it’s our turn #3
How the coffee business stabilizes the building fabric
For the March issue of this column, I chose an interviewee whose work at the intersection of architecture and responsibility is not immediately apparent. Why? March 8 is International Women’s Day. Anna Lina Bartl, coffee producer, founder of MULEMBE Coffee and protagonist of this series of columns, has inspired me not only with her consistent attitude and supply chain transparency. With her work, the young entrepreneur empowers coffee farmers as well as women and girls in the growing region of the coffee she produces and distributes. The arc gets a little bigger this time. Grab a cup of coffee and immerse yourself in the world of coffee beans, female taboos, and architecture.
Anna Lina Bartl and coffee are a love affair that began back in 2007 in Hanover’s Liepmannstrasse. As a schoolgirl, she not only earned money for her driver’s license at the Ulbrich coffee roasting plant, but was also seduced by the aesthetics, sensory properties, and changes in the coffee beans during roasting, by the diversity of the coffee-growing regions, and by the fine art of traditional roasting. This was followed by a bachelor’s degree in Oecotrophology and a master’s degree in Agricultural Sciences. The main areas of study: Coffee cultivation, growth, and production. Even in her bachelor thesis, the focus was on sustainability issues in green coffee production.
To dig into coffee cultivation literally and with her own hands, Anna Lina participated in a three-month research project at Mount Elgon in Uganda. With funding from BMZ (German Federal Ministry for Cooperation) and IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture), the aim was to use comparative studies of coffee cultivation in Uganda and cocoa production in Ghana to determine the effects of climate change in relation to the plants, so-called “pests & diseases”, soil, harvest volumes and quality. As part of her master’s thesis, the agronomist undertook the quality part of the study in coffee production. Her result-se were broad (depending on the shade of the plot, altitude, coffee variety), the open questions even more numerous after the intensive quarter year in the field.
“Although so much knowledge about coffee cultivation has already been generated from research, it is not accessible to the actual coffee producer” noted Anna Lina and began to strategically fill the gap. With the founding of MULEMBE Kaffee UG, she has made it her mission to bring her specialized knowledge to the streets, specifically to the trails at Mount Elgon. The company name is certainly a door opener, because “Mulembe” means “Hello, I come with peaceful intentions” in the local language of the coffee producers – and that is exactly what the MULEMBE team does with its direct trade at eye level.
Incidentally, the lack of a link between knowledge generation and knowledge transfer and application is not a Ugandan phenomenon. What are the problems? Many farmers are illiterate, and few speak English, explains Anna Lina. This makes the research results, which are usually written in English, a closed book. In addition, the small farms, which are comparable in size to an allotment garden, have neither an Internet connection nor an e-mail address. This means that someone from the MULEMBE team must physically travel to each individual farm, for example, to hand over the results of the sampling. And these in turn must be translated into a local language (Lugisu is spoken in the Bulambuli district) beforehand. I emphasize this here because I consider it an exciting aspect of social sustainability not to exclude anyone through language.
MULEMBE’s local commitment is because Anna Lina limits its raw coffee purchases to just one region on Mount Elgon – unlike other importers who buy from where a rich and good harvest has just been harvested. Concentrating on just one growing region entails responsibility for the producers on the one hand and a business risk on the other. Accordingly, my interlocutor has a great interest in making the local situation fair and equitable. “In all our efforts, we make sure that the producers are not dependent on us and that the whole community benefits equally from the added value – that’s why we buy the same amount from each of the 44 farms and don’t oblige the producers to sell us their harvest next year as well.”
However, there is usually a lot of interest in a long-term business relationship, as MULEMBE not only pays the highest purchase price in the region, but also supports its coffee farmers year-round through its local team led by Priscilla Nagudi. Since the on-site support began in 2018, producers have seen higher crop yields and better coffee quality. Even resilience to weather extremes is now a stronger one. In addition, by providing needed materials free of charge, such as drying tables or the hand pulper to peel coffee cherries, producers have lower production costs. To integrate the weakest, those who cannot harvest enough coffee on their own are allowed to sell their coffee in groups – with the aim that this group of people can also make a living (again) from their coffee cultivation in the future by increasing their own productivity.
But the support goes beyond just coffee production. Coffee cherries are harvested only once a year, whereas cocoa is harvested several times. In addition, a cacao plant towers over the coffee bush. MULEMBE takes advantage of this circumstance and provides the coffee with pleasant shade through the additional cacao trees planted in the plantation and the producers with income diversity through the sale of the cacao beans. In addition, beehives were distributed and workshops on honey production were held to generate another source of income and improve the yields of the coffee plants through pollination via bees. Many small smart coffee hacks, which directly increases the living situation of the local business partners and strengthens the confidence.
This above-average commitment on the part of the coffee’s companions and customers is also active research, as Anna Lina is investigating the potential for improving the income situation of smallholder coffee farmers in Mount Elgon in her doctoral thesis.
The commitment continues at the other end of the supply chain here in Germany. Anna Lina and her team bring every single coffee farmer out of anonymity and turn them into coffee heroes. Following the principle of the Panini pictures of soccer legends, I, as a buyer, find a photo of the producer of “my” coffee on every coffee package I purchase and can also access a video or audio message of the coffee producer via a QR code on the packaging. The photo and the name of the respective producer are printed on a removable sticker, so that we consumers can put together a team of coffee producers in a sticker album and make notes about the respective coffees. In addition, those who come to the MULEMBE Café at Harenberger Str. 3 to enjoy the coffee are offered the opportunity to send a personal message to the producer in a kind of poetry album. A greeting, a statement about the taste of the coffee or simply a thank you for the special work that the producer does every day. A living appreciation of value – also or especially as a consumer.
Up to this line, we have dealt exclusively with coffee from Uganda. But that is far from all, because Anna Lina’s commitment to the local people goes beyond the “black gold”.
I would like to title the first sidebar with the term “feminine hygiene article” – a word that would probably make my elementary school-aged son’s ears turn red. But it is precisely such an article that can decide whether an illiterate woman becomes a woman who goes her own way! The MULEMBE team has noticed during its work in Mount Elgon that the girls stay away from school on the days of their menstruation. The shame is too great – and the money for hygienic aids is not available. Accordingly, one of the company’s many social projects is responsible for providing the female farm members with feminine hygiene articles on a regular basis.
One of the advantages of our “first world” is access to washable and thus reusable, sustainable and cost-saving period underwear. However, because the houses of the farmer families have neither electricity nor running water, such underwear could currently only be washed by hand and thus not very hygienically in a tub.
This is where we turn to architecture. MULEMBE is active in this field in several ways. With the support of the team, a house in Buginyanya, the union of several small villages, is currently being officially converted into a kind of birthplace. Unofficially, the coffee farmers and their daughters find additional help here on all specifically female topics, including domestic violence or even the washing of period underwear with the washing machine, which will soon be arriving.
In addition to generating fair income, supporting education, and improving health conditions, Anna Lina’s coffee business also has an impact on the construction industry in other ways: the land of the farmers has been inherited over many generations. As a rule, ownership claims are not notarized. To protect the owners from land grabbing, the land must be officially registered. The local coffee experts also provide support in dealing with the authorities. But even if one’s own land or home can no longer be stolen “without further ado” by fellow human beings after registration, the farmer’s huts remain exposed to the climate and especially to its changes.
At the latest since the flood disaster in the Ahr valley, we Germans also know about the devastating effects of heavy rain phenomena, which increase in appearance and severity worldwide. The classic farm hut and its inhabitants must now increasingly fear landslides and mudslides on Mount Elgon. A change that Anna Lina and her team are also observing with alarm. But they would not be MULEMBE if they did not also react to this problem in advance: Together with the Hamburg-based architect Lisa Heidenblut, the team is cataloging the different construction methods of the huts, their locations, and the weather conditions to which the buildings are exposed. In this way, individual solutions for retrofitting the different building types can be developed without having to plan each building individually. The knowledge generated once is applied several times and can be used directly in the construction of new farm buildings – especially since the planning is carried out exclusively with materials and resources that are cost-effective, environmentally compatible, and available in sufficient quantities on site.
Kathrin Albrecht in Stadtkind 3/23
Portrait Anna Lina Bartl, www.mulembe-kaffee.de © Luisa Höhne
Collage coffee and cocoa cultivation at Mount Elgon © Anna Lina Bartl
Farmhouse under construction © Anna Lina Bartl