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Straight from the Source

A Conversation about Direct Trade with Public Domain Senior Manager of Sustainability, Daniel Cifuentes

Public Domain specializes in freshly roasted, small-batch coffees that embody the unique characteristics of growing regions from around the globe. But we don’t simply stumble across these premium beans: access to the most extraordinary, highest quality beans is based on relationships carefully nurtured over years through our Direct Trade efforts, which include our own Project D.I.R.E.C.T. program (Direct Invest Report Economic Community Training). These programs support local growers, their families and their communities. Daniel Cifuentes, our Senior Manager of Sustainability, spearheads our Project D.I.R.E.C.T. efforts, and travels the world to work with people at all levels of the coffee supply chain.

Women in Rwanda sorting coffee beans

How did the idea of Direct Trade come to exist in the coffee industry?

About 18 or 20 years ago, there started to be an interest in the U.S. coffee world to do more than just import beans—to also establish long-term relationships. Roasters realized that this was important to ensure access to a good supply of quality coffee, especially as climate change threatens production while demand keeps increasing.

By establishing trusting, long-term relationships like we do at Public Domain, we end up in the privileged position of accessing the best coffees. After working for over a decade with some of our producers, we’re seeing the benefits. The co-ops we work with prefer to sell to us, especially instead of someone else who offers a good price one year, but then doesn’t come back the next year.

So, Direct Trade always means an ongoing relationship.

There are places that will say they are doing Direct Trade: they go to the origin, they buy the coffee directly from local growers, they import the beans and sell them. But the next year, they don’t return to those farmers because they think their customers want to see something different. The way Public Domain has structured our Direct Trade programs, we add expectations and rules, both for the grower co-operatives we work with, as well as ourselves.

What defines Public Domain’s Project D.I.R.E.C.T. program?

All of our Direct Trade programs establish a baseline in terms of quality and quantity of beans, employee welfare principles, as well as the price premium that we will pay for those beans every year. These premiums are what make all the difference: they give the coffee producing co-op organizations a voice in telling us what they want to prioritize in spending those premiums. There’s a transparency in what we pay, and in what the co-op will spend their profits on. We mutually agree on what should be invested.

Our Project D.I.R.E.C.T. program encompasses the same great principles as Direct Trade, but further fortifies our origin connections by adding training support and a higher level of monitoring and evaluation for our partners at origin. So far we’ve established Project D.I.R.E.C.T. relationships in Colombia, Nicaragua and Brazil and hope to add on more in the future.

What’s an example of how Direct Trade premiums are used?

Well, take Peru for example. There are 246 members of Cooperativa Agraria Unión y Fe La Coipa that harvest beans every year—and the harvest season in Northern Peru is also the rainy season. In that specific region, it’s a cloud forest. So before our relationship with them started, the local growers were frustrated with their drying process—they were laying the beans on the ground or on patios to dry, but every time it rained, they had to stop whatever they were doing to cover the coffee or bring it inside. Plus there were defects in the beans because of the constant humidity and slow drying, so they were getting paid less.

By designating our Direct Trade premiums to fix this issue, we could partner with Union y Fe to build a solar drying module that’s now the model for multiple locations. Beans are being evenly dried, and in two to three weeks rather than a month or a month and a half. The farmers are paid more quickly—and receive a higher price because there are fewer defects. And there was an unexpected bonus: when it’s not harvest season, they use the structure to dry their laundry, corn, beans—it’s saving work and time for everyone. It’s so rewarding to see that.

So the ripple effects go beyond the success of the local coffee business.

Far beyond. For instance, in Rwanda, our partnership with local growers does involve premiums being spent on a coffee washing station to process the coffee cherries for sale. However, the premiums are also being spent to make a bigger long-term impact on the community: the growers voted to use money to fund a training center that teaches sewing skills to young women in these villages—individuals who were orphaned by the mid-90s civil war in the country, and are the poorest of the poor. Joy Tushabe, who founded the washing station, made it happen: she bought 10 sewing machines, hired two teachers, and it’s made a great impact. They can sew clothes for themselves, plus for sale. I bought the first shirt they sold, and it’s a prized possession.

How does working in Direct Trade affect you personally?

I’m an agricultural engineer. I’ve been working with producers in the field my entire life, in different countries. I’ve had the privilege of being educated at the university level, and I know many of the rural people who raise coffee don’t have the same privilege. So something I’m very committed to, because of my background—I don’t just go to the source locations to audit them and take pictures. I feel obligated to put my knowledge into practice, to support their work, to help. To give something back to the people who give us a lot.

And the Rwanda community is particularly personal to me. My mother was growing up in the 1960s in Colombia, and she decided to follow a different path than the other women around her, to not get married at 15: she taught herself to be a seamstress. She made a name for herself, moved out of the house, started building a business. She was an outlier. So when I go to Rwanda and see this training center, it clicked: This is what my mom did for herself, back in the day. That’s a project I feel really, really proud about. I’m supporting people who are trying to do what my mother did.

Public Domain works to include as many Direct Trade coffees as possible in our lineup. Click the button below to see current limited-time single-source offerings—plus our Prometheus blend always includes beans procured from our Project D.I.R.E.C.T program.

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