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Coffee/ kaapi

As in 2023

Umamaheswara Rao, Oct 8, 2023: The Times of India

Araku valley, Andhra Pradesh
From: Umamaheswara Rao, Oct 8, 2023: The Times of India

This Andhra hill station has made its mark on the world’s coffee map with not only the quality of its organically grown beans but also its business model It’s been a month since the G20 summit. Surely, many of the foreign delegates have opened their gift hampers. Those who flipped open their colourful coffee tins first probably can’t keep their noses out of them. Every time they soak their lungs in the rich aroma, they are transported to T Ramamma’s backyard in the misty Araku valley. For more than a century, connoisseurs have known Araku for its coffee.

This little hill station in Andhra Pradesh even has a coffee museum that welcomes you with the wise words: ‘Knowledge is Caffeine’.But in Araku, 900m above sea level, caffeine also means a decent living. Ask Ramamma, an illiterate tribal woman who was widowed at 25. She had debts to repay and children to bring up, and she didn’t falter, thanks to coffee.

Socially responsible fix

Now 46, Ramamma earns over Rs 6 lakh a year from her coffee plantation – way more than the typical Andhra farmer with a similar landholding. There’s also Gemali Kamala of Beesupuram hamlet, a widow who runs her home by growing coffee. They are just two of the nearly 2.3 lakh tribal farmers in this backward region whose lives have been transformed by coffee.

Literally transformed, because the indigenous communities of Araku practised slash-and-burn or ‘podu’ farming not so long ago in history. Now, thanks to their coffee plantations spread over some 2.4 lakh acres, they are anchored. If coffee is their bread, intercrops like pepper, vegetables, jackfruit and mango are butter.

But butter is an odd metaphor in Araku, a milk-scarce region. While their beans reach Switzerland, France, Italy, Sweden, the US, United Arab Emirates, Japan, France, South Korea, etc, the growers themselves hardly ever drink coffee, says M Sri Rama Murthy, a first-generation coffee grower. “Cattle rearing is largely absent in the region. We request the government to supply the tribals with cattle to make the farming more sustainable.”

Government’s played a role

Although most government interventions have a patchy record, in Araku they seem to work. Take the valley’s coffee story, for example. Sometime in the very late 1800s, the raja of Vi - zianagaram had a coffee estate at Ananthagiri, about 40km away. This is recorded in the Viza - gapatam Gazette of 1907 (Visakhapatnam was Vizagapatam under the British).

Not long after that, coffee trees sprang up at Peddavalasa in the Araku region, from seeds sent up by a British officer named Captain Owen. By the 1920s, small coffee plantations had come up on the fields of tribal mandals like Chintapalli, Araku, and Ananthagiri.

And things remained small-scale in Araku for decades thereafter, even though the Union government’s Coffee Board studied the region in the early 1950s to find suitable areas for growing coffee. The Andhra Pradesh forest department also facilitated coffee planting in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, Araku’s coffee plantations covered just 1,800 acres in the mid-1980s.

Right ideas work

But then, coffee planting took off as the Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) offered ‘patta’ or the right to use land to the tribals. By 2002, the area under coffee had increased 25 times to 45,000 acres. And the growth continues. N Ashok, ITDA’s assistant horticulture director (coffee project) in Paderu, says about 1.2 lakh acres of land has been brought under coffee farming in the last decade alone. The government has guided the tribal growers all these years. The Coffee Board’s deputy director (in-charge) S Ramesh says, “Coffee Board takes care of the entire process of the plantations – from seed to cup.” They have a regional coffee research centre near GK Veedhi, about 120km from Araku, and extension offices in Chintapalli, Minumuluru, Araku valley and Paderu to serve the tribal coffee farmers.

The Andhra government-owned Girijan Co - operative Corporation (GCC) buys the greater part of the Araku tribals’ coffee and its ‘Araku Valley Coffee’ branding is now known around the world. Every major government event has an Araku coffee stall – PM Modi was all praise after tasting their coffee in Visakhapatnam on his 2016 visit for the international fleet review.

It’s earth-friendly too

All of this is socially and economically significant, but something else makes Araku’s coffee special. Start with the fact that Araku mainly grows the sweeter Arabica variety. It’s also organic coffee, duly certified by the Union government. The manuring is organic and so is the pest control. The coffee shrubs grow under a canopy of jackfruit, mango, rosewood, silver oak, etc, which increases the soil’s fertility. It also makes the crop resilient to climatic variations. “These farmers are largely immune to drought and other vagaries of nature,” says ITDA official Ashok. “They earn Rs 310-320 a kilogram from the sale of parchment coffee (dried but unroasted). Pepper, which is grown as an intercrop, earns them as much, if not more.”

The coffee drinker – G20 delegates included gains too. “The high caffeine content and the native mode of cultivation without any chemicals give the coffee a unique texture and taste,” Ashok explains.

Breathe, sip, think coffee

If you are in Araku, walk through the sparsely populated and coffee-scented hamlets. Some months they smell of coffee blossoms, in others you’ll smell the fruit. If you’re visiting in November-January – the harvest season – the aroma of roasting beans will make you swoon.

Murthy, who wants cows for milk in Araku, is wary of visitors, though. He complains about the increase in theft of coffee berries. He has a 10-acre plantation and a shop where he sells coffee powder. Many tribal farmers have also forayed into coffee retail. They sell ground coffee worth Rs 5,000-10,000 a day, and more during the winter tourist season. You’ll find these shops all the way from Ananthagiri to Araku.

But if you like your caffeine with knowledge – or the other way round – suppress that coffee lust till you reach the museum in Araku. Here, amid dioramas tracing coffee’s journey all the way from Ethiopia to Araku, you can buy your coffee while sipping on your kind of Araku fix and munching on some coffee-infused chocolate, tart or brownie.

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