Uplift of small farmers drives this Bengaluru coffee startup
For former banker Soomanna Mandepanda, the motivation for setting up Humblebean was not just to sell the best coffees, but more importantly, uplift the small and medium Indian farmers who grow them.
In the process, he is trying to bring about changes at almost each stage of the business — from cultivation and supply chain to research and education.
Founded in 2017 by Soomanna and his wife and former Yahoo executive Puja Soomanna, Bengaluru-based Humblebean works on an omnichannel model: It ties up with small coffee farmers in south India, roasts and grounds supply, provides the beans to roasters, exports its products, operates brew bars, and has an online presence.
A responsible way to grow coffee
The coffee drinking experience has been gaining traction in India, with the market for the brew expected to record a compound annual growth rate of 7.2 percent during 2021-25, according to a January 2021 Statista report.
Startups including Sleepy Owl, The Flying Squirrel, and Coffeeza, as well as shops such as Third Wave Coffee Roasters are making their presence felt in the market.
India is the world’s sixth-largest producer of coffee and fifth in terms of exports; in fact, 70 percent of its production is exported, says a January 2021 report by the India Brand Equity Foundation. Yet, Soomanna says, “a lot of small and medium farmers and farms aren’t getting the kind of business and reach they should”.
Soomanna would know: he spent most of his childhood on the coffee estates of Coorg and was a small farmer before moving to the world of finance and banking for 13 years. One way to correct the imbalance, he says, is by “making great biodiverse coffee that farms in India are already poised to do”.
According to him, 80-90 percent of coffee farms in India are held by small and medium farmers, whose secondary income comes from crops such as jackfruit, avocado, pepper, and orange that are part of the same farms.
Cultivating other crops alongside coffee “ensures automatic carbon sequestration, top soil replenishment, and lesser need to feed chemicals unlike commercial crops grown in other countries”, says Soomanna. “The mining of the minerals is automatic and you become carbon neutral.”
Advocating farmer-friendly norms
Increasingly popular among young consumers are organic, speciality, and Rainforest Alliance coffees that respectively employ natural methods of cultivation dispensing with harmful chemicals, are of the highest grade being derived from a single origin or single estate, and protect the environment as well as worker rights.
However, in India these certified varieties are grown largely on rich estates; most small and medium farmers cannot afford the costly certifications and grades.
Coffee cultivation and the business are still quite unorganised in India, the certifications cost a lot of money, and need constant follow-ups, says Soomanna.
“The norms are difficult to adhere to for most small farmers. It is a replication of an American model.”
He says most large corporations in India export to Europe. “The small companies in Hassan, Chikmagalur, etc. certify about 150 estates and add the tags. But the farmer doesn’t get the price because the better prices are still being fetched with the local trader. The local traders are important, but the real traceability is lost.”
As farmers don’t get better prices, there is little driving them to improve their produce, he says. “Speciality coffee is something few farmers can afford to grow.”
Hence, the need to bring in farmer-friendly rules, he says.
The Humblebean coffee
Promoting social value investing
Given the largely unorganised state of affairs, Humblebean focused on getting farmers on board. The team collected random samples, tasted them, and guided farmers on growing the beans in a better way.
By 2018, the team had got 50-60 farmers on board and given them assessment reports free of cost. Until then, the startup was in its pre-revenue stages, bootstrapped with funds from family and friends.
The team then focused on getting roasters to directly buy from farmers. For this, it adopted the idea of social value investing, in which everyone who is part of the value chain comes together to solve a problem and there is money in it for all.
“Once we got the farmers on board, we decided to tie up with brands and introduce them to the new portfolios of coffees,” says Soomanna. “We incubated close to four different brands in India from scratch to start a unique brand with a different blend. The idea was to bring in multiple partnerships and inclusiveness in the farming community on one platform.”
Most of the speciality coffee firms have restricted names and types of beans grown on particular estates. “The idea is to bring in more brands that can access different estates, work with them, and encourage the farmers,” says Soomanna.
Humblebean also fulfils the complete roast and ground process for such brands and even gives them a credit facility, he says.
Quality comes with education
Towards the end of 2018 and early 2019, the Humblebean team found that coffees served at most star hotels weren’t up to the mark.
One of the reasons for this, Soomanna says, is that coffee as education is lacking in hotel management schools: one has to go to Italy to learn more about its nuances. The Coffee Board of India mostly takes care of the functionality, he says.
“We met a few management schools and after some discussions it was decided that the colleges would look at it as part of the curriculum,” says Soomanna.
Brewing innovative Indian blends
Even as Humblebean works to improve every part of the value chain, it is trying to offer consumers a very Indian coffee drinking experience.
To that end, the startup opened its first Brew Bar in the food experience section of a workspace on Bengaluru’s Residency Road in 2019. Humblebean was one of the early members of that workspace set up by a Singapore-based company.
Puja, who conceptualised Brew Bar, spent time innovating the blends with the use of Indian robustas.
“We don’t serve a single cup of speciality coffee; we wanted to make sure through the brewing methods can small and medium farmers come into mainstream brewing?” says Soomanna.
He says these Indian blends “aren’t being used by a single new-age speciality coffee company” as they are considered “harsh and used as a filler across the world. But they are unique and you need great expertise and experience to make a robusta out of them”.
Following research and development, the startup has also come up with its own set of products. Together with B2B partners, it has launched these products online and will soon sell them at other marketplaces. The range is priced at Rs 220-350 for 250 gm for limited editions and depending on the roast.
“Indian coffees can have a global impact,” says Soomanna. “The idea is to be farmer-friendly and also not cause too much environmental damage. We want to bring an amazing cup of coffee from the farms the way it should be drunk.”