Bula Coffee, has been harvesting coffee cherries from wild coffee trees in the highlands of Navosa and villages surrounding Sigatoka.
According to Bula Coffee founder Luke Fryett, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) had found more than 40 varieties of coffee plants in Fiji, one of which was thought to have been extinct and another, has never been found anywhere in the world.
He said coffee cherries are harvested by women, who make up about 85 per cent of the 5000 locals in their database, who are in the coffee harvesting business in Fiji.
From cherries to beans
Once harvested, it could take anywhere from three to four months for coffee cherries to become coffee beans.
“We float it first where it’s put in water and all the bad ones float to the top. Then it goes through a machine that takes the skin off, and washes mucilage off, and then gets sit out to dry,” Mr Fryett explained.
“When it gets sit out to dry, it gets turned every 20 minutes or so for the first few days so that it dry out evenly. We have some staff that get to do that. They call themselves the ‘gossip girls’ because they come to work and just stand on either side of the rack and work their way down and by the end they start again.
“But they do a hand-grade as well, so any that’s looking bad, they take it out.”
The cherries are then hulled where layers of skin surrounding the seeds are removed before it goes through a coffee-size grader machine which grades it by size. Small sizes get passed through while bigger beans fall off the top because they couldn’t fit through the hole.
“Then there’s an international sizing for coffee. So, when we say we have a B12 batch, that’s an international standard so anyone buying would know what size their coffee would be.
“Then if we’re exporting it, it goes through another hand-grading where we spread it out on the table and we look for any beans that have like black spots or anything on them.
“That’s the final one before it gets exported.”
Bula Coffee customers
At the moment, Bula Coffee is supplying to Tropica Island Resort, Barefoot Manta Island Resort Fiji, Barefoot Kuata Island Resort, Qamea Resort and Spa, a few shops and Extra Supermarket.
Mr Fryett said the response from local hoteliers and businesses have not really gone to their favour as most seemed like they “are not interested in the coffee industry itself”.
“They’re more interested in the money they can make from coffee. But we’re really in a difficult position because in theory, everything we harvest we could sell to those people in France and in Italy that are really keen on it.
“But where does that leave us with supplying locals?
“When we established, like right from when we started in 2011, we’ve always wanted to establish the Fiji coffee industry so we’re in a bit of a dilemma here.”
Currently, Bula Coffee is only buying about 60 tonnes a year for $2 per kilogram.
And due to coffee harvesting being an annual affair, this meant that Bula Coffee has to have $120,000 sitting in its bank account every year during harvesting season.
“Our problem is always cash flow. Like, if you’re exporting cassava, or if you’re exporting yaqona, or whatever, you can plant it and then harvest it, plant it then harvest it. But we only harvest once in a year.
“So, we buy 60 tonnes at $2 a kg each. That’s $120,000. We have to have that money sitting in our bank account that we can pay out in a space of two months because that’s the only harvest we can get.
“If we had $500,000, we could buy way more coffee. It’s having that cash flow ready, because it’s not something like if we sell some coffee, get money, and buy more coffee because we only get one harvest in a year.”
Mr Fryett said during this time they would also be paying staff and running a business so budgeting could be really tight at times.
According to him, if Fiji’s coffee industry was well-looked after and received the support it needed, “it could be bigger than the sugar industry, it could easily become the main agricultural export for Fiji”.
“We really believe in Fiji’s coffee industry and that it should be grown and that locals should be owning it. Like if you go to Vanuatu, you’ll see them selling Vanuatu coffee, you come to Fiji we’re selling Australian coffee.
“I think it has the potential to grow really big, and really fast. But we’ve also got to approach it with a little bit of caution. We don’t want to
just give the women the seedlings and tell them to go and plant it because if it’s not the right variety for, it’s not going to work.
“It might grow but they won’t get much coffee out of it, and they might lose hope and words will spread and this will dishearten others.
“I think it has got huge potential, but it’s got to be managed well, and it’s got to have a lot of support around it for the coffee farmers. I actually really believe that it could be Fiji’s main export in 20 to 30 years if it’s well-looked
He said Fiji’s current coffee industry has defeated theorists who say that coffee will only grow in “moist soil that’s well-draining like sandy soil,
‘maybe 20 per cent sand so that it can drain and everything’, but it seems to just grow everywhere here”.
“So, I’m sure that there’s a perfect soil type but I don’t know enough about it.
“One place that we went to, you can walk for about an hour and a half, through this one place and there’s just coffee plants on either sides of the track, as far as you can see.”
Interest from overseas
After attending HostMilano, the international trade exhibition of food and hospitality from all over world, Mr Fryett said a number of overseas coffee roasters have shown interest in working with Bula Coffee.
An agriculture and engineering school university is also looking to send one of its students in May for a 13-week exchange program, while another two, both studying agronomy, will also be visiting.
So far, everything seemed to be going according to plan for Mr Fryett and his dream of reviving Fiji’s coffee industry.
Especially, after finally receiving the $US25,000 ($F55,955) from government which was donated by the Indonesian government late last year.
The funds will be used to help establish small holder coffee farms in the highlands of Viti Levu.