Trade for Development Centre is a programme of Enabel, the Belgian development agency.

With Puro, Miko aims to strike the balance between coffee-growing and the environment

In 2005, Belgian roaster Miko launched a small brand of sustainable and fairtrade coffee: Puro. Almost 20 years later, Puro has become such business success that it now accounts for almost 50% of Miko’s turnover. The philosophy? Giving back to nature what people have taken from nature through agriculture.

Belgian roaster Miko has been in business for more than 200 years. It specialises in B2B (offices, hotels, restaurants, cafés, etc.) in Belgium and internationally. In 2005, Miko made an impactful strategic decision. “In 2005, we launched Puro as the sustainable component of our offering. Over the years, the Puro brand really pervaded our business, in a good way, to the point where it now accounts for almost 50% of our turnover,” explains Stijn Michielsen, the company’s Director Export & Green Coffee. “Not only has Puro met with remarkable commercial success and opened many doors for us internationally, but above all, the brand has transformed our company, which has since truly embraced the idea of developing a sustainable business.”

2% of sales for the World Land Trust

This desire for sustainability is expressed primarily through a vast programme to protect tropical forests set up with the British NGO World Land Trust. “From day one, we have self-imposed a 2% tax on coffee sales, not on profits,” explains Andy Orchard, the creator of Puro. “Every quarter, we check our amount of coffee sold and transfer the money to a dedicated fund. Then, at least once a year, I sit down with the WLT and we decide where the money should go, based on a number of criteria: what the NGO wants, what Miko needs, what I would like for our storytelling, etc.”

In practice, the World Land Trust uses income from Puro to set up nature reserves in the countries where the brand sources its coffee. “Coffee grows in areas with the greatest biodiversity in the world. But this coffee belt is also where most of deforestation is taking place. Puro’s ambition is therefore to protect nature and biodiversity, while the world comes to its senses,” continues Andy Orchard, who regrets that authorities and the industry nowadays focus on CO2 emissions alone. “Our world has chosen to focus on this particular point, which is nonetheless part of a gigantic, interconnected issue. As a company, Miko has a duty to comply with this standard. But with Puro, we are also trying to take a much more holistic approach to nature.”

If I had to sum up Puro’s philosophy in a single sentence, it would probably be: Giving back to nature what people have taken from nature through agriculture. “We live in a world which tends to take much from nature and give little back. At Puro, we give back much more than we take,” assures the creator of the coffee brand. An estimated 27 km² of agricultural land is used to produce the coffee cherries (from 6 countries) bought by Puro, while the natural reserves set up by the brand now cover some 526 km² (in 13 countries), a ratio of around 1:19.

“And when we add origins to our coffees, we also encourage World Land Trust to develop relationships with local NGOs in these countries,” adds Andy Orchard. According to the creator of Puro, in certain regions, coffee is even becoming a means for preserving nature. “Around the world, local communities do not want their forests destroyed. But they need money. That is why NGOs come to us to help them develop coffee crops that also help to conserve the surrounding environment, thanks in particular to a forest cover of local trees. If grown in the right way, coffee can help to halt deforestation.”

100% Fairtrade 

But the ambition is not limited to preserving nature. “This brings us to a second very interesting aspect of the Puro philosophy: All the coffee we sell is Fairtrade certified, and some of it is also organic,” explains Stijn Michielsen, pointing out that Miko was recently honoured by Fairtrade Belgium as the Belgian company that awarded the highest amount of Fairtrade premiums in 2023 at international level. “All the coffee cherries we buy come from cooperatives,” continues the Director Export & Green Coffee. “In some cases, with certain privileged partners, the relationship is very direct, and in others the relation is more distant. But we always know where our coffee comes from, while Fairtrade International keeps an overview of the whole chain and makes sure that everything is done properly.” This means that all the coffee growers who supply Puro, whether in Honduras, Peru, Colombia or Uganda, are paid the minimum price set by Fairtrade International. In addition to this price, there is a premium for cooperatives, which are free to use it as they see fit in the interests of their members, or even an organic premium depending on the case.

Enough to enable all coffee growers to achieve a living income? “The Fairtrade minimum price has risen sharply since last summer, so I think that is the case overall,” says Stijn Michielsen. “Of course, you have to bear in mind that living standards can vary greatly from country to country. As a result, it is not easy to set a price that suits everyone and every situation. But we trust Fairtrade to ensure that its minimum price is sufficient and allows everyone a decent wage.” After a decade of status quo, Fairtrade increased its guaranteed minimum prices for coffee last August to USD 1.80 per pound for washed Arabica and USD 1.25 for washed Robusta. To arrive at these figures, the organisation analysed production costs in 12 countries on 3 continents, it explains on its website. For several of these countries, Fairtrade has also been able to determine a living income reference price, i.e. the minimum amount necessary for a household to meet the needs of its members. Fairtrade concluded that its new guaranteed minimum price (for Arabica), combined with the organic premium, makes it possible to achieve the living income reference price in Colombia and Uganda. However, the organisation notes that this is not the case in Indonesia and Honduras, even though the gap between the two parameters is now smaller.

Dancing with the devil

With the commercial success of Puro, why doesn’t Miko market the whole of its production under its sustainable and fairtrade brand? “You’ve got to be in it to win it,” concludes Andy Orchard. “I’ll give you an example, without naming names. I remember that once, in one of the richest countries in Europe, all the ministries put out a call for tenders for coffee, but none of them wanted to pay for fairtrade coffee… So, if Miko goes with Puro after this kind of call, which are very big deals, we are sure not to win. So, sometimes, you have to dance with the devil in a certain way, in the sense that you have to establish a relationship first before you have a chance to develop it in a positive way. On the one hand, you could say that we are contradicting ourselves, but on the other hand, we are trying to get things moving, and it is working. Puro started from scratch and today represents almost half of Miko. How do we see things in 10 years’ time? Ideally, we will be 100% Puro. But to make such a leap tomorrow would mean losing half our business, half our employees and so on.” And Stijn Michielsen adds: “You have to take things step by step. Not only because we have a responsibility towards the people who work for us, but also because there are still quite a few consumers who are not looking for greater sustainability.”

Interview by Anthony Planus for Enabel’s Trade for Development Centre.

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