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BACOFA: Rising to international acclaim

Freshly picked coffee cherries

I discovered that Mt. Apo-sourced coffee beans have these unique fruity notes after speaking with different coffee enthusiasts and through third-wave coffee baristas. I always imagined then how the coffee farms looked like and how the beans are being processed to become one of the best-tasting brewed coffee I ever had.

Through the Domestic Tourism Invitation Program by the Tourism Promotions Board, we were able to set foot at one of the coffee farms in Sitio Bansalan, Davao Del Sur, and get to see in person the Coffee Processing Building of the BACOFA or the Balutakay Coffee Farmers Association, led by their incumbent chairman Jun Gonzales.

Coffee trees along a rugged and steep hilly terrain in Bansalan

How it began
It was in the year 2013 when a certain non-government organization, Kapwa Upliftment Foundation Inc., visited Sitio Bansalan and discovered the modest coffee community. They were cultivating different coffee tree varieties at high altitudes in special volcanic soil, conditions that are optimal for the Arabica variety.

Coffee Cherries under the mercy of a drizzle

Back then, the coffee farmers just grew and traded precious coffee cherries, just accepting what was handed over to them. There was limited knowledge on the proper handling of the coffee cherries and logistics space was a challenge.

Their insufficient knowledge and skills led the industry under almost full control of coffee traders and middlemen – low selling prices, thus, creating a mindset about the bleak business landscape of coffee production. Additionally, farmers cultivated what they were good with – vegetables.

The BACOFA Headquarters and Coffee Processing Center

After the discovery, the Kapwa Upliftment Foundation saw the potential of the community and thus helped the first 19 local coffee farmers in officially organizing the Balutakay Coffee Farmers Association, commonly known as BACOFA, last May 2013. The coffee farmers began with what they currently had — and some stock farming knowledge.

What made them grow stronger
With the help of government agencies, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the Department of Agriculture (DA), the BACOFA continued to grow in terms of membership, aggregated land area for coffee farming, quality handling, logistics, and processing. Continued interventions such as technical training and learning sessions about the coffee business ecosystem substantially improved the farmer members’ capabilities, handling, and techniques.

This would not have been successful without the members’ active participation and practical application of their lessons. Imagine them before, just turning over their bare coffee cherry yields… and now, having the knowledge and skills to process them before selling to the market. Moreover, their membership grew to more than 200 – an exponential increase. The aggregate farmlands also grew to more than 200 hectares.

Coffee cherries at the early stage of fermentation

Apart from technical training, DTI provided quality roasting machines, thus, increasing the farmers’ capability to sell finished and packed coffee products. The synergistic support of the Philippine Coffee Board Inc. and the sustained assistance of the Kapwa Upliftment Foundation Inc. benefited the Bansalan’s coffee community to produce not just processed coffee beans, but different sellable specialty coffee products of top and world-class quality.

Fermenting coffee stations at the BACOFA Headquarters

Because of the naturally favorable weather conditions and the high elevations of their farmland at an average of 1,700 to 1,900 meters above sea level, the coffee farmers gained the knowledge and skill to properly cultivate the Catimor Arabica variety. It is one of the most sought highland coffee varieties, thanks to the fruity aftertaste with nutty and woody notes. Also, the variety is somehow resistant to coffee leaf rust and pests. Currently, the local coffee farmers of BACOFA are the top producers in the Davao Region of specialty coffee which is a trend as of this writing.

Apart from technical production lessons, the DTI also provided seminars on the business and marketing side of the coffee industry. These sessions have equipped the coffee farmers with proper knowledge and business skills to trade with competitive pricing. Additionally, with their marketing strategies, they can reach a grander scale of customers and clients. Hence, permanently saving them from the harsh realities caused by abusive middlemen.

What they have become
The sustained quality production and continuous learning led the BACOFA to greater heights. Having the heart and skill in their trade and craft gained them multiple accolades in various local coffee competitions, and opportunities for international representation.

Vegetable farmers unloading their yield in a farm center

In coffee competitions, BACOFA most often brought home awards and wins. According to Gonzales, a BACOFA member won first place in prestigious coffee competitions such as the Philippine Coffee Quality Competition (PCQC) and enjoyed bagging awards in other relevant competitions. The PCQC was the brainchild of the Department of Agriculture, Department of Trade and Industry, Philippine Coffee Guild, and the Barista and Coffee Academy of Asia.

Jun Gonzales of BACOFA

More than winning competitions, BACOFA is now able to produce specialty coffees that gained international attention and partnership. With international brands, one of the best airlines, Japan Airlines (JAL) serves a certain coffee sourced from BACOFA only to its business class and frequent flier passengers. Also, because of their improved marketing activities, the cooperative farmer-members are able to forge strong partnerships with direct Japanese buyers, hence, increasing their international presence. They are also a supplier for big traders in the international specialty coffee arena by global coffee authorities such as the Specialty Coffee Association of America and the Coffee Quality Institute.

Future events
To further boost its marketing strategies, BACOFA will be holding specialty coffee auctions with Specialty Coffee Depot Philippines in Davao City. According to Gonzales, it is a prototype promotional activity that aims to be the strategic marketing hub for their specialty coffee.

This January 2024, they will hold the first coffee bidding event in the local market featuring multi-awarded specialty coffee producers. This is the best platform to forge a strong link between the farmers and the growing coffee enthusiast community.

How far can they go?
BACOFA has good recipe – the locals’ eagerness to learn the scientific way to produce and process coffee, the technical and material interventions from the government and NGOs, and ultimately, the application of sustained practice and methods. Couple it with the growing specialty coffee trend and a society that is beginning to love coffee more, BACOFA farmers have a bright future.

One of the steep-sloped farmlands in Bansalan

With this successful model, would the other coffee farming communities in the Philippines follow?

Support their cause
Contact the Specialty Coffee Depot Philippines through their official Social Media Accounts:

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Author Jan Darren Guiwan enjoying the breathtaking views of Bansalan Mountain Farmlands in Davao del Sur