most labour intensive jobs that we have ever experienced.

Sadly those who work within the coffee industry will know that coffee prices at origin are debilitatingly low and are continuing to decline day after day. Without getting first hand experience of what is actually involved in processing coffee, I don’t think you could ever quite appreciate what it is like. Following this past harvest, we definitely have a new appreciation for all coffee farmers around the world, and believe that they truly are the most important part of the supply chain who deserve to be rewarded and paid fairly for their amazing work. This is of course the main goal for Karst Organics; to ensure that the farmers are the ones who benefit the most from their coffee, empowering them to take control of their own livelihoods to become more self-sufficient.

We came across a few stumbling blocks along the way but now that the coffee is on the boat making it’s long journey to the UK, we are really excited to be able to introduce Timorese coffee to you – the coffee lovers.

The coffee harvest has begun!

With the beginning of the coffee harvest here in Timor-Leste, things are well on their way with our farmers, picking and processing only the ripest of red cherries to enable us to produce the delicious coffee that we have all grown to love.

Sorting for the ripest cherries

Working direct with a small cooperative farmer group, processing is centralised at our central processing facility based at the farm of Francisco de Deus. By centralising all processing here, we will be able to ensure that the level of quality and consistency can be maintained across the full crop of coffee from all the members of the group.

Picking up coffee cherries from one of the farmers with our little helper

Processing coffee is no easy feat, as I have learned first hand from spending time in Letefoho with our farmers, working hard to pick, sort and process the coffee. Processing has to be done on the same day as the cherries were picked to ensure that only the ripest cherries are processed and to avoid any over fermentation from the cherries being stored for extended periods of time.

Fully washed coffee beans drying on African beds

We are excited to cup the first samples off the drying racks for the new 2019 harvest, especially as we have trialled some natural and honey processed coffees in addition to the widely used fully washed method.

Left – right: Natural, honey and fully washed coffee beans

Coffee Processing Training with the ACTL

With the imminent start of the coffee harvest, the Asosiasaun Coffee Timor-Leste (ACTL) implemented a new coffee processing training program in order to further support the coffee farmers of Timor-Leste. This gave us a great opportunity to bring all the Karst Organics farmers together to take part in the training.

Over the course of two days, based at our central processing facility in Letefoho, all areas of coffee processing were covered to give the farmers the opportunity to run through the best practices in order to ensure that the coffee produced is of the highest quality.

With each step of the process being as important as the next, each step can and will contribute towards the final flavour of the coffee which ends up in your cup.

Starting at the beginning, focus was placed on the picking of the correct cherries to ensure that only the ripest, sweetest and plumpest cherries are harvested each day. Floating is a necessity in order to remove any under or over ripe cherries, as well as any beans which may have been eaten by insects.

Heading off to find some cherries

Luckily, as our harvest in Letefoho is about to begin, there was an abundance of cherry available in order to carry out examples of each of the three different processing methods for coffee – natural, honey and fully washed.

Freshly picked ripe cherries
Examples of natural and honey processed coffees

We were also able to show the farmers that by using a refractometer, you can measure the sugar content of the cherries to determine when is the optimum time to harvest, and what colour cherry is the best one to pick.

Having all the farmers together also gave the perfect opportunity to introduce them to the concept of coffee cupping. Timorese people drink coffee as part of their every day life, however coffee is normally drunk with the addition of several spoons of sugar. By introducing the concept of cupping and having the farmers go through the process of smelling the aromas and then tasting the different coffees, the farmers were able to understand more clearly how different processing methods affect the development of flavour profiles. (From our small cupping practice we found that the majority of our farmers preferred the taste of a natural processed coffee, much like myself!)

The training was very informative and a great opportunity for all our farmers to experience the full coffee experience.

Now we just have to wait for a few weeks to allow the beans to dry, after which we can roast and cup them together with our farmers so that they too can see how the flavour profiles differ for each processing method.

Our Farmers

Following a recent visit to Letefoho, we were able to meet up with some of the farmers in the co-operative group from whom we are sourcing our amazing coffee beans.

It was a great opportunity for everyone to sit together and discuss plans for the upcoming coffee harvest, and how, by working together we will strive to produce the highest quality coffee beans possible.

Discussing the plans for the upcoming coffee harvest
Nestled within the coffee plantation, the storage warehouse is now complete, ready to store all those sacks of delicious coffee beans
Inside the storage warehouse

Working through direct trade has always been the most important factor for Karst Organics. Ensuring that the farmers are receiving the best prices for their coffee, which in return will help them to maintain, rehabilitate and expand their coffee farms, whilst also supporting their families and the local community.

We can therefore have a piece of mind, knowing that we are doing our part in aiding the improvement and development of the coffee sector in Timor-Leste, with full transparency and traceability of the complete supply chain of our coffee beans from seed to cup.

The art of coffee triangulation

As part of the Dili Coffee Cupping Club that the guys from Kape Diem Coffee Lab have set up, we’re not only indulging our love of coffee by cupping as many different coffees as we can get our hands on, but we are also having fun in testing our sensory skills through the art of triangulation.

Cupping is all about being able to taste the coffee and pick out the different aromas and flavour notes of a given coffee, whilst seeing whether there is balance between the acidity and sweetness to give an overall quality coffee. It also allows you to be able to pick out any defects which may be present within the beans themselves, and whether there is consistency of flavour across each cup.

The cupping table

This takes skill and a lot of practice in order to be able to sense and taste the subtle flavours within a given coffee.

Another way to have fun whilst further honing your skills is through coffee triangulation. This is where you get a set of 3 cups, two of which contain the same coffee and the third being different in some way. This tends to be through adding a small percentage of another coffee into the bean mix to change the flavour of the coffee slightly.

A coffee triangulation set up
And so it begins…
Who is right?

The goal is to smell and taste the different cups to determine which one is the odd one out.

Sometimes it is glaringly obvious and other times it’s not. It’s all part of the fun!

Let’s just say that I will continue to have ‘fun’ with it 😉

Have you tried carbonic macerated coffee yet?

For the past few weeks, we have been joining forces with the guys from the Kape Diem Coffee Lab here in Dili, who have taken the initiative to set up a coffee cupping club so that us like minded coffee enthusiasts can get together to talk about and cup coffee!

We’ve only had 4 sessions so far, but its been a great opportunity to cup some coffee from other origins outside of Timor-Leste.

In a recent session, we had the privilege to try some coffees produced using carbonic maceration, as the guys from Kape Diem had managed to get their hands on some great coffees from none other than the Coffee Man himself – Sasa Sestic. The coffees from both Ona Coffee and Project Origin were some of the most amazing coffees we’ve tried with lots of fragrant aromas and sweetness in the cup.

We sampled the Ona Coffee Nicaragua Jasper 1316 and the Panama Jasper Stratus, and an Ethiopian Kochere 0301. Each of these coffees have been tried and tested, developed using the carbonic maceration fermentation method.

For those of you who are wondering what carbonic maceration is, then let me explain. Carbonic Maceration is more widely known within the wine making community however is now gaining strong traction in coffee production thanks to Mr Sestic, which he highlighted during his 2015 World Barista Championships win with a coffee produced using this method.

Carbonic maceration is a method used during the fermentation stage of processing, where the beans are left to ferment anaerobically (without oxygen) however as an additional step to the process, the container is also flushed with carbon dioxide before fermentation begins. This helps to create more aromatic complexity with a lower concentration of acetic acid and higher levels of sweetness.

Now, I’ve seen and heard a lot of people talking about Carbonic Maceration but have never had the opportunity to try any coffees produced in this way, until now. And boy, I can tell you, it was well worth the wait – these coffees were delicious.

They have definitely been the standouts in the cupping sessions so far, and I definitely look forward to hopefully getting my hands on some more so that I can savour those sweet flavours again.

Perhaps Karst Organics needs to look into whether its possible to do some carbonic maceration on our coffee beans here in Timor-Leste too….watch this space….. 😉

Hello again!

It’s been a good few months since I last updated everyone on what’s been happening, but with the rainy season well and truly here, things have been pretty slow moving whilst we wait for the cherries to ripen and the rain to disperse before we can head up to the coffee farms again.

Driving into the districts can be treacherous in Timor-Leste during rainy season so it’s best not to risk it!

Yes, this used to be a road before the rain!

So, what have we been up to…as of this moment, we have been working closely with the farmers to ensure that they have the best facilities which will allow them to produce the best coffee possible. In order to facilitate this, construction of a storage warehouse has been completed which will allow better storage conditions to reduce the risk of the parchment degrading whilst waiting for transportation to Dili for further hulling and sorting before shipment is arranged.

Building anything in Timor-Leste can be challenging at the best of times, but this is ten times more difficult in the districts. Materials need to be transported from the main cities by truck along the narrow and winding roads which traverse the mountains housing the different districts which make up this small country.

The storage warehouse is located right next to the coffee plantation and will also house a wet mill processing area so that we can ensure that the coffee beans are processed in the correct way to produce consistent high quality coffee throughout the whole harvest.

Clearing the site

Putting in the foundations

Building the frame


And we have a roof!

Storage warehouse…done! 🙂

Next step is to begin constructing the wet mill processing facility in March (hopefully) once the rain has dissipated.

Keep an eye on our blog to see how the construction progresses and how things improve for the new harvest which is due to begin at the end of May.

Festival Kafe Timor 2018 Timor-Leste Quality Coffee Competition

Exciting times were had during the 2018 Timor-Leste Quality Coffee Competition during the Festival Kafe Timor event.

A huge congratulations to our good friend Ameta who won the whole competition, going against 86 other coffee entries with his delicious natural processed Arabica coffee from Atsabe, scoring a whopping 86 points on the SCA scoring scale.

Watch this space for future opportunities to purchase his coffee!

Check out the photos below to see some of the highlights from the competition. 

Let’s work together to make sure that Timor-Leste secures it’s rightful spot on the coffee map!