BRATTLEBORO, Vt. — Mocha Joe's roasting company founder Pierre Capy was not impressed the first time he tried a cup of coffee made with beans grown in Cameroon.
Capy has run his Main Street roasting facility in Brattleboro since 1994. He has traveled around the United States, and the world, educating others about what it takes to produce the highest grade of coffee. So when he tried that cup of Cameroon-grown coffee in 2008, he did not taste a coffee bean that could take its place with some of the best in the world.
But what Capy did taste that day was potential, and he has been working ever since to strengthen the specialty coffee market in Cameroon — and trying to convince the rest of the gourmet coffee community that the country should be able to produce excellent coffee.
Now Mocha Joe's has started an online fund-raising effort to raise money for an expanding organic certification program in Cameroon. The money will also be used to register farmers in local credit unions and start a revolving loan fund to give coffee farmers access to capital.
“The challenge for me, from the start, was to try to create something from nothing,” he said. “Cameroon has the soil, it has the elevation, it has a rain and dry season and I thought we could produce incredible coffee there.”
Capy's improbable introduction to Cameroon, a West African country that is mostly known for growing bulk, low-grade coffee beans for the European market, came when he hired Hamidou Yaya, then a student from the School for International Training in Brattleboro.
Yaya showed Capy some coffee that was grown in his homeland.
Capy looked through the bag of Cameroon coffee and the beans were dirty and unsorted. But among the ungraded beans Capy found large, well-formed beans that he thought could hold up to some of the best coffee in the world.
He had some coffee sent over and Capy pulled out the best beans and paid careful attention to the roasting process
“The coffee had a syrupy, caramel flavor. It was very good. You could compare it to Kona or Jamaican varietals, ” said Capy. “Cameroon had a clean slate. No one was importing Cameroon coffee to America, and I knew that if we could differentiate the beans and create a market we could sell some over here.”
In March 2009, Mocha Joe's Roasting Company partnered with the Farmer's Cooperative Initiative, a group of U.S. roasters and investors working with 31 farming families in the northwest of Cameroon. The collaborative imported the first container of specialty-grade Cameroon coffee to the U.S.
Later that year, Capy and another Mocha Joe's employee traveled to Cameroon to oversee the harvest and sorting processes. Prior to the visit most of the coffee was dried and shipped for the commercial market. There was no awareness of growing and sorting specialty coffee, which Capy knew would bring a much higher price to the farmers. It took a while to convince area residents that sorting was an important part of the coffee growing process, and after a number of failed experiments Capy helped set up a communal sorting facility. It was the first step in improving the grade of coffee being shipped out of Cameroon.
In 2011 he spent another four months in the region with his wife and two children during the growing and harvest season. They lived in the village of Fongo Tongo with coffee farmers and, while there that year, Capy hired Philip Younyi, a local agronomist, to be his director of operations.
The quality of Cameroon coffee continued to improve, and Capy introduced it to other small roasters around New England. In 2012, Capy started working in the village of Oku, where farmers use traditional growing techniques that are close to international organic growing standards. Capy knew that if the farmers could get their USDA organic certification, their coffee would bring an even better price.
The certification is very expensive and Capy helped some of the farmers with no- and low-interest loans to go through the certification process. The following year 54 family farmers in Cameroon obtained their organic certification, and Mocha Joe's imported the very first shipment of certified organic coffee from Cameroon.
Capy said the Cameroon project is now at a pivotal point. Working with other roasters this year, Mocha Joe's and the other companies will import three tons of organic coffee and 16 tons of specialty coffee from Cameroon.
“Originally we were primarily focused on improving the quality of the coffee harvested, but as our familiarity with the coffee and our connection with the community have deepened, our goals for the project have expanded,” Capy said. “For the past two-and-a-half years we have been working on getting organic certification, and with the success of this pilot project we are ready to expand the project into a larger program.”
Mocha Joe's is now trying to raise $5,500 to support the Cameroon coffee project. The contributions will be used to enroll farmers in a local credit union which allows them to borrow money at a low interest rate of 1.5 percent, instead of the up to 200 percent that local non-regulated money lenders charge.
Capy also said the funding would bring more farmers into the organic certification process, and would help ensure that organic coffee growing in Cameroon remains stable, even if Mocha Joe's pulls out of the growing, sorting and certification processes. Capy said about 75 more farms need to get their organic certification to keep the project moving forward.
“We're just a small Vermont business and this has only worked because we've done things step by step,” Capy said. “No bank will lend us money for this. We are trying to get more people interested in coffee from Cameroon, and have enough farmers growing quality coffee so that it is sustainable on its own. We're really proud of how far we've come and we're excited to see where we can take it.”
This article previously misspelled the name of Mocha Joe's employee and Cameroon native Hamidou Yaya.