Where the wild coffee beans are
Coffee is typically associated with conversation. A Bengaluru company is linking it to conservation and changing how we look at the daily bean
Cornerstone, Tat Tvam Asi, Hulikere, Agora. The names may evoke disparate traditions and images—English country manors, Vedic philosophy, obscure hamlets in Karnataka, ancient Greek democracies—but what they have in common is coffee. These are four of the six “wildlife friendly" certified estates in Karnataka’s Chikmagalur region from where the Bengaluru-based Wild Kaapi sources its beans.
The certification is provided by the US-based Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network (WFEN), whose stated goal is to “conserve threatened wildlife while contributing to the economic vitality of rural communities". Wild Kaapi was founded in 2017 by renowned conservation biologist Krithi Karanth and her husband, Avinash Sosale. The idea originated from an academic study that Karanth had worked on—a survey of 187 areca, rubber and coffee plantations in Karnataka’s Western Ghats to determine how the cultivation of each of these cash crops impacts biodiversity.
The findings were in line with the research results of pioneering American naturalists like Scott Weidensaul and the late Russell Greenberg, director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre—the peculiarity of the coffee cultivation process make it particularly suited to ensuring high levels of biological productivity and species diversity. When coffee plants are shade-grown under a canopy of trees (as opposed to sun-grown), the plantation has the potential to attract a large number of birds, including migratory ones.
“Initially, we only wanted to encourage coffee farmers to have their estates audited for biodiversity certification. We met a bunch of them in Chikmagalur to pitch the idea. But, carrying out audits of this nature has costs. And the farmers, understandably, wanted to know if there will be any market-related benefits," says Sosale.
They struck upon the idea of Wild Kaapi on the drive back to Bengaluru. “We thought, why not buy and market the coffee ourselves? Any premium due to the certification could, of course, be passed on to the farmers since they need to go out of their comfort zone to meet the audit standards," Sosale adds.
It helped that Karanth could tap into a network of wildlife scientists to advise farmers about adherence to conservation standards. One such area is shade-lopping, the practice of chopping the tree canopy at a stage in the coffee production cycle. On the “wildlife friendly" farms, shade-lopping is planned in a way to cause minimal disturbance to nesting birds.
“But this doesn’t mean that we compromise on the quality of coffee," says Sosale. “Coffee cupping (the professional practice of observing coffee taste and aroma) is equally important, and when we started out, we worked with one of the best Q-Graders (coffee tasting experts) to identify the farms we could source from".
On Wild Kaapi’s Instagram page, spectacular photographs of birds (including the Malabar Grey Hornbill, which inspired their logo) that frequent the plantations are interspersed with stylized images of their products and coffee-making equipment.
A large number of their customers are coffee nerds, typically people who have lived abroad and been exposed to the home brewing culture. “These guys like their coffee black, because that is how to tell one flavour profile from the other. I think coffee is gradually moving towards having its craft beer moment in India. Not at the scale, of course, but we have been seeing a growing preference for organic, artisanal coffee", says Sosale. Two of their products—Tat Tvam Asi (with notes of blackberry, fig and chocolate) and Agora (with notes of orange, caramel and chocolate)—are produced entirely without chemicals and are quickly gaining popularity.
When the profits come, a substantial portion of it will be committed to fund the work of conservation organizations. “We need to work on our marketing game. Eventually, the goal is to be a platform for all sorts of wildlife-friendly products. For instance, WFEN has certified a jasmine rice initiative in Cambodia’s northern plains. Wildlife-friendly rice is something we could try to do here," says Sosale.
The balance between economic livelihood and conservation is at the heart of debates about the future of the planet. There are no simple solutions. Increasingly, there is a need to focus on hyper-local initiatives while not losing sight of the big picture. Sosale concludes, “Krithi always says, all conservation strategy should be issue-based, not philosophy-based. We can minimize impact by making smart choices."