Under the cool canopy of native trees in the Western Ghats, coffee bushes spread out, gleaming with red berries. In the early morning hours, if you are lucky, you may spot rare species like the Malabar grey hornbill, water snow flat butterfly or the Asian fairy bluebird among these shade-loving plants. And now, thanks to the efforts of Wild Kaapi — the world’s first ‘certified wildlife-friendly’ coffee brand — you can ensure your morning brew comes from plantations that foster fauna on their lands. Started by wildlife conservationist, Krithi K Karanth — who has has been working in the Western Ghats, a biodiversity hotspot, for the last 19 years — and her husband, Avinash Sosale, the coffee brand got its certification this April and opened its doors to buyers last month.
(photo credit: Ramki Sreenivasan)
Live and let live
- The certification is given by Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network (WFEN), an American organisation whose mission is “to protect wildlife in wild places, and on agricultural lands inbetween”. WFEN includes conservationists, farmers and indigenous peoples from around the world. Among the certified products are Ibis rice from Cambodia, cashmere and merino wool from Argentina, and essential oils from Madagascar.
Wild Kaapi started as an offshoot of a three-year research project (part of a grant by the National Science Foundation to study coffee, areca and rubber plantations in the Western Ghats). Karanth, of the Centre for Wildlife Studies — with Paul Robbins of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Dr Ashwini Chhatre of University of Illinois — measured biodiversity, and studied labour practices and market dynamics of the farming areas.
During the project, she interacted with over 1,000 planters in the three coffee growing areas of Karnataka — Kodagu, Chikmagalur, and Hassan — and realised how frustrated they were “because they weren’t getting value for their coffee due to the middlemen involved”. That’s when the idea for Wild Kaapi originated, and the duo is now exploring new ways to get a premium price for products that support wildlife. “This includes social enterprises that can contribute to conservation action. (After all) traditional wildlife conservation relies heavily on donors,” says Sosale, who quit a career in automotive business to be a part of the venture. “At this stage we have two commitments: we have told coffee growers we will pay them the highest price, and, with the profit we generate, we will build a conservation fund to award grants to young conservationists,” he adds.
Millennials are more discerning towards coffee, observes Sosale. “Today’s consumer is informed. Ethical and conscious consumption is what we want to tap into.” To qualify for certification, the coffee not only had to have a good cupping (tasting) score, but the plantation had to support a vast biodiversity. Of the more than 187 farms they audited (recording the species of birds, butterflies, mammals, amphibians and trees), only four made the cut: Agora (with 124 species), Bindiga (137), Hulikere (119) and Cornerstone (120). Wild Kaapi has named their single-origin Arabicas after the plantations they are sourced from.
Shreedev Hulikere, a third-generation coffee grower with 60 acres in Chikmagalur, who is partnering with Wild Kaapi, says he wasn’t aware of the numerous wildlife species on their estate till now. “While my ancestors traditionally hunted, I’m a conservationist. I tell my labourers not to destroy any bird nests. I know that barbets nest here and they eat the borer worms that destroy coffee. Similarly, I’m not going to chase away the monkeys and civets that eat my coffee because I’m being compensated elsewhere. Just because a porcupine destroys a pepper creeper, I’m not going to hunt it down,” he says.
Love thy neighbour
The audit also revealed a few surprises. “We found frogs listed as endangered or threatened in the IUCN Red List (the world’s most comprehensive inventory of global conservation status) at these plantations,” says Karanth. The certification not only places their coffee in a premium space, but also paves the way for a new movement. “If you have wildlife-friendly practices, you can promote sustainable agriculture. We are trying to establish a new model — a profitable enterprise that also enables better livelihoods. This hasn’t been tried before; it’s a new way of thinking,” says Karanth.
(photo credit: Ramki Sreenivasan)
While their immediate goal is to prove that such a model is sustainable, Sosale is also mulling introducing coffee scrubs, soaps, candles and flavourings — all huge product lines in the international space. Moving into pepper and cardamom, which grow hand-in-hand with coffee, also holds much promise.
Prices start at ₹390 for 250 gms.
To know more, and buy the coffee, check out wildkaapi.com.