When Arshiya Bose ’05 started Black Baza Coffee, she was a doctoral student in environmental science at Cambridge University.
A biology major at Bryn Mawr, Bose didn’t know much about coffee—or running a business.
But her research focused on market incentives for conserving biodiversity and brought her to the coffee-growing districts of the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka. There, she found cause for concern.
Coffee growing is notoriously damaging to the environment: much of the world’s coffee is grown in direct sunlight rather than under the shade of a canopy of trees that provide habitat for wildlife, support soil health, and fight erosion.
In India, coffee was historically shade-grown; planters who had at first cleared forests quickly brought back natives to manage pests. But from about 1970 on, that changed and more and more farms were losing forest cover. As Bose explains, it made economic sense: “The straightforward logic is that any rational farmer wanting to optimize his coffee yields does so most cost-effectively by thinning tree cover on his farm.”
And even in those farms that maintained tree cover, growers were planting silver oak, a species that, as an exotic, was not subject to government regulations. The impact, Bose explains, can be devastating to native plants and animals.
The solution lay, Bose realized, in the marketplace: “If coffee drinkers demand that their coffee comes from farms that conserve biodiversity, perhaps more farms will be urged to cultivate in ecologically acceptable ways,” she explains.
And so Black Baza Coffee was born. “A conservation project at its core,” the company commits its growers to 100 trees per acre, with at least 22 species and no single tree dominating, and, in turn, guarantees them a buyback at a 15 to 20 percent premium over market price. A conservation agreement ties that premium to farmers’ meeting Black Baza’s biodiversity-friendly farming criteria.