Most of us will never be able to physically visit the mountains and coral reefs of East Timor, 700 km north of Australia (although we can dream). Drinking a coffee grown in the country, however, can teleport us there—even for the briefest moment. So let us introduce you to our new East Timor Hatuhei, celebrating our second year in partnership with Karst Organics. Delightful notes of butterscotch, sticky date, and lemon sherbet characterise this collaboration between Karst and the 26 producers of the Hatuhei Co-operative based in the country’s Letefoho district.
Started by husband and wife team Stewart Hamilton-Deans and Kar Yee Cheung, Karst Organics spends much of the year on the ground in East Timor, working closely and building relationships with their producer partners in the mountains of Letefoho. Karst focuses on transparency and quality, as well as a drive to showcase the country’s emergent speciality coffee sector.
“We are trying to remove as many steps in the supply chain as possible,” Kar Yee explains. “So we pay each individual farmer at the farm gate—when we pick up the coffee, we pay straight away—then from there we go through all the processing, and we pay for the shipment to the UK, and we import it ourselves.”
“We’re probably the smallest coffee exporter in the world,” Stewart continues with a laugh.
East Timor has had a long history of colonisation, domination, and struggle for independence, the shadows of which are still visible today. Coffee was first brought to the island by Portuguese occupiers, who used it as an export crop alongside the much-sought-after sandalwood. Today, coffee continues to be a hugely important part of the country’s economy, second only to oil and gas in terms of exports, with nearly a third of East Timor’s households growing coffee in some form.
“For the farmers that we work with directly,” Stewart says, “all of them without exception will rely on the coffee harvest for 100% of their household revenue. There are no other sources of income there; they’re all subsistence farmers.”
What Stewart and Kar Yee are interested in is sustainable growth, and looking to invest in the communities with whom they work—by using a transparent pay structure, and also by building a processing facility to employ local people and widen their reach to producers who aren’t able to process their coffee themselves.
“The main reason we set up the company,” Kar Yee continues, “is because we wanted to support the farmers, for them to be able to have a better life and a more consistent way of getting their income.”
Two elements set East Timor’s coffee production apart from its coffee-growing neighbors. One is the Timor Hybrid, a unique hybrid cultivar that came about spontaneously from the cross breeding of an Arabica and Robusta plant—combining the sought-after complexity and sweetness of Arabica with the sturdiness and disease-resistance of Robusta. The Timor Hybrid has been crossbred with other varieties to utilise its robustness, and its hardiness is seen as a possible weapon in the fight against climate change.
The other distinguishing feature of East Timor is that the whole country is “organic by default”, with a distinct lack of man-made fertilisers or pesticides, and potentially the only country in the world to produce exclusively organically-grown coffee.
“Everybody, certainly in Letefoho, is so connected to the land,” Stewart says. “They all work the land every day, the land provides for their food. And one day there will be a point where pesticides will be introduced, but I think there’ll be a backlash from many farmers just because of the way they value the land and respect it.”
It’s a connection that Karst Organics aims to cultivate, to develop years-long relationships with the skilled producers who grow the coffee they export.
“It’s not that we’re just a buyer coming in and buying their coffee,” Kar Yee says. “It’s more that we’re working together, we are partners. That’s our commitment to them. And in return, their commitment is that they will continue to process high quality coffee and continue to work with us to provide the speciality coffee that they’re producing.”