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How Nespresso gambled on reviving coffee in South Sudan

War had all but stamped out the coffee industry in a land where the beans first grew. Now Suluja will emerge as the nation's first non-oil export.

The first coffee to be exported from the new country of South Sudan will be available to consumers in the coming weeks. And the story of how Suluja — a bold, silky textured coffee with intense aromas — came to be created is no ordinary one.

As the first non-oil export out of the country in more than a generation, the coffee’s journey from farm to consumer is the culmination of a unique project to kick-start an exciting new chapter for the people of the war-ravaged country. It is also a perfect example of how businesses and NGOs can work together to create positive social and economic change in the world.

To say South Sudan is poor is an understatement. It is about the same size as France, but with just 40 miles of paved roads. During its civil war, which has continued since the 1980s and led to its independence from Sudan in 2011, more than 2.5 million people have died and 4 million have been displaced  many of them, including coffee growers, abandoning their homes and farms in search of safety.

Ever-seeking to give customers new experiences of coffees from around the world, the premium coffee-capsule business Nespresso sent its coffee expert Alexis Rodriguez to the south of the country for good reason. South Sudan has a long history of cultivating coffee.

Nobody knows Nespresso here, and there are lots of reasons to be cautious.

In fact, it is from here that coffee is thought to have originated and it is one of very few places on the planet where coffee trees grow in the wild due to the distinct, dry climate. Many coffee producers have returned to their farms, but have struggled to find a market for their produce.

Rodriguez returned to the Switzerland headquarters of Nespresso, part of the Nestlé Group, very excited by what he found. Encouraged by the company’s brand ambassador and TV ad star George Clooney — who spent many years attempting to put the plight of the people of South Sudan in the headlines — the company began the process of bringing the new coffee to market.

That was back in 2011. As the company’s CEO Jean-Marc Duvoisin acknowledged, "it’s been a long journey" to get to this point — the production of a small batch of Suluja, only big enough to serve one market, France, right now.

On the ground, the non-profit TechnoServe has been putting in the crucial ground work in and around the town of Yei — to find out where coffee farms exist, who is running them and whether there is the potential for the farmers to become a supplier to Nespresso.

Then, it has been a slow process, training farmers in the best techniques and working with agronomists to ensure the quality and consistency of coffee is delivered that meets the needs of the business. Three wet mills have been built, enabling farmers to wash the coffee cherries to enhance the finer aromatic notes in the coffee — something that never had been done in the past when dry processing was the norm.

Nespresso CEO Jean-Marc Duvoisin

"We have a real passion for coffee, but without the farmers, we have nothing," said Duvoisin. "And this is the very best example of how we create shared value. By helping farmers to create better quality coffee, improve their productivity and ensure environmental sustainability — something we have been doing via our AAA Sustainable Quality Program since 2003 — we get the quality we need and are able to pay them more." 

At the other end of the chain, Nespresso is banking on its consumers being interested in unique coffees such as Suluja and seems to be confident, already having invested around $724,000 in reviving coffee production in Yei. By the end of 2016, that figure will be around $2.59 million.

While only small batches are coming out of South Sudan for European customers, the ambition is to significantly grow the number of farms producing high quality coffee and help to sustain the country’s industry by using the same AAA supplier program that has been so successful for Nespresso’s other 63,000 farmers around the world.

This coffee has been sitting in a time capsule for 50 to 100 years, and has laid untouched.

"Thailand currently exports more crops than all of Africa put together, so there’s a huge opportunity here in South Sudan," said David Browning, senior vice president at TechnoServe. Browning’s ambition is to grow the number of farmers in the Yei co-operative from 300 today to 2,000 — by encouraging more families to return to their farms and, in some cases, to start growing coffee for the first time.

It won’t be easy though, he said, with many people understandably anxious of NGO and business interventions: "Nobody knows Nespresso here, and there are lots of reasons to be cautious. Institutions and governments have continuously let people down and the world has turned a blind eye to what has been happening in this country."

However, the potential rewards could be significant, he added. "This is not a charitable exercise; this is business. It will depend upon farmers stepping up to the challenge and being part of a global economy, to continue delivering quality and consistent coffee. 

"This coffee has been sitting in a time capsule for 50 to 100 years, and has laid untouched. It is a distinctive product and farmers here are starting to understand what it is that they have. It’s possible that in 10 years, the country could have a $10 million coffee-export industry."

Already, farmers in Yei are receiving 40 percent higher incomes than they would otherwise. Jennifer Poni Joel Donga, an agronomist helping to train farmers with TechnoServe, fled to Uganda during the civil war, returning to her country years later. She said that a local farmer in Yei, who had been producing coffee for 50 years, would travel to Khartoum in the north of Sudan to sell his produce. It would take him a month and by the time he returned he would have spent all of his profits, barely surviving.

"He recently agreed to start working with TechnoServe and within one season, he had made enough money to buy a motorbike," she said. Stories like these are numerous: farmers being able to pay school fees, or build better housing, for the very first time.

I just hope people drink it, rather than keeping it because it’s so rare.

Having witnessed the impact coffee-farming can have in bringing peace to communities, having lived in Colombia for five years, Duvoisin is excited about the positive social impact this venture will have: "When people have means of living, access to money and land for the family to live on and work from, there is peace. 

"In South Sudan, coffee will be the second export after oil. There is always conflict linked to oil revenues, but you never have that with coffee because people have to work at it every day to get their rewards."

But entering the difficult environment of South Sudan is a “big gamble,” he said, albeit one his business can "afford to take" given its strong financial footing. He sees the creation of Suluja as one giant R&D project which won’t become profitable until the country is producing large enough volumes to service multiple markets. "We make these bets because we want to deliver new coffee experiences."

What the world will make of Suluja is unknown until it hits the market later this month. "I just hope people drink it, rather than keeping it because it’s so rare," said Duvoisin.

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