Saturday 15 June 2024
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Saša Šestić on Project Origin: “I started travelling to coffee farms to have better quality control and better coffees”

The founder: "Currently we’re working about 13-14 origins, one hundred and plus coffee farmers. We also own three coffee farms in partnership of local producers, one in Panama - called Iris Estate, one in Nicaragua - called El Arbol, and one in Honduras - called Finca Beti."

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MILAN – Saša Šestić is the winner of the 2015 World Barista Championships, and also the founder of Ona Coffee and Project Origin, the latter being a company that uses green coffee beans as a means to empower people at coffee farms to improve their raw material and living conditions. We spoke directly with the creator of this enterprise about its genesis and impact on the world of coffee through the length of the supply chain – starting at origin.

When was Project Origin born, who gave it life, and with what mission?

“Project Origin was born in 2012. Prior to Project Origin being born, my being a coffee
roaster, Ona Coffee Roastery was already established, I started travelling to coffee farms
to be able to have better quality control and better-quality coffees, and to work directly with the producers, in order to understand more about the product so I can deliver greater
quality to our customers.

Prior to my India trip I visited Brazil, several coffee farms, but in my India trip everything
changed for me, because I visited a farm that was producing coffees since the 1960s. The manager was there for 30+ years and never tasted their coffees, prior to my visit. I found it a little bit disturbing that they don’t know where their coffees were going to and secondly, that the living on the farm was very basic;

there were no sanitary systems, the kids and little babies had to go with their mums deep into the forest, because that’s where the coffee grows there, it’s like in a jungle. So kids were going there with their mums who were carrying them, otherwise, if they don’t pick the coffee, they don’t get an income. In this situation, kids were getting hurt in the jungle or going missing.

These stories made me think that it’s not fair. It’s not correct. We have a good life in
Australia, buying and being able to work in the coffee industry. It takes 15 minutes to roast coffees, 30 seconds to extract coffee, but it takes years and years to grow the coffee, and it is such a big liability to be a coffee producer.

They are at the most risk and they are at the least sustainable part of the chain. So, this entire coffee chain is not right, and we rely on this first and most important part of the chain, which is the farming, but it is very weak.


So, this gave me the idea to start doing the projects.

When I came back home, I organized a latte art event. This was the very first project we
did where we raised the money for the childcare centre, so the kids can be left at the
centre, and someone can look after them. We paid for them to go, as we have in the past.

The following year we decided to do a project where we built sanitary systems, because
there was no hot or cold water. Later on, we organised medical checks where doctors
would come to the farm twice a year to make sure everyone is nicely treated.

So, all of these projects made me think that I would love to do a green bean company that
is not just going to buy the best coffees but is actually doing the projects. Projects that will
– and this is the mission! – projects that will improve the quality, will improve the livelihood, and projects that will connect people worldwide. This is why we are called Project Origin.”

How is the specialty selection done?

“For us, at Project Origin, it’s a lot fairer that specialty coffees needs to be coffee that is
grown in a sustainable way and grown in a meaningful way for producers, and, it is also

brewed in a meaningful way for us here that we understand where the coffee comes from,
and we also understand that it has a certain quality. For us, it will have an 83-point quality minimum.

This way we can produce a taste to customers without any defects, and really beautiful balance that can explain the certain origin in the best possible way. Coffees that are 80-81 points often have some sort of defect and we prefer not to be serving that.

Secondly, with our experience and being in this part of the industry for twelve years, we
understand that when we are pricing coffees that are 83-84 points, we are not really
depending on the basic prices. 83-84 points are giving farmers more sustainable prices that they can make it more profitable and more sustainable.

So, for us, yes, specialty coffee is about quality, but it is about sustainability for the entire coffee chain, making sure that everyone can participate in this, make a living and think of the future, for a positive future.”

How do you manage to have an economic and social impact on the farming communities you collaborate with?

“That’s a great question. It is definitely in our mission statement as our goal to make
economic and social impact for these communities. In a lot of communities, we go really
deep and we can proudly say, wow – we have done this.

In some other countries where we are dealing with bigger, possibly big container loads of coffee and where we are doing it with a business that is more established, as an example like in Brazil, we don’t necessarily go there so deep to look at how we can make a deep impact in these particular communities.

But we are doing it where we feel we need it, where we need to participate and we can see things are not right in this particular community, with our vision and expertise, we can make such a difference.

A quick example, four years ago we started a project in Kenya with a young man, David
Maguta, who had inherited a very small farm from his parents that was growing very basic
coffees. The way we impacted him was by supporting David to process and ferment coffee
better, across several visits and some funds we gave David to purchase equipment.

And his coffee moved from 82 points to 88 points and beyond. Not only that but we decided to do the project with David so that it not only impacted him, but also the other local farmers around him can be benefitted and impact from this exercise.

So, Project Origin invested in the communal, collaborative processing mill with David, so
now we buy the cherries from all of his neighbours for 30-50% more than what they would
normally sell them for to the processing mills, and he processes the coffees himself. And,
of course, we are adding greater value to the end consumer because they are tasting very
unique in the flavour profiles.

As part of the social impact, we also supported a local school with the Ona Retail Group.
And recently, the kid’s orphanage centre – because David does volunteer at that centre –
was going to close down, so I decided to put some funds towards it so they could continue operating and looking after these homeless kids.

So, this is one of the ways we work, and there are so many stories we have like this where
we add our value to make sure that these farms have great economics and also have a
better social impact on the farming communities.

Can you tell us exactly what CM Selections are and how Carbonic Maceration works?

“It was born in coffee when I competed in 2015. Before that, almost 3 years of Project
Origin existing, I knew that in order to give greater value to the farmers, I need to
understand on a high-level coffee fermentation to improve quality of coffees very fast, if processing it correctly.

So, I purchased a coffee farm in Honduras, and I travelled the world learning about processing, and in 2014 I was ready to start giving value to the farmers.

I collaborated with experts in the beer industry as well as the wine industry, starting to
learn those techniques, applying them in the coffee industry, this is when I learnt from
Clonakilla winery about carbonic maceration and started implementing CM processing into
the coffee.

After we won at the WBC, I wanted to share these recipes with the producers all over the world. I decided to travel in the world for over 200 days across two years, introduce the
recipes to so many coffee producers, ran coffee seminars, and published articles about
this process, all to really give the idea to the farmers that if they process coffees correctly,
they can greater value to the products.

People can go to the Project Origin website to see how the process works

And see all the different labels and flavour profiles we have for the CM process. We can control a lot variables around the microbes to allow a particular aroma flavour and volatiles to stand out and be more highlighted.

Ecuador – JoseEguiguren – Santa Gertrudis – Sasa Origin Trip 2023 (photo granted)

For example, we can push fermentation to give us more floral or terroir based characters, more yellow or red or purple characters.

This is why for our CM Selections we have different names, one is called Diamond, which represents the origin and variety – one from Ethiopia was used by Agna at WBC for her espresso – another is called Amber, which is more yellow, Jasper, which is red with a little bit of the yellow tropical fruits, and another called Indigo, which is more purple and chocolatey notes.

What are the origins that you have involved so far and are you planning to extend this further?

“There are different levels in different origins: currently we’re working about 13-14 origins, one hundred and plus coffee farmers. We also own three coffee farms in partnership of local producers, one in Panama – called Iris Estate, one in Nicaragua – called El Arbol, and one in Honduras – called Finca Beti.

We also run a lot of projects in lots of countries, including these ones. As well, El Salvador, Kenya, Ethiopia, Timor-Leste where we have invested in a mill, and the goal of these projects is that we collaborate with producers and some of them also reinvest into facilities to process and to dry coffee.

The reason we do that, is that we feel that we have the know-how and the infrastructure to add a greater value to those farmers. We also collaborate with other farmers in other countries, on the processing and supporting them to find a greater level for their coffee.

And finally, we also have a program for what we call the Black Label coffee. These Regional coffees concentrate on being a specific flavour profile in
those countries, to make sure that we have a high-level specialty coffees 83-84 points,
sustainable option to get the right prices for our customers.”

How do you deal with distribution in the world, also considering the new challenges brought by the pandemic and the war?

“During the pandemic was definitely a different style from what we are doing now and we
don’t necessarily want to go back to that. But digital was the answer. Digital farm visits,
digital conversations for how we processed the coffees, digital discussions for how we
started new ventures on the farms, and digital how we worked with our customers and
delivered our products to them.

Moving forward, it’s actually now very personal. We started this business because we wanted to build personal, meaningful relationships with communities.

So, our team is travelling throughout the world again, to continue supporting with the processing, the social practices. Recently our GM, Habib, and Yanina travelled to Africa, and they recognised that we need to improve and support in purchasing new drying beds in certain countries. We also need to improve the milling at some stations.

So, when we visit we can see a lot more, we can make connections, and we can actually
plan things not only months ahead, but years ahead. This is the real difference. And now,
we have the opportunity to start bringing customers to the farms so they can have the
connections for themselves, and they can look at tailoring the coffees and flavour profiles
they would like.

Moving forward, we are looking at setting up a Project Origin Middle East for distribution.
We have been lucky enough to work with so many national and international coffee
roasters prior to harvest and where we can tailor the coffees that they like, and looking at
having agreements in place before the coffee is even picked.

This obviously guarantees the safety for the farmers, they know exactly what they need to pick and how to process the coffees to suit what the customers want, and the customers are getting a very curated product for themselves.

Because these pre commitments are done, we have systems in place to support our customers financially. So, this is a way to go forward to build long-lasting relationships with customers to give them the products they want rather than give them the products we sell, and they might not like it.

What’s in the future for Project Origin?

“If we talk from an operational perspective, we obviously moved into a new warehouse and
new beautiful facilities about 6 months ago and we’re settling in there. We’re starting
Project Origin in Middle East, so we will be very active there and putting a lot of energy
into supporting that community with their delicious coffee, as well as education and other
platforms we can offer to help grow that market.

We are also redefining the programs we are doing, like CM Selections and Supernaturals, the CM decaf, and working on projects with new countries, like Malaysia Liberica, as well as Timor-Leste. These countries seem possibly under-appreciated in quality currently, but our goal is to help and bring value with our know-how for the new species and coffees, together with our partners, to make meaningful products in these countries which we can celebrate them and their coffees worldwide.

We are also continuously working to strengthen the relationships we have, we continue doing research on the fermentation, processing and drying with our partners, and we intend to do more of that.

We are moving towards more collaborative fermentation mills, because we feel it is the best way to add value to the quality of the coffee and the farmers, because in a lot of small farms, people don’t necessarily have a lot of practices to ferment

coffees to the optimal level, or the don’t have the understanding about what customers
want. Because we are a global brand and deal with high end, competition style coffees, we deal with global roasteries who want to serve tasty coffees consistently, so we can draw
from our experience and communicate these things to wet mills and processing mills and
allow some of the farmers we work with to concentrate on growing the best coffees and
looking after the soil, the terroir, the farm.

So that’s part of the future, and there are so many things we want to do, which I am sure
people will find out soon. Thank you.”


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