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Don’t Panic: Four Problems that Can Happen in Direct Sourcing and How to Solve Them

Learn how to solve quality issues, avoid shipping delays, bridge language barriers and make relationships last with two seasoned roasters: the founder of Neues Schwarz and the green buyer of Ozone and Hasbean

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There is a lot of myth surrounding direct trade/sourcing. Some say it’s too risky or complicated. That it’s not worth the hassle. Maybe this was the case ten years ago but it’s certainly not the case today. Roasters who source directly agree that the process is rewarding and pays off with consumers, increasingly aware of sustainability and traceability.  

It would be a lie, however, to say that sourcing directly is a sea of roses. Problems do exist - but isn’t that the case with everything in life? 

Rather than shying away from this reality, we consulted two seasoned professionals about the challenges they have encountered and how they solved them. Disclaimer: all these issues are rare. 

There is no need to panic with Benedikt Heitmann, one of the founders of Neues Schwarz café and roastery in Germany, and Roland Glew, the green coffee buyer for Ozone Coffee Roasters and Hasbean in the UK. Below, they teach you how to troubleshoot when things go kaput.

Problem One: The Quality Drops

Benedikt, in the middle of the photo, says that quality issues are rare (Photo: Neues Schwarz)

As a natural product, the characteristics of green coffee can change over time. Ryan Brown talks about it in his book. He remembers buying an 86 points coffee early in the season (which was also shipped early) that improved in quality. The opposite could happen when his shipping was late. You can’t stop this variation but you can definitely minimise it. 

Solution 1: Have a strict QC for offer samples
If you don’t QC it, you won’t see it coming. Roasters must create consistent quality control standards and protocols that can be easily communicated across the chain. Take note of primary and secondary defects, moisture levels, cupping scores, screen size and everything else you can measure.

Offer samples and/or pre-shipment samples will be made available to buyers - and you should always ask what you are getting - to provide a benchmark for quality. On Algrano, for example, you can compare the producer QC to Algrano’s lab QC and your own.  

Solution 2: Find a good logistics partner
A reliable logistics partner is what gives Benedikt peace of mind. “When we buy directly via Algrano, we have the assurance that they have cupped the coffees twice already”, he says. This drastically reduces the quality risk as the service provider monitors quality at different stages of transport and can deal with issues before the order is delivered.   

Having a wide range of shipping dates is also important as early containers get the coffee to you faster and later containers help you get coffees that take longer to prepare, like slowly dried naturals and high altitude lots, which take longer to ripen.

Solution 3: Never fight. Always negotiate
If the quality of the landed coffee doesn’t match the offer in a significant way, Roland always tries to understand the seller’s position and look for a solution that works for both sides. "Let’s say we approved a pre-shipment sample and when the coffee turned up the PSS and the one that's arrived don't match - the bean size is a bit different, maybe the colour doesn't match - and the landed lot doesn't taste as good." 

One option would be to get angry and argue about it. But, as Roland puts it, "you can choose to be confrontational or look at the landed coffee in its own right. Could you use it? If yes, maybe there's a compromise where the seller explains how the mix up happened (I want to be reassured it won't happen next time!) and gives a discount on the price".

Solution 4: Have a plan B (lend)
For Benedikt, quality issues have been rare occurrences. They don't necessarily pursue a price discount, though. “Our policy is to never pay the producer less and always feedback”, the roaster explains. He also points out that having a plan B and managing blends with flexible components are useful tricks to have up his sleeve. This way, he can easily use a different coffee as part of a blend without compromising his profitability and the satisfaction of the consumer. 

“When we had this issue, we looked at taking the coffee (which arrived and cupped at a lower quality than expected) and blending it into a house blend. It was still perfectly tasty, just not quite as high scoring as we hoped for the single-origin offering [to which it was originally intended].”

Problem Two: The Container is Late

The past two years made everyone worry about shipping. Globally, only 30% of shipments reached their destination on time. Whether due to bad weather, a pandemic or the wind blowing a massive ship that blocked one of the most important canals in the world, cargo ships (and your coffee) can end up arriving later than planned. Well... Ship happens.

Solution 1: Know what are your spot options
“We definitely always have options”, says Roland, explaining he always have an idea of spot offers from his suppliers. Not just because of delays but also because things change. “The needs of the business and the options that are available (be that spot purchases, altering blends or changing what coffees our customers get) are constantly evolving. The best option now may not be the best option next week. I always have lots of options available to fill gaps created by delays, and the earlier we can identify an issue, the easier it is for us to respond to.”

Solution 2: Increase your order volume by a little bit
Like many, Benedikt experienced hold-ups recently. “Our Brazil shipment got delayed. It meant we had to fall back onto spot offerings, but we have since increased our purchase size to allow us more stock.” There are also reports of roasters who split their volumes into shipments leaving origin at different times. If one gets stuck, the other comes through.

Solution 3: Track your container
Sea freight is tracked every time a container moves, so maintaining clear communication with your logistics partner can help you forecast any potential delays. In fact, they might be able to tell you if a shipment will be late at the time they receive the PSS, before the coffee leaves the producer’s warehouse. 

“Our Brazil shipment got delayed. It meant we had to fall back onto spot offerings, but we have since increased our purchase size to allow us more stock.” - Benedikt Heitmann, Neues Schwarz

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Problem Three: Language Barriers and General Differences

Not speaking the language of your supplier makes it hard to learn about them, make special requests or negotiate directly. Or does it? Developing a relationship can look more daunting than it actually is and tools to facilitate communication are widely available.

Solution 1: Start digitally
The advantage of starting a conversation online is that you can use translating tools at all times, which is awkward to do in person. Deepl is by far the best one and saves users from embarrassing gaffes. 

As many producers have websites and social media platforms (not to mention Algrano and Vollers Hub accounts), you can find lots of information about them online to facilitate the initial dialogue. 

“It's important that you take time to learn about their [your new potential supplier] particular approach [to sourcing and doing businness] and what both of you can do to make life easier for the other one”, vows Roland. Read everything you can about the producer and their country! 

Solution 2: Again, find a good logistics partner
A logistics partner with knowledge about many origins goes a long way. Even if they don’t know something to begin with they’ll be able to find out. “Every country has slightly different laws and rules, but also different cultures and languages”, Roland starts. “If you have good partners as we do, they'll usually help you navigate the complexities.” 

Roland also points out that different producing countries might not have the same laws and rules, which partners can help with. "A good example of this would be in Kenya, where you would usually need to work with not just a producer but a marketing agent and an export agent (those two may be the same people). The rules in Kenya can be complicated, but a direct relationship is still possible if you understand all the people involved", he explains, adding that this is always "best done over a beer and some nyama choma".

According to Benedikt, having a  good logistics partner means you don’t really have to worry about the export/import process. “Consolidating lots can be beneficial and help overcome some issues”, he says, talking about sharing shipments with other roasters, a service offered by Algrano. By doing this, you don’t have to deal with the export or the import side at all.

“Every country has slightly different laws and rules, but also different cultures and languages. If you have good partners as we do, they'll usually help you navigate the complexities.” - Roland Glew, Hasbean

Problem Four: Making Relationships Last

One of the best parts of sourcing directly is the opportunity to build relationships. Coffee partnerships are not that different from other business connections. The key difference is distance. So how can you find out who is best to partner with? And how to make sure everyone is happy? 

Solution 1: Start small
The best way to test a new supplier is to buy a few bags. This way you can evaluate them without taking a big risk. Pay attention to their communication style, transparency and professionalism, check the quality of the coffee after delivery and overtime. “When buying from a new producer, we always try to buy around 5 to 10 bags to start off”, says Benedikt. 

Solution 2: Manage expectations
Producers can get super excited when a roaster becomes interested in their coffee, especially if they are new to exporting. Being crystal clear, explaining how much you can buy and if you want to buy long-term is essential. 

“We're honest and open, we don't make promises we can't keep. We're empathic, we spend time together and we don't rush the process. It's about starting small to build mutual trust and understanding, and always putting the work in!”, Roland recommends.

Solution 3: Get in touch regularly
Producers working in specialty coffee love it for similar reasons you do. They appreciate the people and the industry. More often than not, they want to hear from you, how your business is doing, how the customers are receiving the coffee and if you got any nice comments about it. 

This is why “we always engage in regular communication and feedback”, Benedikt says. “Handling relationships vary from producer to producer but in general, we try to ensure we have communication by phone at least every quarter.” 

Solution 4: Don’t just travel. Host
Just as roasters dream about origin trips, producers also love to travel to destination countries. Hosting your suppliers helps them financially, as that might be a concern for some, and gives them an insight into your reality and business. “We aim to travel to the farms as much as possible and return the gesture by hosting producers here in Germany”, Benedikt underlines. You can also host cuppings for your suppliers and introduce them to more roasters.

Solution 5: Enjoy yourself
The best relationships are the ones that go beyond business. When the roaster and the producer are a good match (in values, views of the world and even tastes), sourcing becomes fun and meaningful. Ultimately, that is what everybody wants. And wanting it doesn’t mean you’re a naive roaster. 
For the final bit of wisdom, we chose a quote from Roland: “Remember that coffee is the vehicle for the relationship, not the relationship itself, so look after your people and work with those you enjoy working with.”

This article was written by Emma Haines, the founder of UK-based Caffeina Consulting. For the last ten years, Emma has focused on specialty coffee training and how to incorporate specialty elements into commercial environments. She is a resident trainer at the London School of Coffee and part of the SCA Equity, Diversity & Inclusivity Taskforce. Access to education, especially in producing countries is a driver in her career. 

Emma has experience with the supply chain and a focus on sustainability and gender equity. As a coffee professional, she strives to drive change through education, whether working with a client to oversee a new café start-up or supporting producers with access to a new market.

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