The money starts to roll in when this creature’s droppings start to fall.
And when you build a business on this natural cycle, you can usually take the company as far and as fast as it can go commercially. You don’t hold out, you don’t look back. But a Filipino couple’s game plan couldn’t be more unorthodox than deriving a beverage from animal dung.
Civets are cat-like mammals that mostly inhabit Africa and Asia. They scour the forest for their daily servings of fruits and cherries. Civets, though, don’t settle for just any crappy food—they only munch on the tastiest and ripest. So whatever they excrete is guaranteed to be the cream of the crop.
The civet’s fermentation process involves sweet, fragrant enzymes—as fragrant as a bottle of Chanel, the civet’s latest client.
When Indonesian locals discovered that coffee cherries are the civet’s favorite snack, they started treating the feces more like gold than filth. If you could sell brewed exotic coffee for US$227 a pound—the Indonesian average rate—would you get grossed out?
Basil and Vie Reyes are not. The forty-something couple owns Bote Central Inc., a top provider of civet coffee in the Philippines.
“It’s not about becoming big. It’s about sustainability and [providing] income at the community level,” Vie says. She recently handed over her vinegar production business to one of her former employees.
Power to the People
After grueling research and a business blueprint for what they would eventually brand Coffee Alamid (‘Alamid’ is Filipino for civet), they eyed the South Cotabato and Cordillera mountains for supplies.
The couple would employ farmers and tribesmen to wade through civet dung and collect good beans for a fee. After word got around about this new livelihood opportunity, Vie and Basil ended up hiring locals on a regular basis. A Japan and Korean export deal later, the locals were able to supply the Reyeses, earning, so far, a million pesos.
“But [exclusively distributing to Japan and Korea] was a wrong move,” Vie admits.
International corporations capture the civets and cage them in their own coffee farms. This means foreigners employ their own men to collect beans from civets that are already in their turf. The Reyeses feel that whatever they get from the business they owe to the forest that is home to the civets—and the farmers that protect it.
The Reyeses point out that partnering with international corporations will render local farmers jobless. They think civet coffee is there for Philippine farmers to earn from. “It’s theirs,” Vie adamantly states. “Our farmers? They’re the guardian of the forests. They should stay to keep the forest alive, and while they’re at it, they should earn.”
After civet coffee and the Reyeses were featured in The New York Times last August, other countries—from Latin America, in particular—have taken a special interest in the industry’s latest innovation in an effort to trump mainstream brands.
According to the Reyeses, however, other countries have something different in mind. “They want the civets for themselves and they want us to supply them,” Vie discloses. This would render the local farmers useless.
“We are more of a community enterprise,” Vie says, showing the couple’s intention to spread the wealth.
Fred Fredeluces, a former supplier turned business partner, testifies that the Reyeses are the real deal. For the CITEM Philippine International Eco- Show in August 2010, where Bote Central was an exhibitor and nominee, Fred traveled all the way from General Santos City to support his business partners.
“Oh, but we’re friends,” says Basil, putting his arm around the shoulder of his ex-employee who has now, practically, become a competitor having a civet coffee brand of his own. “We’re partners in the sense that we’re friends,” Vie adds.
“We have two separate companies, but if Fred grows, we grow. If Fred succeeds, we succeed,” she says.
Born to be Wild
“We leave the civets free, wild, and happy,” the couple says in their print and Internet ads.
In its 17 April 2010 feature, The New York Times bannered a photo of a farmer in Sumatra, Indonesia waiting for the caged civets to excrete their golden beans. With the gradual loss of the civet’s habitat, some of them have become homeless, others, imprisoned.
Civets, as natural dispersers of seeds over the forest floors, play a crucial role in the ecosystem. “And when you cage civets, you traumatize them,” says Vie. “They get fat. They stink.”
“Would anyone like to be caged, anyway?” Basil asks.
Vie further points out, “We have indigenous tribes living at the foot of the mountain, picking up beans from all over the forest for us. Their kids and grandkids [should] have civet coffee to inherit.”
Print ed: 08/12