Groups supportive of East Timor shift focus to fair-trade in coffee


Japanese organizations that provided medical and other emergency assistance to East Timor in the early stages of its transition to independence have continued to support the country’s economy by purchasing coffee over the past 10 years.

Seeking ways to help East Timor become more economically independent following its independence in 2002, Japanese support groups turned to importing coffee — the underdeveloped country’s only agricultural produce at the time.

Despite the many obstacles to establishing new marketing routes in East Timor, which on May 20 celebrated the 10th anniversary of its independence from Indonesia, the groups have continued to develop the initiative.

Two Tokyo-based nonprofit organizations, Peace Winds Japan and Parcic, as well as Alter Trade Japan Inc., a trading company that also operates out of the capital and deals mainly with consumers’ cooperatives, all advocate fair trade and purchase coffee directly from Timorese producers to prevent intermediaries from forcing farmers to sell at a lower price.

Intermediaries previously used to drive the price down because local producers did not remove fruity flesh around the beans that rots easily. After independence, the two NPOs taught farmers how to preserve beans by removing the flesh and farmers since then have been able to be more selective toward their clientele — and charge higher prices.

East Timor is relatively unknown as a coffee-producing nation among Japanese. Coffee imports, which commenced in 2002 when the two NPOs bought 6 tons combined, expanded to around 170 tons in 2010 as demand grew and after Alter Trade Japan also started ordering shipments.

At times, it is difficult to maintain a stable supply as meteorological and other factors affect farmers’ yield, while the importers have struggled to grow a large customer base.

A 200-gram pack of East Timorese coffee retails at between ¥600 and ¥900 online. Major beef bowl restaurant chain Sukiya also offers the coffee at its outlets nationwide as its parent company, Zensho Holdings Co. Ltd., purchases it from two of the importers.

“We buy coffee at a fair price to promote the social development of East Timor and we benefit from quality coffee that we can sell at a reasonable price,” said Toshiyuki Ikeda, head of Zensho’s fair trade section.

The country’s coffee has a clean taste and a good balance of bitterness and acidity, according to Ikeda, a former professional taster at a coffee manufacturer.

But the organizations don’t just sell the coffee to large corporations — they are also engaged in a campaign to bring Japanese importers and East Timorese producers closer.

“I saw that the quality of coffee beans produced in East Timor is continuing to improve every year as a result of farmers’ hard work,” said Masako Shirae, who visited the country last year and runs a workers’ collective that buys the beans mainly for sale to consumers’ cooperatives.

Shirae, head of Osaka-based Coffee Baisen Workers Coffee Kobo Mamefuku, organizes seminars about East Timorese coffee and urges members from its customer cooperatives to attend.

“I realized that coffee is linked directly to the lives of these local people. I was determined to promote their produce,” Shirae said.

Kazuo Kobayashi of Alter Trade Japan also hopes more domestic consumers will get a chance to try out the country’s coffee, saying positive feedback from consumers would further motivate producers in East Timor.