Andrea Peresthu had a parang held to his neck when he first tried to stop illegal loggers from destroying the Indonesian rainforests. Today, they are grateful to him for giving them a more lucrative livehood as growers of organic, specialty-grade coffee.
Javanegra Rainforest Coffee is the company that Peresthu and his wife, Reni Alhadad, founded in 2011 to help the loggers-turned-farmers. The coffee has become an Indonesian heritage icon and is routinely presented to foreign dignitaries and delegates at international events. It is also gaining cult following among coffee connoisseurs.
While the name Javanegra implies “black coffee”, Peresthu ascribes it a different meaning. “I am the black sheep of the coffee industry,” Peresthu says. He has no desire to grow big like the coffee giants and his business practices go against the mainstream.
Javanegra was not planned. “Everything happened by accident,” Peresthu reveals.
The company was a response to his frustration with “fair trade” — a term much bandied about in the coffee business. For when he tried to help his farmers sell their produce to the big buyers, he saw that the deal was far from fair.
He explains: “If you have, say, 10 tonnes of coffee beans, they would buy the first three tonnes at a slight premium of two cents above the price quoted on the Commodity Exchange. But they squeeze you to sell the rest at 30% below market price.”
The story of Javanegra began with Professor Peresthu, an architect by training, lecturing in urban planning and regional development at a university in Holland, The Netherlands. The professor had grown tired of academia — “You study and study but cannot really do much” — and was dreaming of retiring early to run a bed-and-breakfast in Southern France, where he could devote more time to his passion for cooking.
That was not to be. Instead, he was sent back to Indonesia on a European Union-sponsored project to work with local governments on ways to stop illegal logging and initiate reforestation.
Javanegra was a response to Andrea Peresthu’s frustration with “fair trade” — a term much bandied about in the coffee business. For when he tried to help his farmers sell their produce to the big buyers, he saw that the deal was far from fair.
“The loggers wanted to kill me,” Peresthu recalls. “They said, ‘You shut up!’ You only talk. How can you guarantee what I am going to eat?”
One of the proposals then was to have the loggers grow jojoba, a biodiesel crop. But Peresthu saw coffee as a better option. “The poorest people live in the highlands, which are ideal for growing coffee. They do not own any land. But coffee can be grown in the rainforests, among existing trees.
“The soil is naturally rich, so there is no need to buy fertilisers and the coffee is organic. And coffee needs the shade of taller trees, so the rainforests have to be preserved.”
After three years, the former loggers had their first harvest in 2008. The beans were of the highest quality. Yet the farmers could not secure good prices.
If that wasn’t bad enough, tragedy followed. “I encouraged the farmers to improve their method of processing the beans. They needed a machine so I bought one. Three days later, I received news that one of the men was slashed in the abdomen. The machine was stolen, along with tonnes of coffee. Three days later, he died.
“There were many similar incidents, but this was the most tragic,” Peresthu says.
So now, the coffee beans are hand-processed by the womenfolk, which creates further employment. “The journey has been one of turning problems into opportunities,” Peresthu says. And the greatest opportunity came with the launch of Javanegra.
“We started with a small roasting machine with a capacity of only 250g,” Peresthu recalls. “We would roast the beans at home after work. I also designed the packaging. The logo was an actual coffee stain on a piece of napkin. Meanwhile, I sent my resignation letter to the university.
“Eventually, we set up proper production facilities, with a three-tonne roasting machine. But during the first six months, we sold just 250g of coffee. We sold only samples. Then one day, a restaurant owner with a chain of 40 restaurants placed an order — for 500kg!”
By managing his own brand, Peresthu is not only able to pay his farmers well but also help them with other needs. He and his staff of 30 visit the farmers regularly and often help out with food, household items and education for their children. They even taught the farmers to make parangs for sale.
In addition, 25% of Javanegra’s profits is channelled back towards the farmers’ welfare.
Peresthu forsees most of the farmers’ children continuing to work in the farms when they grow up, so he focuses on education and nutrition to ensure that they “develop smart brains”. Their assistance is being formalised with the establishment of The Asian Tropical Rainforest Foundation. About 3,200 families have so far been helped.
Another major opportunity arose when Dennis Rahardja, a businessman, received a Javanegra gift pack at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Bali in 2013. Rahardja recalls: “My father and I are both coffee lovers. I gave it to him for a blind tasting and he loved it instantly. He was surprised it was an Indonesian product, with beautiful packaging.”
Rahardja runs The Magran Group, a distributor of luxury surfaces, home and kitchen products that include coffee machines. He sees the opportunities and market demand for gourmet coffee in capsules forms; which customers can enjoy conveniently at home without a barista.
Thus he and Peresthu decided to team up together to increase Javanegra’s product offerings.
“We have had many business proposals,” Peresthu says. “But Rajardja is one of the very few businessmen who fully appreciated what we were doing to help the poor through social enterprise. He is passionate about the business and we did many things together.”
Adds Rahardja: “We are very encouraged by the customers’ response so far. Our coffee capsules are now available in five-star hotels such as Dharmawangsa in Jakarta.”
With Rahardja helming business development, Javanegra is now in the next phase of regional expansion, starting with Singapore, chosen for its high concentration of fine restaurants, cafes and coffee connoisseurs. Here, managing partner Serene Kwok and sales and marketing manager Claire Choo have been working hard to introduce Javanegra to both high-end trade and end-consumers.
An online store and mobile app will be launched by this April, to make the coffee available to connoisseurs worldwide. Meanwhile, Javanegra has already found its way to North America, Belgium, Dubai, New Zealand and Taiwan.
Specialty-grade coffee from Javanegra meets the most stringent standards set by the industry. The beans have almost zero defects and they must be distinctive in body, flavour, aroma or acidity.
Javanegra grows coffee in eight mountainous regions spread across Indonesia, each producing beans with a unique character. From these, the company has created 11 blends, but is also able to customise blends to suit the needs of different palates. “It’s like pairing food with wine,” says managing partner Serene Kwok.
Top of the range is the legendary kopi luwak, or civet cat coffee. Javanegra guarantees that its luwak is wild, picked from the forest floor. “We are against the cruel practice of farming civet cats in tiny cages,” Kwok says.
The coffee comes as whole beans, coffee powder and capsules that fit Nespresso-compatible coffee machines. Javanegra also sells them in single-serving drip-bags … “just add hot water”.
Despite being specialty-grade, Kwok assures that prices will be competitive. The capsules are available with Webber Coffee Machines in different models; with and without milk frothers. Meanwhile, Javanegra is set to launch a cheaper range for the mass market later this year.
In Jakarta, Javanegra also runs Javanegra Gourmand, a private, by-appointment-only fine dining restaurant that has become the “must go” destination for socialites.