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How Nagaland has made it to the coffee map, cultivating specialty beans in the shade of its high-altitude forests

The seeds are procured from the Coffee Board of India, and sent to several small farmers to be planted.

ET CONTRIBUTORS|
Mar 16, 2019, 11.00 PM IST
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Naga Coffee
In 2018, around seven tonnes of green beans — out of the 10 tonnes harvested by Naga Coffee — were exported to Cape Town.
By Avantika Bhuyan

Until five years ago, no one could have imagined that coffee could grow in the forests in the mountainous district of Zunheboto in Nagaland. Today, the lush woodland, located at an altitude of 1,852 metres, yields a well-balanced cup, which is redolent with peppery, spicy aromas, contains notes of carrot cake and caramel, and has a delicious aftertaste of vanilla ice cream.

Zunheboto is one of the five districts, the others being Mon, Wokha, Khar and Boje, which offer specialty high-altitude coffee, grown in the natural shade of the forest — unlike the recent cultivation in the sun where the berries ripen very fast — thus adding Nagaland to the coffee map.

This is part of a unique public-private partnership called Naga Coffee, which was formalised three years ago, as a memorandum of understanding between the Department of Land Resources, Nagaland, and Noble Cause, a South African company by Pieter Vermeulen.

Today, Naga Coffee Pvt Ltd is jointly managed by Vermeulen — a certified coffee taster and roaster — and two young Naga entrepreneurs, Kajiikho Arücho and Vivito Yeptho. Says Yeptho: “Our main motive is to promote homegrown coffee. Also, we want to generate employment for the young people in the state by training them as baristas and offering them franchises to our coffee shops,” says Yeptho.

The team is following a five-year, comprehensive plan, drawn up during the signing of the MoU, for coffee development in Nagaland, which aims to cover an area of 5,000 hectares till 2020.

Pieter Vermeulen
Pieter Vermeulen
Pieter Vermeulen, a South African who is part of this unique PPP venture, says Naga Coffee has a lot of potential due to the citrus flavour peculiar to Himalayan coffee

Already, 6,00,000 coffee saplings have been planted in five districts. The seeds are procured from the Coffee Board of India, and sent to several small farmers to be planted.

These farmers then supply the cherries to Yeptho and his team, to be roasted at their cafe in Dimapur. Naga Coffee isn’t just showcased at its cafes in the state, but is exported to South Africa, Dubai and Bahrain as well.

Vermeulen has had a long tryst with coffee. “My grandfather used to farm grapes. Alongside that, he used to grow coffee as well for the family’s consumption,” he says. Also, while growing up in Cape Town, he witnessed a strong coffee culture, with the city boasting over a thousand coffee shops.

Seeds

Vermeulen started to experiment with roasts and blends, and soon started Noble Cause to build economically sustainable coffee-growing societies. He was working in Nepal, when he heard that the Department of Land Resources of Nagaland was looking to revive coffee cultivation in the state. The ensuing collaboration combined his interest in forest-grown, high-altitude coffee, with the land resources team’s need for expertise and access to international market.

This isn’t the first time that coffee cultivation has been tried in Nagaland. “In the early 1980s, the government of Nagaland started coffee cultivation. But due to middlemen, farmers would only get Rs 10-15 a kilo and were left disillusioned. They had no direct access to the market,” says Hoto Yeptho, who has just retired as director of the Department of Land Resources, and was part of the project since its inception. Political unrest further worsened the situation and coffee farms were abandoned.

Coffee
Coffee is grown in the shade of the forests in five districts of Nagaland. This is different from sun-grown coffee where berries ripen very fast

Before the state government thought of coffee, it had entrusted the department with yet another project — to cultivate rubber, a crop that was equally alien to the region, but was being successfully grown in the neighbouring states of Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura. “It proved to be a success in Nagaland. So, the government thought of trying its hand at coffee again. And we took up the challenge,” says Hoto. The mandate was that fair prices should be offered to farmers to empower them to grow the crop.

Some of the varieties being grown include the signature “Cauvery”, developed by the Coffee Board of India, and a hybrid descendant of “Caturra” and “Hybrido-de-Timor”. “It has a citrus, chocolate flavour. The terroir plays an interesting role in the acidity of the coffee.

Naga Coffee
“We want to promote homegrown coffee. We also want to generate employment for young people by training them as baristas and offering them franchises to our coffee shops” Vivito Yeptho, director, Naga Coffee

The crop, here, is interplanted with pineapple and black cardamom trees,” says Vermeulen, “We do micro lots and micro processing.

Last year, 17 different varieties were cupped.” For instance, the plantation in Wokha is located in a space that used to be a ginger farm some time ago, and hence the cup has ginger flavours with some citrus notes.

In 2018, around seven tonnes of green beans — out of the 10 tonnes harvested by Naga Coffee — were exported to Cape Town. These were the yield from the old trees. This year will see new plantations bearing fruit, hence the produce is likely to be higher.

Both Yeptho and Vermeulen see this as a long-term project, with newer techniques of fermentation to be introduced in a couple of years. Naga Coffee has a lot of potential due to the citrus flavour peculiar to Himalayan coffee. It is likely to do well, maintains Vermeulen.

(The writer is a Delhi-based journalist)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
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