Coffee Keeps Its Mojo: Producers Overcome Pandemic Obstacles Coffee has remained widely available on supermarket shelves even though COVID-19 has been particularly bad in some of the world's largest coffee-growing nations.
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Coffee Keeps Its Mojo: Producers Overcome Pandemic Obstacles

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Coffee Keeps Its Mojo: Producers Overcome Pandemic Obstacles

Coffee Keeps Its Mojo: Producers Overcome Pandemic Obstacles

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

The pandemic has been particularly bad in some of the world's largest coffee-growing nations. But unlike some of the supply chain failures we saw with toilet paper and paper towels, the flow of coffee hasn't let up, at least for now. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: In the middle of the coffee bean harvest in Rwanda, the government ordered a nationwide lockdown, and life in the country came to a standstill. Schools, churches and most businesses were shut.

GILBERT GATALI: I mean, lockdown in the whole country meant cars weren't moving. Very few people were moving. It was very different.

GATALI: Gilbert Gatali runs a small coffee exporting business out of Rwanda, focusing on high-end, specialty beans.

(SOUND OF HORN HONKING)

BEAUBIEN: Speaking on a cellphone from a busy street in Kigali, Gatali says the government allowed the agricultural sector to continue working, but he had to get special permission to drive out to the coffee-growing districts. During the harvest, farmers bring the raw coffee into washing stations in remote villages to start processing the beans.

GATALI: Farmers coming in with sacks of coffee on their head, others coming in with small bags, others on a bike.

BEAUBIEN: Initially, Gatali was worried that the harvest could suffer due to the chaos of the lockdown. At the washing station, the beans are dumped out on long wooden tables.

GATALI: I'll give you an example. At my washing station, we're probably hiring a little over 70 people. Ninety-nine percent of them are women who are standing next to each other hand-sorting coffee.

BEAUBIEN: Just like at meatpacking plants and auto factories in the U.S., social distancing now means Rwandans sorting coffee beans have to be farther apart. Instead of 20 women at each table, now there's only six or seven, which slows down the processing. There've been other delays at warehouses in Kigali, and truck companies had to swap drivers at the border because Rwanda hasn't been allowing in foreigners. In the midst of all this, roasting companies in North America and Europe were canceling orders as espresso machines sat cold and coffee bars remain shut. Yet despite the upheaval, Gatali got his beans harvested, sorted and packed for export. Other top coffee-producing countries have been even harder hit by the pandemic. Brazil, India, Mexico and Colombia all rank in the top 10 globally for both COVID cases and coffee production.

STEPHEN HURST: It's natural to think that the harvesting of the coffee crops may be disrupted or, perhaps, badly disrupted.

BEAUBIEN: That's Stephen Hurst, a coffee trader based in London.

HURST: Quite honestly and quite frankly, we've seen relatively little if any evidence of that.

BEAUBIEN: Hurst's company, Mercanta the Coffee Hunters, buys coffee from all over the world. In the midst of the pandemic, his growers are coping. In Costa Rica, farmers hired locals after Nicaraguan picking crews were blocked at the border. In Honduras, when buyers couldn't fly to Central America to sample the crop, growers shipped little half-pound taster bags to roasting companies in Seattle.

HURST: We've had disruptions in Brazil, which is related to the lack of containers and the lack of shipping space because shipping lines have withdrawn ships and changed their scheduling. But, funny enough, it doesn't appear to be widespread to the picking of the coffee beans themselves.

BEAUBIEN: In fact, even though it has the largest coronavirus outbreak in the world after the United States, Brazil appears to be on track to produce a record coffee crop this year. Around the world, COVID-19 has upended many industries and caused some analysts to declare globalization over. The coffee trade, however, shows that even in the face of this pandemic, some global supply chains remain incredibly resilient.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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