When we think of coffee, certain countries spring instantly to mind – Colombia and Brazil, perhaps. However, India is fast becoming one of those regions that is increasingly establishing itself as one of the finest sources of coffee in the world.
The Araku Valley in the south-east of the country boasts around 30,000 hectares of land cultivated for the very purpose of growing coffee, situated between 1,500 and 4,000 ft above sea level. Due to this height, the main variety of coffee to come out of the region is Arabica.
The Araku valley lies in the Eastern Ghats of Andhra Pradesh (one of the 28 states of India), some 90 km north-west of Vishakhapatnam and around 100 km up into the hills.
In terms of its social makeup, the demographic consists almost entirely of indigenous peoples, who are some of the earliest residents of the whole of India.
Now, the majority of the tribes are focused in areas close together and overseen by the Integrated Tribal Development Agencies – or the ITDA – known as 'scheduled areas', which are carefully monitored to safeguard the use of resources by local tribal communities.
Despite the favourable topography, the land has not been without its problems. Slash and burn deforestation techniques have reduced swathes of the territory to semi-wasteland.
Coffee was first introduced to Araku back in 1920 when British revenue officers saw that the topography of the area would serve as prime land for coffee-growing – that is, beautifully sloping hills that are ideal for plantations.
Following the country's independence in the 1960s, there was a concerted effort made by the Indian Coffee Board and the Andhra Pradesh Forest Department to establish organised and well-managed cultivation of the crop.
This movement began in those plantations owned by the Forest Department, but this quickly spread to production on a smaller scale and to individual farmers within tribes whose livelihoods depended on farming and who had been leased land on which to grow coffee by the government.
Accordingly, the IDTA – which oversaw government schemes in tribal areas – took over the promotion and management of coffee growing in the area from the Coffee Board of India from 1995.
Challenges the region has faced
One of the key obstacles to successful production over the years has been a lack of education and knowledge. This, combined with a shortage of support for amateur farmers, has led to many farmers struggling to churn out sustainable yields and being exploited by local money lenders and buyers.
In order to counteract the problems caused by this, some had been known to cut down shade trees to sell as timberwood in order to make more money. However, this naturally had an adverse affect on farming and was certainly no solution to the problem, leaving crops far more exposed to harsh sunlight and likely to struggle even more to produce healthy cherries.
As ever, a lack of funds led to a shortage of resources – not just knowledge, but also vital equipment needed for lucrative commercial coffee cultivation.
Economically excluded, deprived of funds and more general support, blighted by a lack of social, economic and political mobility, and without much commercial know-how, indigenous farmers in the region have faced great difficulties.
Help at hand
However, in 2001 the Naandi Foundation got involved in the region and has transformed the fortunes of those in the Araku Valley – notably since the charity organised the farmers into a cooperative in 2007 across seven mandals – Araku, Hukumpeta, Dumbriguda, Anathagiri, Paderu, Pedhabaylu and Munchinpet. Its main aim was to provide self-sustained growth for the region and the people who live in it – all the while conserving the indigenous people's knowledge, culture and deeply-seated values.
Now, the cooperative boasts more than 11,000 members and has grown to become a structured and democratic institution, which not only helps farmers to produce sustainable yields, but also provides support and education in terms of management and bookkeeping, among other things.
With central processing by the cooperative, the coffee coming from this region is of the utmost quality – and local prices have risen accordingly, benefitting all farmers in the area. A Gems of Araku competition set up by the foundation provides an incentive for the farmers to produce the best coffee they possibly can and, in the organisation's own words, "to promote excellence, set future standards and make their highly traceable selection known to the outside world and those commercial agents most likely to be interested in the exclusivity of [their] products".
The Araku project has been helped considerably by one particular individual – Mrs Sunalini Menon, a highly respected coffee professional who has focused her efforts over the years on quality and sustainability within the coffee industry. From the Naandi Foundation's associated laboratory, Mrs Menon oversees the quality control of the coffee being produced by personally supervising qualifying, roasting, grinding, weighing, brewing and cupping the batches that pass through the doors. Only once the coffees have been analysed and recorded can Mrs Menon be sure that the Araku coffee is of the utmost quality – and therefore ready for shipment.
"We sit, we sip, we slurp and then, of course, we look very wise," the expert jokes.
With so much culture, heritage and indigenous folklore and with such a strong tradition in farming, some may say that it is little surprise that the coffee that comes from this region is so magical.