By Angel B. Dukha III
The T’Boli tribe in South Cotabato, Mindanao are known for their heritage of weaving T’Nalak, a sacred fabric for the tribe with designs inspired by their dreams. However, they are also huge growers of coffee varieties robusta and arabica.
On a visit to the mountainous regions of T’Boli municipality in said province, entrepreneur and consultant Jojo Joson noticed the abundance of arabica coffee growing in the wild and realized that no one was cultivating it. He saw the coffee’s potential in both quality and taste, which inspired him to see if he could utilize its potential.
Farmers of the tribe have focused on robusta coffee plants for a long time because it was what the market demanded, even though arabica trees also grow in their area. Its cherries were not harvested because they thought there was no income from it.
By that time, Jojo was already immersing himself in farming, which he considers a “semi-retirement plan.” He was already working with farmers and rural communities and growing bananas in the province, until he found T’Boli’s arabica.
Since he saw the quality of T’Boli’s arabica coffee beans, he encouraged the farmers to boost its production, promising to purchase their yield. Jojo took it upon himself to encourage the farming community to undergo training in post-production processing of coffee and the proper care of coffee trees.
Arabica in the wild
This particular arabica coffee plant is a sub variety called catimor, which grows up to 1,200-1,300 meters above sea level spread throughout seven different sitios. The fields that they cultivate belongs to the tribe itself; an ancestral domain for the indigenous T’Boli people.
The coffee berries are shade-grown, carefully hand-picked when ripe to preserve the trees, and directly traded from the farmers. Because coffee trees grow freely in the area, coffee is cultivated following natural procedures and without synthetic pesticides.
Robusta coffee possess stronger and harsher flavor with a nutty taste, often containing a higher caffeine value and can be grown easier as it is “more robust” compared to arabica, which has a lighter, sweeter, and fruitier taste.
Fortunately, the farmers took on the challenge and Jojo eventually got the quality coffee beans he wanted. However, the remoteness of the area raised another challenge for him.
The farmers harvest from October to January, providing Jojo with ripe coffee cherries. He buys coffee directly from the farmers, upfront and with no middleman involved.
T’Boli municipality is a remote town and reaching the area is difficult, and involves a hike. The seven sitios alone where the 75 farmer-families who grow the coffee reside are around four to five hours away from each other while the municipality itself is an hour and a half to two hour drive from General Santos City, which is a two-hour flight from Manila.
“Because the area was so difficult to reach, production and logistics was also extra laborious—but the taste of the coffee alone had a huge potential,” Jojo’s daughter Larissa Joson said.
Jojo makes arrangements to take the beans down the mountains to General Santos, where they are delivered to Manila via air freight so transportation expenses will not be deducted from the farmers’ income.
Turning a dream into reality
Now that Jojo has the coffee beans, he had to find a way to sell the product. He asked for the help of his daughter Larissa, or Iya, 28, because of her background as a media practitioner.
Jojo and Iya established The Dream Coffee (TDC) in 2017 to introduce T’Boli coffee to the market and support farmers and their families to help them realize their importance.
They want the farmers to experience the huge market for high-quality coffee, as well as the sustainable livelihood they can obtain from growing and producing excellent coffee, which they can pass onto the next generation. Ultimately, their goal is to establish T’Boli as one of the suppliers of Philippine coffee.
The Josons’ pilot customers were their family and friends, who welcomed the coffee with positive feedback. This gave them hope and the much needed push to officially launch TDC through retail and its own website.
The name and product packaging of TDC is inspired by the designs of the colorful and intricate T’Nalak cloth, which encapsulates the tribe’s rich culture of weaving.
TDC offers two variants of arabica coffee products which are roasted whole beans for people who like strong and fresh flavors and who like to grind their own coffee, and also pre-ground beans for folks who want to just brew and drink.
The Dream Coffee’s products gives drinkers “notes of caramel and strong dark chocolate in aroma and flavor,” said Iya. “TDC coffee boasts of consistently high quality coffee which is single estate and single origin Philippine arabica from our farmer brothers in T’Boli.”
Once the coffee beans arrive in Manila, TDC processes them using honey or semi-washing. This process means fresh coffee cherries are de-pulped and dried without washing. While most of the fruit will be removed, the golden and sticky mucilage, which resembles honey, will remain.
Honey processing uses less water and allows the producers to process coffee faster for a fresher batch of coffee. Since T’Boli is a remote area, the amount of water supply is not ideal for full washing.
She added that customers started to drink pure black coffee after experiencing the “dream-like” taste that they offer, and also do not experience acidity in their stomach even drinking cup after cup.
Iya also recently finished her coffee cupping essentials course in Davao, which gave her knowledge on coffee grading, ensuring green bean quality and coffee quality.
Business with an advocacy
“To say that bridging those distances takes a lot of effort is an understatement. We are grateful that more infrastructure and road networks will be poured into T’Boli in the coming years, but right now, what helps us is empowering leaders in the community to consolidate green beans and to teach them the right harvest and post-harvest processes, so that they can be the ones to teach and impart to some of hardest-to-reach farmers,” Iya stated.
In addition to their advocacy of helping farmers increase their income, they also educate them on proper harvesting, trading practices, savings, and investing in equipment for enhanced production. Farmers often invest their earnings into planting more coffee plants to increase their own profit.
“If there is a farmer interested in working with us, we do not just include him onboard. We teach him how to harvest coffee the way we do,” Iya said.
Being involved and opening an avenue for income of the farmers, the most overlooked people in the industry, is what motivates Iya to continue doing her job. Farmers are the “backbone of the local coffee industry and agriculture, in general,” she said.
“When you get to know them on a personal level and hear their stories and the stories of their families, you gain a better understanding of their humanity. When this happens, it’s impossible not to respect who they are and what they do, and it becomes so much easier to look for ways to conduct your business in order to benefit them firstly. I consider it a great privilege to be able to work with them and to walk through life with them,” she said.
Farmers are open to new ideas and to learning because they know that through education, they will be able to improve their produce and also learn how to negotiate for a better price because they will be producing higher quality products.
There were around 10,000 existing trees when TDC started and with their efforts, the number of trees have grown to 85,000 with the help of Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), who even gave the farmers 50,000 seedlings to plant.
The farmers have also organized themselves to build an association called “Knoon Highlands Farmers Association” which allowed them to negotiate for better prices with private businesses like TDC.
TDC’s vision for the T’Boli farmers is to succeed in growing coffee and be able to sell to other people or businesses.
Iya knows the difficulty of their situation as T’Boli is very remote and may be hard to access, which may discourage interested buyers, but she is optimistic that they will achieve it someday.
“I believe that businesses with an advocacy have to be profitable. If not, then you’re not sustainable. How can you help the community if you’re not sustaining what you do? We want this to be a long-term thing and it can only be long term if it makes money,” she said.
This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s December 2019 issue.