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Brewing success with Cordillera coffee farmers

MANILA, Philippines — Getting one’s daily caffeine mix seems to be a walk in the park for some--be it a cappuccino from a favorite high-end cafe or a simple instant coffee from home. But this is not the case for two long-time friends whose love affair with coffee moved to a whole new level.

Knowing that coffee is more complex in flavor than any other drink, Katherine Chelle “KC” Boter and Karen de Guzman are taking their beans very seriously.

Thus, they put up Figures of Beans with the aim of bringing responsibly-grown, skillfully roasted and expertly prepared premium coffee right to anyone’s doorsteps.

When KC left the private banking industry to do freelance work in 2015, she decided to partner with Karen who already had a bakeshop.

“Every time I work, I really need coffee. I don’t want instant coffee, I want quality coffee, the ones that I get from Starbucks, Coffee Bean and the others,” said the 26-year-old KC who graduated with a degree in Psychology from the De La Salle University.

KC believes that making a good cup of coffee with the best ingredients is the bedrock of a successful business.

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Figures of Beans sources its coffee  from the Cordillera region, a major producer of international quality coffee beans.

The two girls set up the business at a time when the Philippines remains highly dependent on imported coffee beans.

Local production can hardly keep up with the continuous demand for coffee, prompting coffee-related businesses to heavily depend on imports from major producing countries such as Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia, and India, among others.

“We import a lot of coffee so we tried looking for other sources where we can really get good local coffee. We saw the potential of the industry here in the Philippines,” KC said.

“Majority of our coffee beans comes from Sagada, some from Benguet. Before, we used all imported coffee for our cupcakes and it was really expensive, about three times compared with the locally made,” Karen said.

With a seed capital of roughly P30,000, KC and Karen started Figures of Beans, an online store which offers Cordillera coffee in six variants --  Irony (Sagada dark roast), Oxymoron (Arabica Robusta), Paradox (Benguet Arabica), Understatement (hazelnut), Metaphor (caramel) and Euphemism (vanilla).

“We had to do the legwork since the brand was just starting. We had to approach stores one by one and talk to them about our products. It’s important that when they see our products, it is visually appealing but the end goal is to provide quality coffee,” KC said.

“We started in stores in Tagaytay through the pasalubong centers. Then from there, we saw the warm reception of the customers, once they see Sagada they want to get it, they associate it with the experience they had when they went there,” she added.

“We don’t take coffee literally. Coffee is so special from the production, coming from the farmers all the way to your cup, something that binds people together. For us, it’s not just coffee because there’s more to coffee,” KC said.

Figures of Beans has since attracted a significant following.  To further expand their products’ reach, the duo teamed up with several merchants which now include Kultura by SM and Manila Peninsula, their biggest brands to date.

“I handle all the big partners while Karen handles our online partners like Lazada, Shopinas, and Honestbee. Once we were out there online, other platforms saw us and they invited us to join,” KC said.

While Figures of Beans is almost two years old, the two think the growth of the business has been unexpectedly fast, allowing them to get the return of their investment in a span of one year.

“I think there is also the luck factor. When I started my own cafe, development was really slow. But with Figures of Beans,  we were able to partner with big brands,” said Karen, who has a Management degree from the University of Asia and the Pacific.

While Figures of Beans can be considered  a pioneer for carrying the Sagada brand, a similar line of business sprang up, making competition more tough.

“When we started, it was only us but now, all of a sudden, there a lot of other brands. We really are the ones who started putting the Sagada coffee in retail stores. But we don’t really look at competition because we want to focus on our own brand,” KC said.

Apart from the coffee itself, KC and Karen wanted to share to consumers the joy of brewing their own coffee in the comforts of their homes and offices through instruction manuals included in every purchase of their products.

“Not everyone knows how to brew. We are an instant coffee nation, that when we see ground coffee, we immediately assume that we can just mix it with water. With us, we want to encourage our customers to brew their own so they get to experience quality coffee,” KC said.

“We want to provide quality content to our customers and readers by providing tips on how to brew their coffee and give educational videos as well,” she added.

As of now, KC and Karen dream of expanding their business to other parts of the country and eventually building brick and mortar stores as well as tapping the international markets.

“We had a lot of milestones but I think there’s still so much to improve on, especially our products’ reach. Not because you’re with Kultura, you’re already big. We want people to know that we have good coffee here since a lot of people think  they can only get good coffee from other countries,” KC said.

On a larger scope, Karen and KC are urging the government and the private sector to help uplift the lives of coffee farmers and ensure a healthy supply of high-quality coffee for the future.

“The problem is that the younger generations do not want to farm anymore so the older ones can no longer pass on their knowledge. I think the government should provide programs to the farmers because we have enough space to plant but then again, we don’t have the programs to support them,” KC said.

“We want to make programs for the farmers to make it sustainable for them. Some are disheartened to continue since there is no support. The only way for farmers to continue producing local coffee is to simply support them,” she added.

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