The Coffee Connoisseur

STORY OF: Koster Tarihoran
WRITTEN BY: Raghda Elsharawy in association with Aymen Kasem and Fathu Hidayat

North Sumatra is the top arabica coffee region in Indonesia, yet many coffee farmers lack an understanding of good agricultural practice for proper coffee cultivation. To address this, the International Islamic Trade Finance Corporation (an autonomous entity within the Islamic Development Bank), in collaboration with the Sustainable Coffee Platform of Indonesia and the Petrasa Foundation, implemented the Coffee Farmers Field Training Program (CFFTP) as part of its Coffee Export Development Program. The aim of the CFFTP was to improve the knowledge of coffee farmers in Indonesia and equip them with the necessary skills to increase the quality and quantity of their coffee production in a sustainable way.

At the break of dawn, I hurriedly put on my frayed boots and secured my straw hat. I carefully closed the door behind me and swiftly stepped out into the cool, crisp morning. It was a new working day on the farm, which meant another opportunity for my crops and withered hopes to yield. But on this particular day, I had a special feeling. I had done everything right: ploughed the soil with extra care, planted the seedlings with patience and even used extra fertilizer. Now, it was time to reap the rewards and witness God’s miraculous work. 

I slowed my stride as I approached my farming plot, heart racing like the wild winds that had destroyed a third of my harvest the previous year. With wondering eyes, I came to a sudden halt. Where I had expected a school of lustrous shoots, standing upright with firm determination to grow into proud arabica coffee plants, I discovered wilting shoots, bowing helplessly. My hopes sank and shriveled into the mud beneath my feet as I silently despaired. With four children and a wife to look after, I had hoped this year would be a good year. 

But with an average coffee production of a mere 12 kg a fortnight, I was struggling to provide for my family and improve their impoverished living conditions. I thought about my daughter Irma, who I had promised to buy a new school bag as her books kept falling out from the holes of her old one. I thought about the leak in the kitchen that my wife constantly complained about, and the new revision books my son Rio would need for his upcoming exams. But with such poor cultivation, what was I to do? Feeling helpless, I raised my hands to the sky and prayed. 

Growing up in North Sumatra, the top arabica coffee region in Indonesia, I had dreams of cultivating my own coffee farm since I was a young boy. I would watch my father working out in the plantation from dawn till dusk, returning home with a muddied face and cracked fingertips from laboring in the sweltering heat. I remember one day asking my father why he worked so hard and he replied, “Koster, my son, God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. We must work hard to succeed in life.”

With generations of coffee farmers in my family, I also wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and make him proud. I knew that coffee was the most common agricultural commodity in our region and heard that the global demand for it was rising day by day. According to the Indonesian Central Statistics Body, in 2018 Indonesian coffee exports rose by almost 13% from the previous year to 464,000 tons. The total annual export value from the coffee industry was USD 1.2 billion or around IDR 16.8 trillion. Coffee farming offered many of us in North Sumatra the opportunity for a better life. But like other farmers in my village, I was harvesting poor crops year after year and struggling to get by. 

"I learnt a lot during the training, especially the importance of good agricultural practices (GAPs), which I began applying in my coffee farm immediately."

One day, news reached the plantation that a local NGO, the Petrasa Foundation, was implementing the Coffee Farmers Field Training Program (CFFTP) as part of the International Islamic Trade Finance Corporation’s Coffee Export Development Program in Indonesia. The program would provide training in organic coffee production and enable arabica coffee farmers to improve their knowledge and equip them with the skills to increase the quality and quantity of their coffee production. “All praise be to the Lord,” I said out loud. “This is exactly what I’ve been praying for!” With sessions running throughout the year and available at a local training center. I decided to enroll. I remember the very first session I attended after traveling 15 km by bus – walking nervously into the building like a schoolboy on his first day at school. I peered around the conference room filled with 20 unfamiliar faces and realized that they too were anxious like me. Some fidgeted in their seats while others attempted to make small talk. 

“Are you looking for a seat? This one is free,” a friendly man said, beckoning me towards an empty seat next to his. I smiled as I sat down and within minutes, I had made my first friend, Boru Capah. At that time, I didn’t realize Boru would become a lifelong friend. As a like-minded coffee farmer, who was determined to overcome the challenges of coffee farming, Boru was ready to share his farming methods and best practices with me. God has an incredible way of placing people in the right place at the right time, I thought to myself. Excited, I was ready for this new chapter to begin. 

"From a humble coffee farmer, I was now a coffee connoisseur."

The aim of the CFFTP was to improve the livelihoods of coffee farmers in Indonesia by enabling us to get a better price for our coffee. The training program lasted a year and was designed to address the common challenges we faced, such as the utilization and optimization of local natural resources to produce organic and low-cost fertilizers and pesticides that were environmentally friendly. The program also provided us with materials to implement the new practices. Two chopping machines were supplied as simple equipment that could be used to produce organic fertilizer. In addition, more than 2,500 coffee seedlings and 1,000 shade tree seedlings were distributed. 

I learnt a lot during the training, especially the importance of good agricultural practices (GAPs), which I began applying in my coffee farm immediately. I planted shade trees to protect my coffee trees from direct sunlight, which also helped to absorb the water, improve soil fertility and prevent erosion. As a result, my pruned coffee trees showed significant positive changes. Prior to the training, my farm had thin soil, unhealthy plants, and unproductive twigs and shoots. Now, the plantation had healthier soil and healthier plants with more productive branches. My average coffee production increased to 40 kg per 2,000 m2 every two weeks, or around 75% more than before.

Two years later, I found myself resting under the shade of a tree on my coffee farm, admiring the abundance of ripened reddish-purple berries – waiting to be picked, roasted and ground. My favorite part of the process was packaging the coffee and labeling it with my very own coffee brand, Pinagar Sidikalang Arabica Coffee. My business was doing well, and I was bringing home around IDR 3,000,000 a month. From a humble coffee farmer, I was now a coffee connoisseur. As I stood up, I heard my daughter Irma call out to me from a distance, as she returned home from school. I waved to her as she ran into the house, a new school bag resting on her back. I smiled, thinking of how far I had come; indeed, God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.