Kalsada is a social enterprise that’s strengthening livelihoods by bringing third-wave, single-origin coffee from the Philippines to a global market. It means it when is says its coffee is “single origin”; the beans can be traced all the way down to the farms of Auntie Leah and the Domisa family in the highland province of Benguet.
The company’s launching is the latest chapter in a long and winding story that began in Seattle, circa 1909. Let me clarify: It began with an old, black and white photo from 1909 that Carmel Laurino uncovered in 2006 during an undergraduate research project at the University of Washington. The photo showed a group of merchantmen, selling Philippine coffee at Pike Place, the same market where Starbucks would open up shop half a century later.
The questions lit up in her head: Who were these men? What did this coffee taste like? Where did this industry go?
These questions soon led to a journey that would only be possible today. It’s a road replete with Skype calls, Kickstarter campaigns and frequent flights to the other side of the world and back. It’s also the story of discovery and rediscovery, of community and opportunity and a new Philippines that’s being built against the odds, rising against the backdrop of centuries of inequality and stagnancy.
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I first met Carmel Laurino and Lacy Wood, co-founders of Kalsada, at Yardstick Coffee, one of the new generation of specialty coffee houses popping up across Manila. We were in similar chapters of parallel journeys: They were both making their move back to the Philippines full-time; I had just returned for a month in order to build my own venture to connect Filipino diaspora youth to the Philippines.
We flashed back to the story that led them there: Carmel and the old photo in her undergraduate years. Her return to the Philippines through a Fulbright grant. Lacy’s graduate school stint in Paris, where she stumbled upon an apprenticeship in all things coffee roasting. It was then when a mutual friend introduced them to each other online, and on their first blind Skype date, the chemistry was instantaneous.
Lacy remembered being energized by the mission, the global team, the sense of mystery and the possibility evoked by that photo. “What happened to that?” she asked herself. “How can we rebuild it?”
The first stage was research. For a year, Carmel, and eventually Lacy, found themselves journeying across different regions and different farms in the Philippines, getting a taste for the different lives and stories of coffee farmers as well as their coffee.
“We had no idea what Philippine coffee was like,” Carmel said. Lacy, resident coffee expert, had a trained sense of what would and wouldn’t stand out on the global market. It was a compass that kept them searching. Their hunt for the right coffee was like living an atlas of cultures, temperatures and landscapes, interrupted by moments of doubt but propelled with a sense of inspiration.
Lacy remembers one moment in particular of the team sitting atop a mountain. “We had just gone on a lot of trips, through Ifugao, Banaue, Sagada, Benguet, Baguio. And I remember just having that feeling that we can make this happen. We met so many communities who wanted to work with us.”
“It’s been exciting how easy it is now to find a farmer 15 hours away who is willing to share with us,” says Carmel. “There have been so many potential partnerships and opportunities. It’s different in every area, and we’re just getting started.”
Of course, the challenges haven’t diminished either. First it was finding the right coffee; soon it became more about learning entrepreneurship as they went, courting investors, building a business plan. And now, with investors on board and their coffee supply running, they’ve had to wriggle themselves out of the traps of Philippine bureaucracy.
“Infrastructure is lacking, both physical and legal,” says Lacy. “We need a better supporting architecture for companies to be able to export coffee, for coffee buyers to get coffee out. There are so many steps in the process, and the bureaucrats just don’t see how much it is impairing farmers from finding a market for their coffee.”
Carmel sums it up: “We’re building the specialty coffee industry. Part of that is, instead of forward thinking, we have to catch the complications and everything one at a time as they come.”
What keeps them going is how far they’ve come and how much still lies ahead. “I remember the first time one of our farmers first opened a jar of her own coffee,” Carmel says. “That was a powerful moment. It’s also so exciting to see how the specialty coffee scene has been booming since we arrived, and seeing how people here are now beginning to support local because it does stand apart.”
Lacy, who had never been to the Philippines before this venture, has discovered more about the country than she ever expected. “I want so much for people to go back to the Philippines and experience it firsthand,” she says. “It’s changed drastically from what their parents knew, what my Filipino American friends told me before I came.”
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In Tagalog, kalsada means road. Carmel finds it more fitting with every day that passes: “It’s been a long, winding, circuitous journey. We couldn’t have picked a better name.”
Here are sights from the latest stretch of road: Kalsada is now roasting in the Philippines and Seattle. They’re forging partnerships with wholesale providers. Their coffee is now served in cafes in the Philippines and will be served in the U.S. soon. They’re building their first community washing station, a necessary physical infrastructure to increase quality.
“Every time we cup the coffee in the U.S.,” Lacy says with pride, “the people here are absolutely astounded by the quality. We’re able to put it on the cupping table and it really does sing its own tune.”
“It’s taken a whole village from around the world to do this,” says Carmel, “but here we are.”
As for that old photo from 1909, where this whole story started? Lacy and Carmel have found answers to some of their questions. In the early 1900s, a disease had spread to most of the coffee crops in the Philippines, along with other Southeast Asian countries. Some were able to rebuild: Indonesia, for example, reproduced the crop and too it worldwide with the help of government investments. Not quite so for the Philippines -- at least, not yet.
After what feels like a lifetime of chasing those questions, Carmel seems at ease. “It’s kind of nice keeping it mysterious,” she says. “We get to forge our own history and future, to build that market and define it for ourselves.”
Rexy Josh Dorado is a 1.5 generation Filipino American and the founder of Kaya Collaborative (Kaya Co.), a venture that aims to mobilize Filipino diaspora youth as partners to changemakers and social entrepreneurs in the Philippines.