A 'giving' café puts coffee farmers first

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The Giving Café pledges to use part of its proceeds to sustain barangays of coffee farmers in La Trinidad, Benguet, in an effort to promote sustainable coffee farming and reignite local coffee production. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — What does it take to make your coffee sustainable?

In an age when a cup of espresso is more than a drink but a conscious lifestyle choice, it’s becoming more imperative to question the origins and repercussions of what we drink and eat.

Take coffee beans, for example, which used to be a major local product (the Philippines being the fourth producer in the world in the 1990s) until it slipped to 110th in 2014. While the beverage seems free-flowing in local coffee shops, coffee beans, in fact, are scarce, and more so the farmers who plant them.

And it’s not only a question of scarcity. The coffee production industry in the Philippines — as well as farming, in general — faces a myriad of challenges, from a gap in knowledge sharing, market competition from coffee abroad, to issues post-harvest. Some issues require more innovative solutions and more direct contact with the farmers themselves to know what they need.

It might have been a serendipitous encounter, then, when Michael Harris Conlin found himself before a group of farmers in La Trinidad, Benguet, talking about coffee and accepting offers to buy the local produce.

coffee farmer.jpg Rosita Baliw-An of La Trinidad, Benguet, sorts the green coffee harvest together with her mother, who has been running their coffee farm in place of her visually impaired husband for more than a decade now. Baliw-An is a Bloom 2016 Crop of the Year participant. Photo courtesy of THE GIVING CAFE

“When I met the farmers last year I was shocked na kaunti harvest nila kasi all this time, I thought marami silang tanim,” Conlin says, who is the president and CEO of coffee roaster and supplier Henry & Sons and director of the Foundation for Sustainable Coffee Excellence (FSCE). “The farmers came up to me and asked if we could buy their crop. And sabi ko sige, kasi we here as a group, Henry & Sons, consume 200 tons of coffee at any point in time.”

Henry & Sons, named after Conlin’s father, is one of the largest suppliers and roasters of coffee in the Philippines, supplying convenience stores (such as 7-Eleven), coffee shops (such as Figaro) and five-star hotels with the product. What Conlin had in mind, after that fateful visit to La Trinidad, was to create a model that first, promotes sustainable coffee farming, and second, will propel the Philippines again as one of the top coffee producers in the world, albeit one barangay at a time.

Thus, The Giving Café was born: a social enterprise and coffee shop created by Henry & Sons in order to sustain the FSCE, whose beneficiaries include the coffee farmers in La Trinidad, Benguet. The corner café along Sheridan and Pines Street in Mandaluyong City sits atop a firm foundation of adobe and is conveniently located beside Henry & Sons, where Conlin keeps office.

giving cafe1.jpg The Giving Cafe's design pays homage to the Conlin family's roots. There's a framed photo of Michael Harris Conlin and his brother in one of the shelves. Photo by JL JAVIER

Far from the hip or industrial design of most coffee shops, The Giving Café pays homage to its owners’ roots. It feels and looks like the living room of a tight-knit extended family, aside from putting coffee farmers at the forefront: there’s a small sculpture of a farmer riding a carabao, and the café’s Bloom coffee range from La Trinidad, Benguet, is in full display at the counter.

Look up to the ceiling and you’ll find a blanket of coiled abaca (along with aluminum tubes), a tribute to Ropemasters Manufacturing Corporation, one of the last abaca rope manufacturers in the Philippines, which was run by Conlin’s’ family. The other side of the ceiling is adorned with native mats from Samar. “My lolo used to trade banigs,” says Conlin.

Further, there’s a boat made of Lego bricks atop a narrow glass cabinet, because Conlin’s brother loves Lego; as well as luggage, in reference to the family’s collective love for travel. For some reason, there’s also a library card catalog; inside it is information about the café’s Monogram coffee blend. The counter is laid with white pebble wash, since Conlin remembers a childhood spent with his brother, vandalizing pebble wash surfaces at home.

giving cafe2.jpg A Diedrich coffee roaster is placed out in the open in the cafe. Photo by JL JAVIER

A Diedrich coffee roaster is also parked near the back of the coffee shop, white and seemingly brand new. “When I started in coffee, my coffee roaster was a Diedrich, it’s a secondhand [yellow] one,” says Conlin. “This actually works, we roast here. In the morning if you come early enough, you’ll see it roasting.”

While Conlin wants the coffee shop to reflect his family’s origins and love for coffee, he also wants it to highlight the raison d’etre behind its construction. The five multi-colored cans of the Bloom coffee range — on display and sale at the store, as well as in Robinson’s Supermarkets — serves as an instant crash course on what, exactly, The Giving Café gives.

There’s Cup to Seed, a livelihood program to assist farmers between the period of planning and harvesting. Part of this program is ensuring the coffee, post-harvest, remains of high quality. “One of their main problems in getting better value for their crops is if the moisture content of the coffee is high, it’s prone to molds,” says Conlin. Thus, they secured for the farmers moisture and density meters. “If they’re able to use a moisture meter and check and get it to the proper moisture level, they can get better price and the crop quality is better.”

giving cafe 3.jpg (Left) The Bloom coffee range comes in cans of bright colors. (Right) A boat made of Lego bricks. Photos by JL JAVIER

The Giving Well is a program to make access to drinkable water easier in an area as highly elevated as La Trinidad. The FSCE team’s solution was to obtain an atmospheric water generator for the farmers. “These generators, they’re able to take the moisture from the air, purify it, and turn it into water,” says Conlin. “We have two installed in two different barangays in the barangay hall. It brings down the moisture content in the air and keeps the environment clean as well.”

For the children, FSCE also runs Beans for the Little Ones (a health program focusing on immunization and disease prevention) and Coffee for Great Minds (a scholarship program for children of coffee farmers, which has two scholars at the moment). “We’re investing in children because they’re the future of farming,” says Conlin. The farmers are getting old and if their children don’t want to be farmers, wala na.”

The Bloom Coffee Festival is also held every year as part of the program Beans within Reach. The festival is especially significant, says Conlin, because it’s a rare opportunity for buyers and farmers to meet. “We do it every year, and all farmers in La Trinidad are invited,” he says.

giving cafe4.jpg (Left) A ceiling made of abaca rope. (Right) Pillows and books adorn a comfortable nook in the cafe. Photos by JL JAVIER

“What they do is they harvest their coffee and they show it off. Coffee buyers from Singapore, Korea, and Manila, [and] partners namin like 7-Eleven, Vikings, Figaro, these guys, they all go up and cup the coffee and vote for first, second, and third places,” he adds. The farmer who wins first place wins a cash prize of ₱100,000, which he or she pledges to use to plant more trees, buy equipment, or improve irrigation. Other awardees are also given cash prizes.

All five programs come under the ambit of The Giving Café, which is just one of the platforms of FSCE to generate funds for the coffee farmers of La Trinidad. The other platforms are the Giving Caravan — a yellow Volkswagen that made rounds giving free coffee at the Bonifacio Global Center — and the Giving Cart, a pop-up which they plan to spread out among food parks and other public places. The idea is to spread awareness on the Bloom coffee range.

If all this seems too much, it’s only because it’s a concept that may not have been tried before. The local government of La Trinidad for example, says Conlin, still expresses surprise at the extent by which FSCE aids the local coffee farmers. “This is something nobody does for them,” he says.

giving cafe5.jpg The design of the cafe is different from the usual hip and industrial feel of most coffee shops. Pictured right is a library card catalog with information about coffee. Photos by JL JAVIER

“The reason why we have The Giving Café is for people to make a platform, to create good. Why do just a CSR [corporate social responsibility]? Why just give handouts? You might as well make it into a business where you can help local farmers,” Conlin says, adding that the model is replicable and can be freely adopted by anyone, with a few basic requirements.

“First of all, the café has to make money, and while making money, maganda kung nakatulong ka eh,” he says. “Everything we’re doing here, we always have the farmers in mind.”


The Giving Café is located at Sheridan cor. Pines St., Bgy. Highway Hills, Mandaluyong City.