Thursday, January 30, 2014

JMD's Field Officer heads back to Aceh Timur

After several days of administrative and office work with JMD's Banda Aceh staff, Field Officer Robert is back in Aceh Timur for three weeks of providing intensive training, materials delivery, storage barn-building, fording rivers and schlepping organic cocoa growth hormone (that we are trying to find the recipe for so we can make it ourselves).

He’ll be busy from dawn till midnight, but as the photos he sends us show, he loves his work and is happy as a mollusk when he’s in the field.

Robert used to be a shy photographer but over the past year he has developed an amazing eye and documents all the progress in Aceh Timur better than anyone else could—you can tell by the expression on the faces of the farmers and the kids—they all like and trust him.

This training will be really important because JMD is trying to get this group of women interested in being a semi-formal association, and develop rules and recordkeeping and agreements regarding how cocoa will be graded, stored, and sold.  This is an enormous undertaking in Aceh, for a number of reasons. 

Rural communities like those in Aceh Timur have extremely low literacy rates due to the internal conflict having disrupted education for 30 years.  Even though JMD now assists the Dinas (department) of education help people get their high school equivalency diplomas, graduation rates for women remain very low.  And recordkeeping, measuring, and business management skills are crucial when you’re starting any business. 

The other roadblock is the international donor community’s reliance on the co-operative system in developing countries. The International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) “has worked over the last 117 years to expand the presence and awareness of cooperatives around the world. . . .  The seven ICA Cooperative Principles [including democracy, autonomy, equal access, voluntary and open membership, group decision making and planning, community/local government involvement] have provided one of the main methods for ensuring consistency in the movement, and have had wide uptake throughout the world.”

Unfortunately, co-operatives in Aceh do not necessarily adhere to these seven principles.  In remote and extremely poor areas, members do not have the time or resources needed to be involved in anything other than their farm labor, and so the business of administering the co-op, making decisions, etc. usually is given to a non-farmer third party.

Most donors, private business foundations or certifying bodies, however, will not work with farmer groups unless they are part of a co-operative.  One of the reasons is economy of scale—a co-operative can be comprised of 1,000-2,000 members, and this makes financial or technical assistance viable for a donor.  The problem is that very few farmers like or trust the co-operative model.  They will hold their noses and join if they have to (and many do), but few co-operatives in Aceh are farmer-run and farmer-centric.  They operate like small, for-profit finance institutions that retain control over capital, seeds, training, equipment, and the market.  Cocoa farming, like coffee farming, is a seasonal enterprise, and farmers often need capital to tide them over until the next harvest, or else they need seeds or machinery that at certain times of the year they need to take out loans to purchase.  They also need a guaranteed buyer. Co-operatives provide all these services but in a manner that keeps the small or mid-size farmer beholden to the co-op.  Farmer interest and the future of the commodity are of interest to a co-op only insofar as it makes the administration a profit.  JMD has had experiences with co-ops who threatened to withdraw support and “prohibit” their farmers from being part of our project, since it teaches farmers how to get results that previously could only be attained through a co-op.  Knowledge is power.  Since co-ops are not farmer-centric, any skills or knowledge gained by farmers would only serve to weaken the hold that the co-ops had on their only resource: poor farmers needing money, training and equipment.

So, what’s a local NGO to do if it wants a group of women cocoa farmers to succeed?  Go very slowly, for starters.  These women so far have developed their own rules, collected their own dues, and make decisions as a group based on how they see their production and their profits increasing in the future.  This is a very delicate business.  JMD wants this group to be viable, vibrant, and really big, and it is hoping that the women will hang in there long enough to see that happen, which will be well after JMD has stopped providing material and technical support.

There has got to be an alternative to the co-operative model that can exist in rural and remote areas that is helpful to farmers, attractive to donors and certifying bodies like Rainforest Alliance, and comfortable enough for companies like Mars and Nestle to invest in.  We just haven’t quite figured it out yet.  But until then, Aceh recognizes a sort of quasi-co-operative, called an Association, and it’s our aim to strengthen the women cocoa farmers’ association in Aceh Timur as much as we can.  Or else make al the co-ops in Aceh honest and upstanding members of the sustainable agriculture community.

I kill myself sometimes.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Free online course in Sustainable Development: take it!!

If you don’t already know about the MOOCs—Massive Open Online Courses-- being offered by platforms such as, get yourself to the site and start learning—it’s free, and the courses are taught by experts in the field.

Your FIRST stop should be a course that started last week—called “Introduction to Sustainable Development.”  It speaks directly to what I’ve been trying to get a handle on in Aceh and “provides an introduction to the interdisciplinary field of sustainable development, and draws upon the most recent developments in the social, policy and physical sciences. It describes the complex interactions between the world economy and the Earth's physical environment, and addresses issues of environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive development. By the end of this course, students will gain a broad overview of the key challenges and potential solutions to achieve development in the 21st century.”

It’s taught by Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs of the University of Illinois.  Dr. Sachs “is a world-renowned economics professor, leader in sustainable development, senior UN advisor, bestselling author, and syndicated columnist. Professor Sachs serves as the Director of The Earth Institute, Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development, and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University. He is Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals, and held the same position under former Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He is Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, as well as co-founder and director of the Millennium Villages Project. Sachs is also one of the Secretary-General’s MDG Advocates, and a Commissioner of the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Development. Professor Sachs is widely considered to be one of the world’s leading experts on sustainable economic development and the fight against poverty. His work on ending poverty, promoting economic growth, fighting hunger and disease, and promoting sustainable environmental practices, has taken him to more than 125 countries with more than 90 percent of the world’s population. For more than a quarter century he has advised dozens of heads of state and governments on economic strategy, in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. He has authored three New York Times bestsellers in the past 7 years: The End of Poverty, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, and The Price of Civilization. His most recent book is To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace."

It's fascinating.  Sign up now, take the course, and we'll talk.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Lots going on at the cocoa farms in Aceh Timur this month

Before I start the weekly leap off the sustainability ship and am sucked into the Scylla and Charybdis of well-intentioned foreign aid and economic skullduggery, I must report on the amazing things that JMD has accomplished in the last three weeks.

First, staff took a representative group of 9 women farmers from our villages in Aceh Timur on a study tour of a larger and commercial cocoa farm in bordering Aceh Tamiang, about 2.5 hours to the west.  They had learned about this farm at the November cocoa conference in Banda Aceh, where they asked around for anyone willing to give the women a tour of a successful operation and show them some of the methods they were using for cocoa improvement.  The group had a great trip and the owners and staff of the farm were extremely gracious and helpful.  They saw proper grafting and cloning techniques in progress, the heard how these farmers are integrating organic fertilizer into their regular fertilizer (although not to the degree that JMD would like its farmers to do), and perhaps most important of all, they saw that what they were doing on their farms had the potential to be a very important part of the economic and social growth of their region.  They returned quite energized and confident, and gave mini-talks to the farmers who did not go on the tour, and the following week everyone was busy starting the fertilizing and brush-cutting season, along with a little clone-grafting of their own.

I’m going to post just a few photos here; the rest can be seen on Photobucket (and a link is now conveniently on the right hand column of this page--how about that!!) along with a zillion more that we are still sorting out.  Our library is called JMD_VIDEO. 

the hosts showed farmers how they graded their beans and what to look for

some good grafting and cloning was practiced

rain did not dampen anyone's spirits

the farmers learned different ways of sorting and fermenting

The following week, JMD field staff delivered fertilizer to Simpang Jernih and Pante Kera in the fashion to which we have grown accustomed . . .

Kids were on vacation this week so got to help offload the fertilizer, which they seemed to like a lot

I've said it before and I'll say it again: cocoa farming is not for sissies.  These women are my heroes.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Let's play "Follow the Coffee"

A friend wrote the other day and said she bought some coffee that said it was from Aceh. I was very excited.

I started to wonder if it was possible, given what we now know about how coffee and cocoa are “certified,” and how nearly impossible it is for us in the US to really know where our products come from, if we could work backwards down the value chain and find out exactly where this coffee came from.

My fantasy, of course, was that it would be traced to the Takengon region of Aceh, where JMD helped 1,100 coffee farmers improve their growing and harvesting techniques from 2009-2011.

Did I mention it was a fantasy? Not a far-fetched fantasy, mind you, since this was a very large project, done with IOM and one which included all kinds of international marketing components and coffee cupping competitions with European judges—in other words, the coffee from these guys and their co-ops definitely reached the world market. Plus, it was organic. Plus, it won several competitions.

So I had high hopes.

I asked my friend to tell me exactly what was on the label of her coffee.

Her response:Brand is Full Circle Foods,, dist. by Topco Associates in Elk Grove Village Illinois

I got curious to know how companies know where the product comes from, and if indeed they know which area the growers come from.

The results, while not remarkable, are mystifying. And sad.

A thorough internet search told me practically nothing about Full Circle Foods or their actual coffee. They seemed to be a company that specialized in the more “natural” products, but existed only as a shell for another company. The only reference to their coffee was found on another website:

Full Circle Coffee

Coffee, Organic, Whole Bean, Highland Blend

Weight: 12 oz (340 g)

Product Details

This canister of coffee provides 2 meals in America. [I have no idea what this means.] Fair trade certified. USDA organic. [however, it does not say that on the package, and how can Aceh coffee be USDA organic?] Full body with a fruity aroma and a smooth finish. Return to a natural way of living. Project 7. Products for good. Feed the hungry. Provides food for the hungry. Help feed the hungry by drinking Organic Full Circle Project 7 Coffee. Doing a little to save the world - one cup at a time! Because we understand your well-rounded lifestyle goes beyond what you eat, Full Circle has paired our natural and organic mission with project 7's social advocacy. We know you are passionate about giving your family the very best and we hope we can be a part of that mission! Visit us at or Certified organic by OCIA.


Certified Organic Coffee. Really!



Elk Grove Village, IL 60007

Okay, so I looked up Project 7

Our Mission

For much of Tyler Merrick’s life he has been a successful entrepreneur and benefactor for good across multiple platforms and organizations. Yet in 2008 Tyler found himself at a professional crossroads wanting to help more people through his business endeavors and be a catalyst for change in a continually inward consumer centric culture.

The answer was simple…“products for good”!

“If people are going to buy things. Lots of things. Then let’s use those things they purchase to help change the world around us. Let’s make everyday products for everyday people to solve everyday problems around the globe.”

In 2008, Tyler Merrick became a Social Entrepreneur and Project 7 was born; a company dedicated to making “Products for Good.”

We make everyday products that give back to seven areas for good around the globe.

Products for Good.
We exist to do good around the globe. We make everyday products like bottled water, gum, mints and coffee that everyday people can buy. For every purchase of a Project 7 product, good is done in seven areas of need
Feed the Hungry, Heal the Sick, Hope for Peace, House the Homeless, Quench the Thirsty, Teach them Well and Save the Earth./span>

So. This website says they “make” coffee.

Well, no they don’t. Our Takengon farmers make the coffee.

There is another section called “How we give” that lists a variety of non-profits, none of which I am aware of are working in Aceh, and certainly not with coffee farmers, that says:

“We partner with nonprofits to help provide financial support, as well as raise awareness for each organization and educate about global issues. These organizations provide aid/programs/relief specific to the seven areas of need that are P7’s core focus including. . . ” and I won’t repeat them.

So now the big question in my mind is:

Who is Tyler Merrick?

I will say this; they have a wonderful and creative youtube video of Project 7 coffee

that says absolutely nothing about Aceh. But it does say “We buy coffee directly from farmers.” (They have 33 videos by the way. Project 7 s very busy, if nothing else!)


If project 7 buys directly from farmers, and Full Circle Coffee says something very convoluted about a relationship with Project 7, then I should be able to write to them and ask, “which farmers do you buy your Aceh coffee from?”


Along the way I found an article on Tyler Merrick at Entrepreneur magazine:

It talks about his early start in the chewing gum-and-mints biz (I am not making this up), and then its expansion into organic coffee and bottled water.

Since its launch in 2008, the company has landed in nearly 4,000 stores nationwide, including Caribou Coffee shops in the Midwest and HMSHost airport locations. In March, approximately 170 West Coast Wal-Mart stores picked up Project 7's (much-improved) Save the Earth Fresh Mint gum and Feed the Hungry Peppermint Vanilla gum and mints. The company's annual revenue has topped $1 million.

Read more:

Still absolutely no talk of how anyone knows where, really, this coffee comes from or how they know it is truly organic, or what, indeed, that means.

The email I wrote to Project 7 ended up being a bit of a “form letter” to all the little US links on this bizarre section of the Aceh coffee value chain: Dear Project 7:

Building Bridges to the Future supports a local sustainable livelihoods agency in Aceh province, Indonesia, called Jembatan Masa Depan (JMD) that in part that helps farmers increase coffee production. Your website and youtube video indicates that you “buy coffee directly from farmers.” A company called Full CircleFoods, a subsidiary (I believe) of Topco Associates, packages a coffee called Full Circle Coffee, Organic Medium Roast Sumatra Aceh Ground and indicates Project 7 as a “partner.” Therefore I am assuming that Project 7 buys coffee from Aceh farmers, and in turn sells it to FullCircleFoods. Is this correct?

To help JMD better serve coffee and cocoa farmers in Aceh, we are conducting a survey from "the other end of the value chain" to see if we can trace our farmers' coffee from the store back to its origins, and if buyers, importers and distributors have information regarding the provenance of their product.

Can you let us know from which farmers in Aceh you buy coffee?

You mention that you “partner with nonprofits to help provide financial support, as well as raise awareness for each organization and educate about global issues. These organizations provide aid/programs/relief specific to the seven areas of need that are P7’s core focus . . . “

Could you let us know to which nonprofit in Aceh you are providing financial support? I did not see, from the list on your website, and agency that was currently working in Aceh or Indonesia. Do you have another list?

Additionally, there are several "certification" bodies and we'd like to know which one your company chooses when it is purchasing beans from the farmers or cooperatives.

Thanks in advance for any and all information you can give us.

That oughtta amuse ‘em.

It’s a great looking website. I do hope they are legitimate. But when you start asking really simple questions like “what does it mean to be “fair trade certified?” "Who at your company goes to Indonesia to buy coffee? Do you really do that, or do you do that by 3rd degree proxy, through a host of other companies so by the time you get your coffee all you know about it is that it probably is, indeed, coffee?" and you can't find the answer, you begin to doubt the validity of any pronouncements that are made.

All the other websites about fullcircle foods or the Aceh coffee are pretty much identical:

Full Circle Coffee, Organic Medium Roast Sumatra Aceh Ground

Product Details: This northern-grown Sumatra has light acidity, a thick, rich body and a complex flavor of sweet grapefruit with cedar and lemongrass undertones. Hand-crafted Arabica coffee. Fair Trade Certified. USDA organic. Return to a natural way of living. Fair Trade farmers have been growing coffee for generations. The Fair Trade model ensures a fair price for their coffee so these farmers can have a better life. They can keep their families healthy, build strong communities, and preserve the land. Full Circle Fair Trade coffees taste better because they are grown with care - for today and for the future. Certified organic by OCIA. Come Full Circle. Return to a natural way of living. Visit us at Quality Guarantee: 100% satisfaction.


Certified Organic Coffee, May Contain Natural Flavors.

So I modified the form letter and wrote to the full circle foods on their little “contact” form:


I work for a foundation supporting an agency in Aceh province that helps farmers increase coffee production. We're dong a little experiment to see if we can trace our coffee. I cannot find where in Aceh your coffee comes from. Would the distributor (Topco) know? How does your company know that it comes from an appropriate source in Indonesia, ie what criteria do you use? Thanks for any and all information you can give me.

Then I looked up Topco

They are the distributor of every cheesy “store” brand you can think of, from Shur-Fine to Top Care to Food Club to Valu-Time . . . and Full Circle is just one of their sub-distributors.

Topco Associates LLC is a privately held company that provides innovative business solutions for its food industry member-owners and customers. Topco leverages the collective volume, knowledge and commitment of these companies to create a competitive advantage in the marketplace by reducing costs and offering winning business-building capabilities. Topco's membership collectively represents billions in retail sales volume with thousands of stores.

Topco provides procurement, quality assurance, packaging and other services exclusively for its member-owners, which include supermarket retailers, food wholesalers and foodservice companies. Topco has no conflicting profit motive because it distributes all earnings back to its member-owners based on their level of participation.

They have this section:

Premium / Value Added Brands

Topco provides business solutions for both member-owned and Topco-owned brands. Offering nearly 20 Topco brands to its membership, the company’s item mix covers almost 10,000 items. With multiple tiers within its branding strategy, Topco provides its members with the ability to differentiate themselves within their competitive marketplaces. Tiers include premium and value added, mainstream – or first-label quality, and economy brands.

And then they list their sub-companies

World Classics

Paws (the low-end pet food)

And . . . .

Full Circle's products taste great and are good for you. Full Circle is at the forefront of the rapidly growing natural and organic market. The brand features more than 1,000 SKUs in 100 categories, including grocery, fresh meat, produce, dairy, seafood, deli meat, bakery, HBC and household cleaning products. Full Circle ... "Return to a natural way of living."

Oy! Talk about full circle!!! It’s dizzying!

No mention of coffee, or certified organic, or where these things come from—I could not find anything about this on the entire page.

But they do have an email address, so out zipped another form letter.

Dear Topco:

Building Bridges to the Future supports a local sustainable livelihoods agency in Aceh province, Indonesia, called Jembatan Masa Depan (JMD) that in part that helps farmers increase coffee production. We understand that your company distributes a brand of coffee called Full Circle Coffee, Organic Medium Roast Sumatra Aceh Ground.

To help JMD better serve coffee and cocoa farmers in Aceh, we are conducting a survey from "the other end of the value chain" to see if we can trace our farmers' coffee from the store back to its origins, and if importers and distributors have information regarding the provenance of their product.

Can you let us know how Topco verifies that its "Sumatra Aceh ground" coffee comes from Aceh?

Which is the entity that verifies certification and farm location?

There are several "certification" bodies and we'd like to know which one your company chooses when it is purchasing beans from the importer.

Thanks in advance for any and all information you can give us.

At the end of this exercise I got to thinking—does anybody really know that organic or certified or Aceh coffee actually comes from where it says it does? The only sure fire way is: if it tastes like civet cat poop—it’s authentic!!