“There, in the distance, is Odisha,” David Hogg points out, speaking in his unassuming way. Hogg is chief agriculture adviser and head of the livelihood division at Naandi Foundation, a Hyderabad-based social-sector organisation that works with tribals in Araku Valley and farmers across states. We are trekking back to the base from the top of a hill in the Eastern Ghats where we were exploring how coffee grows under the shade of a rainforest. This is the region that gives us the famous Araku coffee.
Naandi Foundation, co-founded by Manoj Kumar, CEO and the chief voice of a brand, has made the coffee big in Paris, and taken it to several countries across the world. Araku Coffee is now also part of India’s evolving boutique coffee scene.
Hogg—a wiry, wizened man—speaks about food sustainability, organic agriculture, and how to grow coffee in a land once denuded of most of its green cover, even as we take a steep route down from where the hills of Odisha look like they could be reached in a day’s trek (don’t try it, unless you are a professional trekker).
Tribal coffee estates
All around us are coffee estates but I cannot see any demarcations among them because there are none. The local tribes just know the boundaries of their coffee-producing patch in the rainforest.
One of the ladies wants me to taste a coffee cherry. To me, it tastes bland. It is no fun ploughing through the thick forest-growth to reach one of the coffee bushes as you get hit by overgrown branches, but as we climb down, we see many such bushes lining the mountain path that you can reach without much trouble; the view from the estate is of hills covered with lush forests. The sun permeates through the thick canopy, lighting up the forest floor. I would say this land has the quiet strength of an old-growth forest except this forest was logged for wood and other nefarious activities and has been nurtured back to health only in recent years.
When I travelled to Araku, the seasonal yellow Niger flower was in full bloom. The valley is fecund in ways that few regions are these days. The air is clean, and a green canopy overhangs most of the forest area and the villages around. Fields of banana, organic vegetables and organic coffee are nurtured by the tribals of Araku, under the guidance of David Hogg and Manoj Kumar.
This is tribal land, but not in ways we have come to recognise. Arakunomics has transformed the valley, which was once ruled by fierce Naxalites, into one of the finest coffee-growing regions in the world. It is an integrated economic model based on regenerative agriculture that promotes decentralised organic biodiversity food systems.
“It (the land) is recognised by The Rockefeller Foundation as the world’s first terroir-based coffee-growing region in the world,” says Hogg. Coffee farmers like Ichemma and Subo (who go by just their first names) take a ride on the Farmers Coop electric bus to reach their terroir-coffee plot on a hillside to tend to their estate and harvest their coffee, which they then bring to the cooperative run by Naandi Foundation. “We run a system in which the smallholder farmers own and maintain the coffee estates and we offer infrastructure, logistics, research, and marketing support,” he adds.
Naandi Foundation laid this into a policy plan called Arakunomics Vision, which now guides all their work—from the valley to their organic farm projects in other parts of India. But coffee is peculiar to Araku and, by now, most know that, first, the British cultivated coffee on these hills, and then, the Indian government (with not much success), till Naandi was born.
Today, Naandi’s brand of terroir-based Araku Coffee is grown on 25,000 acres of land in the valley (the world’s largest certified organic plantations), in farms from Cheruvu Pakala, the riverine island of Bankubeda to the Ananthagiri Hills, among mango and pepper trees that offer the coffee shrubs adequate shade and keep the soil healthy.
Location, location, location!Geographically, Araku is 114 km from Visakhapatnam, close to the Odisha border, a lush valley in the Eastern Ghats. Metaphorically, it exists in another space: The land is carbon-rich and home to an indigenous community, whose lives have changed owing to the popularity of the coffee they grow and the focus it has drawn to the region.
Naandi has on its board the who’s who of Indian industrialists, among them is Anand Mahindra. Manoj Kumar, who first came to Araku to set up a healthcare network to help prevent the death of tribal women during childbirth, says, “Today, big European brands (think Chanel and such) invest in the carbon credit produced by this land via the Livelihoods Carbon Fund. Eurofins (a global company that focuses on advanced material sciences, agro-science, and climate change) purchase carbon credits on behalf of these brands. We cannot cut a single tree because they are holders of the carbon bought by the brands.”
The story of sustainability, blended with good coffee—the only one that hasn’t given me heartburn or acidity—and a buzzing, healthy community is attracting travellers looking to engage with an indigenous community that has changed its destiny without falling prey to modern trappings.
Much of the farm produce from here travels to not just markets but also the Araku Coffee Lab in Bengaluru, where the team from Masque (the Mumbai restaurant, rated No. 21 on Asia’s Best Restaurant List, and No. 1 in India), which manages the café, segues Araku’s sustainability philosophy into the food served. Chef Rahul Sharma, who heads the kitchen, and Masque’s founder Aditi Dugar, travelled with us. Meals made by chef Rahul’s team use the local produce but appeal to global sensibilities.
Dugar says, “To me, this experimentation is a perfect story involving food, travel, tribals, and sustainable practices.”
One of the more interesting experiences was sitting down for lunch with two local women. “We have never eaten anything like this," they said sweetly, "but it is interesting. Our meal is rather simple: we eat before we go to our farms, carry some food, and come back and cook a gruel.”
What to do in Araku
The coffee plantations: Get in touch with Naandi Foundation and the Araku team for a tour of the farms, the plantations, and their processing units.
You will be lucky if Hogg is around; he is a man who can give you insights into Arukonomics and how the land can benefit from agriculture that gives back as much as it takes.
Do the whole trip. Go to the soil-composting unit where Hogg and his team produce composts using cascara, cow dung, and other homemade organic inoculants, which have transformed these fragile hills.
If you are there during harvest season, go cherry picking with one of the 14,000 farmers who grow Arabica coffee. Only the reddest of cherries with a floral aroma and fruitiness are picked by the farmers. Ask to see the coffee processing unit, where coffee cherries undergo fermentation, washing, and drying.
The coffee museum: Besides telling you the story of coffee in Araku Valley, the Coffee Museum sells 60 varieties of coffee beverages, coffee powders, and even coffee bean chocolates. The vibrant murals on the walls of the museum entrance narrate the journey of coffee, from bean to cup. The artwork depicts how cherries are plucked, pulped, fermented, and dried.
Drive through: Take Jeep rides through the banana fields, farms and hills. Have a meal with the locals and enjoy their folk dhimsa dance.Treks and hikes: Explore on foot. Take birdwatching trips offered by local purveyors. The valley stretches for approximately 35 km and has interesting caves, waterfalls, and rivulets during monsoons. Borra Caves, near Tyda village, is popular for its ancient stalactites and stalagmites. It is said that Lord Ram, Sita and Lakshman stayed here for some time during their 14-year exile, and the surrounding forests are a part of the mythologically important Kishkindha forest.