While Black Baza is deeply focused on conserving biodiversity, what defines the brand is its wisdom to recognise farmers as the axis of the coffee business.
It’s an early October afternoon and some coffee cherries in Kethegowda’s farm in Biligirirangana Betta (BR Hills) wear a tint of red—an indication that they’re ripening. Quite unusual for coffee cherries to ripen earlier than December, which is the picking season. This, Arshiya says, is now becoming increasingly and disturbingly familiar to coffee farmers. “Climate change is the only explanation,” she says, turning to Kethegowda for confirmation. He agrees that it is a new problem in coffee farms in Karnataka. Farmers are worried about unseasonal rains and floods, and the absence of sun during flowering and (cherry) picking months.
Arshiya Bose is the founder of Black Baza, a specialty coffee brand with its base in southern India. We are at Muttugadagadde village settlement, a Soliga settlement in BR Hills with two Soliga farmers, Kethegowda and Sannarangegowda. The Soligas, or Sholagas, are an ethnic group with origins dating back to 800-2000 BC. Black Baza works with indigenous coffee farmers—394 Soliga farmers in BR Hills who are their main producers—apart from procuring coffee from Aadhimalai Pazhangudiyinar Producer Company Limited, an indigenous farmer producer organisation in the Nilgiris, and Fair Trade Alliance, Kerala.
Founded five years ago, Black Baza has slowly grown to represent consciousness in coffee consumption. The brand achieved this by going beyond the vendibility of keywords like ‘organic’ or ‘sustainable’ in the marketing landscape. While Black Baza is all these, what defines the brand is its wisdom to recognise farmers as the axis of the coffee business.
Keeping farmers at the forefront
On its website, Black Baza says (in bold) that they are an ‘activist company’. Time and again, the company has disrupted existing systems for equity, says Arshiya. Once during its fledgling days, local traders, disgruntled with the steep hike at procurement price that Black Baza offered its producers (56 percent more than market price), took away the hand pulpers they had provided the farmers. “We were left with a lot of Arabica cherries that had no way to be pulped. We had to find a market for it. But we stood firmly behind our decision,” she says. As an interesting spillover, the local traders had to fall in line, hike up their price too, to stay in the business, eventually benefitting the farmers.
Black Baza continues to pay more than the market price to farmers, but it stands at 34 percent now due to market variabilities. Sannarangegowda says, “There were three individuals here who bought coffee from us. We were forced to sell at a price they quoted. Those days, if the market price was Rs 150 per kilo, the traders would inevitably buy it from us for Rs 100. We also noticed the difference in weight while weighing our produce. If we had five kilos, the trader would say it’s only three kilos and buy our five kilos at three kilos. We lived through this unfair system for about 15 years until Black Baza came.”
The company took many similar decisions over time in favour of farmers. “Whether it required speaking truth to authority or questioning them, we’ve done that,” says Arshiya. They have also handheld tribal farmers through various documentation processes required to gain land rights and forest rights. “When the farmer protests started last year, we shut our offices and stood in solidarity with the Fair Trade Alliance in Kerala and issued a letter in support of the farmers,” she adds. Black Baza also conducts workshops regularly for farmers to better their produce, and also helped set up the first farmer producer society in BR Hills.
In return, Arshiya’s journey as a radical coffee seller is catalysed and sustained by the farmers she works with. A little more than a decade ago, Arshiya, a social scientist, was trudging the Western Ghats and talking to coffee farmers to understand the impact of certification on farming for her PhD thesis. An ardent tea-drinker then, she had not had a taste for coffee. Neither had she had an aptitude for business. She dived into coffee-selling out of a sense of responsibility towards the farmers she studied who asked her if she would do anything to improve their lives after she finished her studies.
Biodiversity as its main focus
Black Baza’s popularity rides primarily on its efforts to conserve biodiversity to make coffee farming sustainable, apart from clever packaging and of course, the quality and the taste of coffee. Conserving biodiversity is one way to increase the carbon storage potential of soil, making it more nutritious and reducing carbon emissions. Working with indigenous farmers is a conscious decision to achieve this. These tribal farmers are predominantly small landholders with an average landholding of about 1.5 acres. So interconnected are their lifeways with the forest system that their farming practices are sustainable by default.
As we speak, Kethegowda is frantically adjusting his phone camera to capture us in conversation while Sannarangegowda jokes about his newfound love for documentation. Both the farmers have jointly started Kaadina Makkalu, a YouTube Channel that documents their farming methods, conservation work, traditional knowledge, to name a few. The farmers hope to inspire other farmers to take up sustainable farming through this channel which is now four episodes young.
At the time of its launch, Black Baza developed a conservation manifesto applicable to all farmer-producers of the brand. While biodiversity continues to be the main focus of the brand, the manifesto has evolved over a period of time to keep farmers at the forefront of the decision-making process in conservation, trusting their historical knowledge of farming and the landscape.
“We don’t want to work around a fixed number of trees or anything (as a part of conservation) anymore. We are an alternative to a certification model, developing this as a project with National Geographic Society as a collective farming practice rather than a top-down model. That’s the difference between how we were before and how we are now,” explains Arshiya. Now, they ask the producers what they want to conserve in their farms apart from certain species that Black Baza has identified as needing conservation efforts.
“Four trees we focus our conservation efforts on in BR Hills are Nerale (jamun) mara, Neelalu (Bishops Wood) mara, Athi (cluster fig) mara and Bikilu (Ceylon olive) mara. Birds are Kottupilya (bulbul) and Kutrakki (barbet), apart from bees and earthworms. Among mammals, it’s the barking deer (called Kaadukuri in local parlance),” she says. Once the species are identified, Black Baza engages the producers in developing farming practices favourable to the conservation of these species. The producers are also encouraged to observe the species and document them.
This shift in focus on species is new, but Black Baza is certain it’s the direction that they want to take because coffee flourishes under native trees. The leaf litter of some native species adds value to a coffee farm, and these tree species are found to support the entire ecosystem chain and provide many ecological services. “Many of these trees provide good canopy cover, so the coffee doesn’t dry out in summer. We look at ecological indicators, but also consider what is valuable for coffee as well as the farmers,” says Arshiya.
Despite the laurels for her efforts, Arshiya admits that venturing into an all-boys club of business owners and traders hasn’t been particularly smooth. Often outpowered and kept out of the loop or denied access to information, and sometimes even threatened and bullied, she has had a rough ride. At the same time, it is probably the sensitivity that she brings into the business as a woman that has radicalised her coffee and defined labour at Black Baza.
“I’m still learning to deal with changes,” says Arshiya, confessing that she has no particular strategies to deal with various challenges in business and in life, and is open to more learning and growth. “Like my coffee brand, I’m evolving too, as a person and as a businesswoman.”
Arathi Menon is an independent journalist based in Mysore, Karnataka. She writes on issues related to climate change, environment and gender.