Araku coffee, a brand from the Eastern Ghats that won acclaim in France, is making its way home

Araku, the newest coffee brand on the market, has a somewhat circuitous route to India’s retail scene, having first started retailing in France before touching down in the homeland. That’s because, as Manoj Kumar, CEO of the Naandi Foundation, says, “Whether we like it or not, it is the gastronomic capital of the world, so if you made a food product click as the best in Paris, then that gives you access to newer economies and newer markets.”

Named after the region in which the Arabica beans are grown (Kumar calls the landscape “deceptively beautiful”), Araku is a social enterprise, but over the last two years, since it set up its first store on Paris’ Rue de Bretagne (in 2017), the coffee has won a host of awards, including the gold medal at the Prix Epicures OR 2018 Awards in the French capital.

However, it is the story of the brand’s work with adivasis that makes this coffee even more interesting. While most new coffee shops and even coffee companies rely on plantations that have been around for years and sometimes generations, Araku instead chose a different path.

All images courtesy of Araku

All images courtesy of Araku

Narrating the story, Kumar says, “It’s been 20 years with them in that region [the Araku valley in Andhra Pradesh]. Initially, nobody wanted to go there. If you recall, it is a Naxal-infested area and development had not reached there. It’s a completely notified area, which means there’s only tribal access. No private property, no industry, no outsiders can come.” Naandi, the non-profit, initially started out by working on the region’s development indices — like health, mortality and education. With continued engagement, the adivasis started to trust the team. "They started saying, ‘We’d like to take up a livelihood because we want to get some identity, some cash.’ They were fascinated with whether we could recreate the forest, which they’ve lost,” Kumar says. From this came the understanding that the adivasis were forest dwellers, not farmers.

The suggestion for coffee as an industry came from the locals. Explains Kumar, “Funnily enough, the coffee was growing since 1900." Started by the British and then taken forward by the Coffee Board and the Indian government, which had started handing over silver oak trees and coffee plants to the adivasis to grow. Since the Naandi foundation entered the area, and with the help of their corporate donors (which includes Danone, CapGemini etc), the forest cover has seen over five-six million fruit trees being planted, both to increase biodiversity and to provide shade for the delicate coffee plants.

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Working with a team that includes David Hogg, a New Zealander who has settled in India and who is a biodynamic expert, they were able to nurture the forest — something that the locals didn’t feel they could do without help.

The locals, used to working as a collective, demanded the same payment, no matter the quality of coffee being produced. In the long run, that has helped the company as it now pays a standard rate for each kilo of coffee. But over the last 16-18 years, it has seen the quality of the beans get better each year. Kumar, with evident pride, says, “Luckily, I am still paying the same for all coffee, but now there is only the best coffee, or otherwise I would be done.” Elaborating on how the adivasis are now profiting, Kumar says some of them make up to three lakh rupees in profit per acre. Not bad for a social enterprise that has allowed over one lakh people to work daily on plantations that cover 25,000 acres to grow over 1,000 tonnes of coffee a year.

In India though, where Kumar was prodded to open by investors and trustees that include Anand Mahindra, Kris Gopalakrishnan and Satish Reddy, he’s excited to see locals take to the coffee, which is being grown and marketed based on terroir, a process that is being undertaken by Hippolyte Courty, a coffee expert who unsurprisingly has also spent time in the wine world.

Eventually, Kumar says, “we hope to have iconic cafes which would serve coffee and really make coffee a ritual. I don’t want our cafes to be the place where you come to meet and do interviews and use the WiFi, but instead to be the place where you actually pause your life and learn to appreciate fine things.” By bringing together beans from the Eastern Ghats with a distinctly French ethos, the brand showcases a way to bridge many worlds through food and drink.

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Updated Date: Feb 05, 2019 19:04:34 IST

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