OUR INTERVIEW WITH COMUNICAFFE
First introductions: who is the team behind Indochina?
“Shirani Gunawardena and Christian Steenberg, we set up Indochina Coffee in 2016 and imported our first coffees from China and Myanmar to the UK the following year. We now work in China, India, Myanmar, Thailand and the Philippines and store in both the UK and EU. It’s been an interesting journey! But we still feel like we’re just getting started.
Shirani is a Q Grader and leads on coffee quality assessment and the sensory side of things, while Christian works with customers and logistics, ensuring roasters get access to some of the best coffees that Asia has to offer.
Our main priority is the partnerships we have with farmers and producers, that is the one area of the business that we share and together take very seriously. Covid obviously impacted on our ability to travel but we now feel fortunate to be able to spend time with our inspirational partners again, bringing their wonderful coffees to the attention of coffee drinkers in the UK and Europe.
We’ll soon be expanding the team and are beginning to look for someone to help us meet demand.”
Indochina was born from the love that blossomed in 2015 in Bangkok: what was unforgettable about the specialty of those places?
“Living in Bangkok was really the turning point for us, so many things slotted into place while we were there. We fell into specialty coffee with one foot in our previous careers in the public sector, being introduced to opium replacement projects in northern Thailand and Myanmar where coffee was being promoted to hilltribe farmers as an alternative crop to poppy production – that’s really where it all began.
You found a gap in the London market, which had no origins from this region available: why was this and how did you go about it? Apart from our way too short stint in Bangkok, we’ve lived in London for pretty much most of our adult lives and were lucky enough to experience and enjoy the beginning of what was a very niche specialty coffee scene in the East End and Hackney. Not as ‘coffee people’ but just as people who love interesting, diverse and tasty things: coffee and food mainly!
When we moved back to London from Bangkok, we were genuinely really surprised by the lack of Asian specialty coffees on offer. There are many reasons why we think this was the case – some of it due to preconceptions around quality, but also a lot of it down to a lack of awareness as well as a lack of availability. Most people simply hadn’t had the opportunity to try great coffee from Asia and many didn’t realise that coffee was even grown in the countries from where we source. A lot of people still don’t!
So we decided to see if we could change that. Continuing to build on the relationships we’d started, particularly with Yunnan Coffee Traders and Mandalay Coffee Group, at the same time as knocking on roasters’ doors in the UK, we slowly began to create this business from nothing. Taking turns working in our old careers and raising our baby daughter, going on a load of coffee courses, throwing ourselves into the worlds of shipping, warehousing, trading, haulage, logistics, insurance – all the glamourous stuff!”
You specialised in the exclusive importation of specialty from Asian origins: why this specific choice?
Shirani: “My mother is from the Philippines and my father is from Sri Lanka, while growing up in the UK I was always fascinated by the really strong coffee histories of both countries. Not many people realise that they used to be two of the biggest coffee producing countries. In fact, for a few years in the late nineteenth century, the Philippines was the only source of coffee in the world! This rich history inspired me to find out more about coffee production in Asia generally and, as a slow burner, find a way for me to connect more with my heritage through coffee.
Our goal is to see specialty coffee from many different Asian origins mainstreamed, not just as an occasional ‘exotic’ one-off purchase but as an integral part of every self-respecting roasters’ seasonal coffee calendar!”.
Do you have other criteria for your selection?
“When we first started, we were focused on sourcing from countries that are less well known within the UK / European speciality coffee world, mainly due to the contacts and networks we had developed. This also made business sense for us, as many of the larger importers already had well- established buying relationships with coffee origins such as Indonesia and PNG, so we were not in a position to compete with them.
We work with farmers and producers who share our desire to build and develop long term partnerships. While we strive to source coffee of the highest quality and/or which has great potential, the priority for us is always that the people we work with at origin are genuinely
committed to using the profits we can generate together to sustainably improve the quality of life of their communities and the local environment.
Like many coffee origins, some of the areas that we work in are hugely complex from a geopolitical perspective and it’s fair to say that we often encounter prejudice. We have our own views but, fundamentally, we feel that we can help bring about positive change in the communities we work in via our limited sphere of influence by simply trading responsibly with our partners.
For example, we strongly believe that continuing to work with farmers in areas of Myanmar that have long been hostile to the government is the right thing to do. As is supporting marginalised hilltribe communities in autonomous areas of China. Or indeed supporting the move to organic agriculture in the Western Ghats of India and promoting coffee as a more environmentally-friendly method of farming than ‘slash and burn’ poppy production in Thailand. Our customers know that we are transparent not just with our financial data but in terms of the positive aims of our company – if we were motivated simply by profit, running an independent green coffee importing business is possibly the worst choice we could have made!”
How did you build a direct network with farmers?
“As we came into this from other careers and were really following our instincts rather than any grand plan, developing relationships with farmers and producers at first was quite personal. We obviously didn’t have a track record of selling or indeed buying coffee so people were generally quite intrigued by what we were trying to do. But that also meant these relationships started off at a strong base and, as we have grown, so have our partners.
We had to be fairly proactive in approaching farmers and producers at first – getting to understand what their challenges were and seeing if we could support them in meeting these was always the priority. There’s often an assumption that farmers are desperate to export their coffee when it’s often really not the case at all! Especially across the region where there’s a very healthy domestic and regional market going on for specialty coffee already. But it’s also true that opening access to UK and European specialty markets is absolutely vital to some farmers in some areas, so that’s where we come in.
The coffee growing regions in the north of Thailand, Shan State in Myanmar and Yunnan in China (where we first started sourcing from) are all quite close to one another relatively speaking, they’re also populated by many of the same indigenous hill tribes and bound by common languages and networks. Many coffee producers and farmers are also connected: a great deal of our network was built on introductions, chance encounters in random places and a lot of luck.
We still work with all the same farmers and producers who we started off with: we have a huge amount of respect for them and what they do – often in very challenging circumstances. And in the past year, we’ve been fortunate enough to begin new partnerships in new countries.”
How do you contribute to a fairer market for producers?
“We don’t tend to negotiate, basically. We have a good understanding of where the money goes at the other end and our partnerships are mature and mutually respectful to a degree that we can have open and transparent conversations every season.
Obviously, each country and each region will have localised issues affecting price at different times so we spend a lot of time trying to understand the context. Seasoned green coffee trading companies will probably look on our buying strategies (or lack of them) with despair!
But the difference is probably that most of the farmers and producers we work with were just getting started – particularly with export – at the same time as we were, so we’re still growing together and making it up as we go along. As opposed to getting involved in trading relationships in in more established coffee producing / exporting countries that are in some cases centuries old, with all the baggage and imbalances that they involve.”
Which origins do you import in particular?
“China, India, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand.”
How have you reacted to the recent logistical difficulties that have paralysed transport and dramatically increased the cost of containers?
“Just like the rise in the cost of coffee, extra shipping costs end up being passed down the chain.
Shipping from Asia has been particularly affected and then there are more localised problems too – we went from paying $1k to move a container from Myanmar to the UK in 2017 to having to pay $11.5k last year. It’s amazing that we’re still here, to be honest! The monopoly of shipping lines, the crazy supply and demand markets and sometimes blatant profiteering is kind of scandalous. Some people did very well out of the pandemic, that’s for sure.”
As importers, what is your view on the rise in raw material prices? How have you managed?
“Our view is that as long as farmers and producers receive the right remuneration for their skills and the effort they put in, then it is a positive step forward. However, a higher C price doesn’t necessarily mean farmers around the world are better paid. But we’re more than prepared to have those difficult conversations with roasters about higher prices and they, in turn, have to have their own difficult conversations with coffee shops and retail customers.
We do understand how the global markets impact on all aspects of coffee, however our approach is pretty basic and is essentially us trying to establish as equitable a relationship as we can with the farmers and producers with whom we are lucky enough to work.
When you’ve spent time with farmers and worked with exporters, shippers, warehouses, insurers, banks and hauliers and all the rest of the people in the supply chain – before we even take into account the skill and time and costs of roasters and coffee shop owners and baristas and engineers and other staff – paying around £10 for a 250g bag of amazing coffee or £3.50 for a good flat white in a nice café in London is actually a ridiculous bargain.
Ultimately, there is of course a reality and we’ve had to squeeze our margins where we can in order to try and be competitive (as has everyone else) but the costs are borne down the chain and the buck has to stop at the coffee drinker eventually.”
Are there many roasters who demand coffee from these origins? Are they all British or do you also have relationships with roasters from other countries?
“Yes, we have a good number of roasters who we’ve been working with for a number of years to help them source interesting and unique high-quality specialty coffees from around Asia.
When we started, Brexit hadn’t happened and the interest across Europe was similar to that in the UK. After Brexit, due to some of the nightmares we experienced at first with moving coffee into the EU, we re-focused just on the UK and Ireland and built a really solid network of interesting roasters.
Now we’re beginning to store in the EU, we can start that again and have customers across Europe in Austria, Belgium, France, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain.
We’re beginning to talk to a few roasters in the Middle East and have just shipped some coffee to Canada!
The truth is that most roasters (and most coffee drinkers) are still fairly new to the idea of specialty Asian coffee, so our business has naturally morphed into supplying a diverse array of roasters with one or two bags initially while we continue to work closely with a small number of longer-term customers needing higher volumes. We love meeting new roasters and working together to change people’s perceptions of where specialty coffee can come from.”
What are Indochina next steps, also considering its nature as a family business? Are there any new goals you have set for yourself?
“We plan to grow our team beyond the two of us to realise our goals to expand our customer base within and beyond the UK and grow the volumes that we purchase from all the producers we work with. Our long term goal is to be the go-to green coffee company for all Asian specialty coffee, so we want to expand to offer more coffees and more origins.
Shirani: “From a personal point of view, it has been amazing to connect with Philippine coffee producers and I have the same dream with Sri Lanka – it would be great to bring Sri Lankan specialty coffee to the UK and Europe!”.
Thanks for the space and the wonderful conversation, International Comunicaffe.