From a giant wicker basket floating 1,000ft above the ground, Araku Valley resembles a frieze of Earth. The distant hills are lush green folds of squat bushes of coffee. The ground below is a chequerboard of paddy fields that follows an entire spectrum of colour, from dazzling emerald to burnt umber. There are occasional plots of symmetrical silver oaks amid sections of hills denuded by aggressive jhum (slash and burn) cultivation.
Located at about 1,200m above sea level, the valley, tucked away in the north-eastern corner of Andhra Pradesh, shares a border with Odisha. For guests and participants at the Araku Balloon Festival (ABF), held between 18-20 January this year, this is sightseeing like nothing else.
Hot-air balloons almost never land in the same place they take off from, even if they are flown by the most experienced pilots, like our flying Dutchman—Wout Bakker from the Netherlands, who has been a pilot for 25 years. We descend within a few feet of a rather wet rice field and Bakker’s team uses long ropes to pull us to a drier patch. Close on our heels is another balloon, shaped like a giant honeybee, complete with a pointy sting sticking out of its posterior. As we gently bump over the different levels of terraced fields, hovering a few feet above the ground, an entire train of people follows our descent. Skirting its way around the perimeter of the field, the line extends as people from the neighbouring village follow the landing path of the two balloons, a sight that is obviously surreal in a place where some villages still remain miles away from the nearest motorable road.
This was the second edition of the ABF, an initiative of Andhra Pradesh Tourism in association with events company E Factor, a festival primed to provide a new spin on the area’s development story with its eco-friendly promise and involvement with the local community. While the balloons have temporarily rendered us interesting, it is the valley itself that is filled with all manner of fascinating stories.
Apart from the right wind conditions for hot-air ballooning, the region’s superb microclimate and terrain also offer the perfect environment for growing coffee, a fact that the British took note of, setting up the first plantations in the 1900s. Post-independence, it was a combination of intrepid Bengali tourists, with their penchant for hill stations, and weekend revellers from the port town of Visakhapatnam, that kept the area’s economy functioning. This apart, Araku remained little more than an exotically named pit stop on two local train routes. The occasional newspaper mention of Naxal-related shootings and attacks on government officials did little to recommend the place to the average traveller. Araku Valley remained outside Incredible India tourism initiatives and continued to be a minor hill station where people would arrive, eat the regional speciality—bamboo chicken—take a few photographs at strategic viewpoints, and return after a day or two.
Now, something is changing. The balloon festival is bringing the world to the valley and a small artisanal coffee brand is taking the stories of Araku to the world outside. While the ABF has grown much larger than its first edition with 20 balloons from around the world, Araku Coffee has just launched its India operations. And although both brands are niche, they have the potential to provide an entirely new narrative for development in this once forgotten valley.
Araku Valley is one of 11 mandals which make up the Paderu Tribal Agency (PTA), one of the many designated Integrated Tribal Development Agencies (ITDA) in the area which work under the state government for socioeconomic development of the Adivasi communities. The PTA covers 2,312 revenue villages and 3,574 tribal habitations.
The next day, as we make our way to far-flung coffee estates, our drive takes us through the five northern mandals of Ananthagiri, Dumbriguda, Hukumpeta, Munchingi Puttu and Araku Valley. Although the coffee is called Araku, it grows in estates across the PTA—the name was chosen simply because it sounded poetic. This time, the view is from the ground level but it is as impressive as the one from above—the landscape changes from densely forested hills to sweeping valleys and terrace farms surrounding occasional village clusters. Although these mandals are a little over 100km from Visakhapatnam, they exist on an entirely different index of development. Part of the infamous Red Corridor, which includes tracts of the states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, among others, the region has been plagued equally by government negligence and Naxal insurgency since the 1960s. Consequently, it remained politically fraught and economically marginalized.
Until a few years ago, a single arterial road traversed the entire PTA and access to clean drinking water and education was limited. Maternal and child mortality, sanitation, public health and unsustainable agricultural practices were all matters of concern. For Manoj Kumar, CEO of the Hyderabad-based NGO Naandi Foundation, these challenges made Araku Valley the perfect site for its inaugural large-scale project for furthering socioeconomic development in the region. “We wanted something that would be our own legacy. At the same time, it was so large and so difficult that even if we failed trying to implement it, we believed that the nation would forgive us,” says Kumar.
“Some of the habitations in this area comprise as little as two or three homes and are so remote that it takes over a day’s trek to get to the main motorable road. How far you are from this single arterial road is what determines the level of development or government intervention. The more remote villages still believe in local witch doctors and the Naxals meet there regularly. It is an entirely different world,” says Kumar.
“When we entered Araku Valley in 2000, we pretty much started at ground zero and the only job that our early recruits had was to walk to the different villages, make friends with the Adivasis, listen to them, and find out about their life and problems,” he says. While they began work in the fields of education and healthcare, it was the development of the Araku Coffee brand, owned by an Adivasi cooperative, that put this valley on the global map. From hipster cafés in Berlin to a chic store in Paris’ Marais area, this small brand of Adivasi-grown coffee has won awards and received high ratings from professional cuppers. The brand is now launching in India with an online retail format. There are plans to open the first Araku Café later this year in Bengaluru, followed by other metros. Gradually, it is becoming a brand ambassador of both the valley and its people.
Araku coffee: from sapling to cup
Two days before we landed in Araku, we heard its stories over a sensory evaluation of coffee at Masque, a fine-dining restaurant in Mumbai.
Eight aroma vials and a slice of tangerine and dragonfruit were placed before each person at the cupping session, to introduce Araku Coffee in India. We uncapped each vial, acclimatizing our olfactory senses to the concentrated perfumes of tropical fruits, vanilla, berries, almonds and citrus flavours—it was a preamble to the actual tasting. Andrew Delgado, an award-winning brewer from Honduras and Araku Coffee’s chief roaster in India, brewed four different varieties of Araku Coffee—Signature, Selection, Micro Climate and Grande Reserve—in different coffee makers. “Tell me what it tastes like and say the first thing that comes to your mind,” said Delgado, as he handed out tiny cups of the brew. The answers ranged from peaches to new shoes to wet earth and tobacco.
Araku Coffee has consistently won high ratings from professional cuppers, many of whom are associated with the highly regarded Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). There are varieties that have got ratings as high as 90 out of 100, a first for any coffee from India. The gold medal for the best coffee pod in the 2018 Prix Epicures OR in Paris was yet another achievement for the brand whose Signature variety was awarded in this competition, which featured speciality coffees from around the world.
The journey of Araku Coffee from a livelihood initiative by the Naandi Foundation to a globally appreciated product has been in the making for over a decade. It is also intrinsically tied to the history of how coffee arrived in this valley.
It was a British civil servant, N.S. Brodie, who introduced coffee to these hill tracts in 1898. After independence, the British-owned coffee plantations were taken over by the Andhra Pradesh forest department (APFD). The state government also established the Girijan Co-operative Corporation (GCC) in 1956 to create livelihoods for the Adivasis. They wanted to engage them in coffee planting in order to take them away from the environmentally damaging jhum cultivation. In 1975, the plantations were handed over to the Andhra Pradesh State Forest Development Corp. (APFDC), which, together with the GCC and the Indian Coffee Board tried to expand its cultivation. They handed out free coffee and silver oak saplings (silver oak functions both as a shade tree and a cash crop) and even set up demonstration plots for research and development. All this, however, failed to get the Adivasis excited about the project. They would occasionally work on the state-owned coffee farms during harvest season. For the rest of the year, the estates were largely abandoned. Coffee of varied quality continues to be produced all over the PTA.
Land in this area is protected by the Scheduled Areas Land Transfer Regulation Act 1 of 1970, which does not allow the sale or transfer of tribal land to non-tribal people. The Adivasis have the first right to all forest land, for both habitation and agriculture. While all these factors should have provided ideal farming conditions, nothing is that simple in the Araku Valley. Apart from obvious loopholes in the laws and a failure of proper investment in agriculture, the lack of access to institutional credit, the tyranny of middle men and small lenders have created wide gaps. This lack of agricultural development was capitalized on by Naxals whose armed struggles in this region are centred on land reforms and better rights for the Adivasis. Until five-six years ago, the coffee plantations owned by the APFDC were often taken over by Naxals, deterring government officials from undertaking field visits. “From time to time, we would hear news that a group of Naxals had arrived on a coffee plantation owned by the APFDC and had fired their guns in the air and then stuck up a notice saying they had redistributed the land to local Adivasi families. They also declared to the local authorities that if anyone went against them, they would have only 24 hours to survive,” says Kumar.
But, while this redistribution of property transferred the land, it did not necessarily aid the production of quality coffee. Lack of proper training yielded low-grade cherries and coffee beans. The consequent lack of buyers and low prices in the market left the farmers demotivated, unwilling to invest time and effort in tending to the coffee farms.
These circumstances provided an entry point for Naandi Foundation. After healthcare and education, the next step was to improve farmer livelihoods. The Adivasi farmers already had access to land. Now, they even had free coffee bushes and silver oak saplings from the government. All that was required was direction and motivation. “And so we started off in 2001 with 1,000 families and 1,000 acres where we would grow coffee,” says Kumar.
Apart from teaching farmers to grow coffee in accordance with best practices, the foundation worked to change mindsets. “To get them to understand city-bred notions of competition or capitalism was pointless. The sense of equity and equality is so entrenched—they wanted their whole village to get the same price for the coffee cherries irrespective of the quality or ripeness,” says Kumar. He adds that the farmers were happy growing small amounts of coffee on their one-acre plots which they could look after as a single family. “Even when professional cuppers would come for visits and try to explain the economics of larger estates, they would staunchly refuse, saying they could only look after a certain number of plants between a single family. And the concept of hiring labour was entirely alien. As a result, our coffee is grown across hundreds of plantations ranging in size from 0.5–2.5 acres,” says Kumar. While this is logistically complicated, the micro estates and diversity of terroirs provide a unique signature to the coffees.
The Andhra Pradesh government’s Mutually Aided Cooperative Societies Act of 1995 helped enable Naandi Foundation’s Araku Organic Coffee Project. They formed the SAMTFMACS (Small and Marginal Tribal Farmers Mutually Aided Cooperative Society) in 2007—one of the largest fair trade and organic certified coffee cooperatives in the world comprising nearly 11,000 Adivasi farmers. All the assets belong to the cooperative and decisions are taken by the board, whose members are nominated and elected from the farmer communities. The endeavour has also found backing through investments from prominent corporate personalities, including Anand Mahindra, chairman of the Mahindra Group, and Kris Gopalakrishnan, co-founder of Infosys.
Naandi enlisted the help of coffee experts from India and abroad, all of whom came on board as consultants, inspired by the story of Araku and its coffee growers. These included David Hogg, an agriculture and biodynamics expert from New Zealand; Sunalini Menon, India’s first professional coffee cupper and former director of quality control at the India Coffee Board; Hippolyte Courty, one of France’s top coffee experts; and the Honduran Delgado, as well as a dedicated bunch of local development experts and field researchers.
The setting up of a central processing unit in 2007 was the next step. “We realized that the Adivasis would grow the coffee as long as we did all the other work.” says Kumar. So all they had to do was grow and harvest and segregate the cherries and the rest was done by the Naandi Foundation. “The final price we offered was much higher than anything offered in the market for a kilo of clean coffee (approximately 6kg of cherries are processed to make a kilo of roast-ready clean coffee beans). The government offered about ₹80 per kg, while the moneylenders paid between ₹40-90 and we paid ₹270 per kg,” says Kumar, admitting losses had to be incurred to get the farmers to follow best practices.
Today, Araku Coffee is a brand that works with 517 villages and 10,986 farmers, all of whom are estate owners and entrepreneurs with a stake in the business. The reason the coffee is of such high quality is that it follows the best practices of biodynamic farming by creating an interconnected and symbiotic ecosystem. The soil is enriched through composting and a variety of shade trees are planted, including cash-yielding fruit trees like mango and jackfruit. Terroirs are assessed and careful standard operating procedures are put in place from “sapling to savouring”, which ensures healthier plants and sweeter cherries and eventually a far superior coffee aroma and flavour.
The day after the balloon festival, we head to the tiny village of Kabada Boddaput in Dumbriguda mandal, accompanied by Hogg and Prakash Babu, who is a senior manager with the Naandi Foundation. He analyses the terroir of the different coffee estates and also handles census numbers.Kabada Boddaput comprises 31 households and 52 coffee farmers and is known for its high-quality cherries. The average yield, 330kg per acre, makes this a very high performing village. Despite some damage due to rain and landslides, the plantations look like they are thriving. Men and women are hard at work harvesting cherries and the sheer number of dark red cherries on bushes suggest it’s going to be a good year. The sun throws its dappled light through fruit trees intertwined with pepper vines and a group of women comes down the hill path carrying baskets filled with cherries. Babu is our guide and translator for the day. He points out that while men do the pruning and composting, women are the more meticulous pluckers. As we admire the nose pins, Babu also points out the other gold jewellery, such as necklaces and earrings that the women wear as they go about their daily chores on the plantations and fields. Jewellery is clearly a weak spot, and the women joke that the prosperity brought in by the coffee has, among other things, helped fund their indulgence. Depending on the number of years they have been associated with the program and the quality of cherries, farmers can make anything from ₹17,500 to ₹230,000 annually from a single acre estate. Although it might sound like a small amount, since the coffee requires no monetary investment from the farmers’ end, it brings in a neat profit to the families involved in its cultivation.
The next day we visit Cheravupakalu, part of the Munchingi Puttu mandal. It is harvest season and procurement trucks from the Naandi Foundation are parked on the road adjoining the village. We see household after household bringing baskets of cherries, adding to a profusion of perfectly ripened fruit.
How do you become the best coffee grower in the world?
Gunta Harichandrudu holds up his large presentation cheque of ₹20,000 with a wide smile. He has been awarded the best coffee farmer three times at the annual Gems of Araku festival organized by the Naandi Foundation. He is a man that all the coffee farmers of the village of Cheravupakalu look up to. His 2.5 acre plot is his pride and joy. “He has implemented all the techniques of biodynamic farming and all of these make his coffee bushes really healthy and his coffee cherries of a very high quality,” says Venkata Rao R., senior manager and head of community connect for the Naandi Foundation.
As we trek to Harichandrudu’s farm in the hills, the path winds past paddy fields and forests of silver oak. The wild undergrowth gives way to a stone boundary wall. Beyond lies a neat and well-kept coffee plantation where bushes are planted in symmetrical rows, bursting with red cherries. The fact that Harichandrudu spends a lot of time here is evident from the fact that he has a small pot and a cooking set-up in a small clearing.
Although some parts of his farm, like others in the area, were damaged by the cyclone Hudhud in 2014, his farming practices helped him out. The fact that he had diverse shade trees rather than the more fragile silver oaks alone ensured that fewer trees were uprooted, destroying the coffee bushes. His composting had enriched the soil and the new bushes that he planted also grew back faster. These factors have caused his yield to return to its earlier numbers. Today, this septuagenarian farmer has provided almost 200kg of dark red cherries from his farm and there is plenty more to be harvested. His prosperity is evident in the two auto rickshaws he has bought for his sons, to supplement the family’s farming income. And the gleaming trophies that occupy pride of place in his house are a daily validation of his hard work.
Harichandrudu is also one of the many farmer-educators who make up Naandi’s on-ground team for Araku Coffee. “We developed champion farmers who took an interest and went from village to village and shared their knowledge and skills about growing better-quality coffee,” says Hogg.
Ensuring that the farmers of both Cheravupakalu and Kabada Boddaput only pluck the best cherries has taken some effort. Although Naandi’s core team comprises less than a dozen members, they have a number of Adivasis who work as their representatives. “It was important to train the farmers to handpick cherries at the right stage of maturity, which is indicated by their crimson-red colour,” says Babu.
To incentivize the process, the foundation came up with the red truck concept. The villages which provide the best-quality ripe cherries get a higher price and a red truck for pick-ups over those who have a more mixed yield of green and red cherries. The prospect of achieving red-truck status has encouraged a sense of ownership—production and collective pride have both increased.
The foundation hopes to befriend more farmers, scale up operations and increase the number of red-truck villages. The Gems of Araku festival, started in 2009, was another boost for coffee growers, with cuppers from around the world invited to rate Araku Coffee and thereby create brand value and ensure higher prices. The annual festival held in March-April also hosts an awards ceremony that gives out prizes to the best coffee grower and the best biodynamic farming village.
Coming home to Araku
Spurred by state initiatives, a terroir suited to both balloon flights and quality beans, a clutch of enterprising farmers and an NGO that refused to quit, Araku Valley’s coming out story follows an unusual trajectory.
The tourism department hopes that the balloon festival will provide a much needed boost to the region’s economy by offering a specialized experience beyond the standard package of two-night hotel stay plus sightseeing. It hopes to throw a spotlight on Araku Valley’s potential as a coffee destination as the festival also offers excursions to nearby plantations run by Adivasi farmers.
So, while Araku Coffee’s output might be tiny, (the brand procures approximately 100 metric tonnes of clean coffee annually) when compared to the entire coffee production in the Paderu Agency (last year approximately 1,400 metric tonnes of clean coffee was procured from the region), it punches way above its weight. Araku’s organically certified, fair trade coffee sells for up to ₹6,500 per kg in foreign markets.
There is another rather curious ambassador of the coffee in this area—The Araku Coffee House and Coffee Museum. Prakasa Rao was a migrant who arrived in the area sometime in the 1930s and set up a catering business for tourists. He saw the potential of the coffee business and opened up a coffee house followed by a museum in the 1950s. While the displays might be less than adequate, with tableaux featuring dressed-up dolls that have seen better days and an odd collection of attractions (including a mechanical bull) that give it a fun house feel, the place has such an odd allure that you just can’t ignore it. It is also the only café in the area where you can have a cup of good filter coffee.
As we make our back to Visakhapatnam airport, we hear a train whistling in the distance and I think of our first evening in the valley. At dusk, a train had chugged past the balloon festival campsite, silhouetted against the setting sun. As the DJ tested out his rock ‘n’ roll set and fairy lights came on, we had to remind ourselves that we were camping out in the middle of nowhere. We were ensconced at a luxurious campsite, complete with plumbing, heated blankets and four-poster beds, in the middle of a breathtakingly beautiful valley fringed by spindly silver oak. As the night lengthened, the on-site bar kept the drinks flowing and Freddie Mercury’s voice poured out of the speakers. Within the perimeter patrolled by uniformed AK-47 toting Greyhounds—a special forces unit of the Andhra Pradesh police specializing in anti-Naxal operations—men, women, children, balloonists and paragliders sang around a bonfire and danced the night away. And next morning, there was another hot air balloon ride to go on and yet another world in this valley, waiting to be discovered.