Coming up on Year 4 of Osito, we find that we have a very similar conversation with many new clients about the beginnings of Osito and how we got started. At times those conversations don’t happen for any particular reason and there may be some people out there who are curious about the who, the what, where and when of Osito. Below is a brief timeline of our history of operations.
Kyle and Jose at El Mirador.
I, Kyle, travel to Colombia for the first time with the singular goal of meeting one coffee farmer from whom I could buy coffee for the long term for my small coffee roasting company. On one of my last days in Huila, I was introduced to Jose Jadir Losada. I knew almost instantly that he was the person with whom I wanted to partner. I bought every available kilo of coffee from his farm, El Mirador, in Suaza.
At that time, apart from being a coffee producer, Jose also worked as the Head of Quality Control for a major cooperative in Huila. He already had extensive experience cupping coffee and interfacing with international buyers.
Early in this year, Jose expressed to me that he was looking for a new partner at his farm. After months of searching and not finding the right person, he asked me if I’d be interested. Mind you, at that point, I had only visited Colombia twice, spoke zero Spanish and had no experience whatsoever in transactions like this. Well…come November, there we were in a lawyer’s office in Bogotá, signing papers that would firm up our partnership for the long term. I still didn’t speak any Spanish so our lunchtime celebration for finalizing our deal was…well….quiet.
In these years, I traveled to Colombia frequently to be with Jose, learn some Spanish and learn how I could best be a partner to him. I gained some experience selling our coffee to a couple foreign buyers and continued to buy as much as I could from our farm for my roasting company. It was also during this time that we acquired two more farms in Garzón; El Esquilino and El Diviso. Eventually, our network of three farms would come to be known as Café Ticuna or just Ticuna.
It was in late 2017 that I was first approached by some financiers about starting a coffee importing company in the US. While it was something that I had dreamt about, I never thought the money would be available to do something like that. That said, my dream was slightly bigger than just importing a bunch of coffee from various countries. The idea I pitched to them was to simultaneously start sister companies in Colombia and the US, to create a very short supply chain between producers in Colombia and roasters in the US, to focus solely on excellent Colombian coffee and trade relationships that would be the example of sustainability.
On April 1, our companies were simultaneously incorporated and we immediately set about the task of sourcing coffee. We started in four regions, Suaza, La Plata and San Agustín, Huila as well as Planadas, Tolima. To this day, these areas represent the beating heart of Osito Colombia. While we have certainly expanded into other new and interesting areas including Cundinamarca and now, Cauca, these four municipalities still draw most of our attention.
What sets Osito apart in Colombia is our willingness to operate on multi-grade, fixed price contracts. What this means is that our pricing is fixed, ideally for long stretches, so that it is not fluctuating on a daily basis with the ups and downs of the stock market. We buy as many grades of coffee as we think we have a market for, with the goal being to buy every single pound from our committed producer partners. In so doing, we hopefully give them the peace of mind of having a client in Osito who will always pay them prices that work in their best interest.
In recent months, this model has become challenging to navigate owing to record market levels as we have outlined here.
In the last week of December, 2018, of this year, we landed our first container from Colombia!
The warehouse and office in Garzon, which opened in May 2018.
This was our first full calendar year of business. It began with multiple containers of Colombian coffee being shipped to the East Coast of the US as well as our first shipment to the UK.
We also began sourcing and buying coffee from other countries. This started specifically in western Ethiopia and quickly expanded into Guji. Today, Ethiopia has sky rocketed to become our second biggest origin by a good margin and our sourcing has been refined year over year.
This was also the first year we worked with the Long Miles Coffee Project in Burundi. Though they manage direct relationships with many roaster partners in the US & Europe, they needed a bespoke approach to the import and local point of sale of their coffees; one which Osito was more than happy to provide given our shared values and approach to coffee farming, processing and sourcing. Today, we are working with Long Miles coffees in the US & Europe, across their offerings from Burundi, Kenya and, hopefully soon, Uganda.
Finally, it was the first year we started working in Mexico. While Mexico doesn’t represent a huge percentage of our business, it has become a priority for us. Fortunately, our customers seem to resonate with our efforts there and our purchasing has grown substantially year over year.
Well…what can anyone say about 2020 that hasn’t been said?
2020 began with healthy optimism about the growth of our business but come mid-March all optimism was shattered by the COVID-19 pandemic. As our clients shut their doors for indeterminant periods and as our financing for coffee dried up due to fears in the marketplace, we were forced to entirely restructure our business on the fly. With a leaner staff and an infusion of new shareholders, we went about the task of navigating sourcing and sales in the midst of the unknown.
That said, we don’t want to paint too grim of a picture because come July/August as businesses began to return to some semblance of normalcy, our business snapped back in lock step and with more momentum than ever.
One key addition to our team in 2020 was Mike Mamo of Addis Exporter. Having worked with Osito as a contractor for a couple of years, Mike was familiar with our business and in September of that year became a partner in Osito US. Today he is one of the key people that makes our Ethiopia sourcing world class.
Purchasing and sales across our major origins saw a significant uptick by Q3 and we even brought on new origins in Brazil and Peru. Brazil, specifically, has grown to be a major part of our offerings. It began in Espírito Santo, an origin well-known for some of the best coffees in the country but still is somehow an origin where importers struggle to put down roots. We are fortunate to work with partners on the ground who make our jobs easy and have allowed us to grow our purchasing significantly.
Mike Mamo with producers in Jimma, Ethiopia.
This year has been a banner year for Osito.
We’ve seen the momentum of 2020 spill over into this year and our business has grown in ways that we could have never anticipated. Of course, that’s also been coupled with a global logistics crisis that has not made any of our lives easy but that has not at all slowed the growth of our sales.
Even the spike in the C Market has not yet slowed our purchasing or sales of, what is now, very expensive Colombian and Brazilian coffee.
Perhaps the greatest joy of 2021 has been the growth of our staff. In Colombia, we now have a staff of four full-time employees and the most recent of Marcos Antonio Figueroa as our staff agronomist has taken Osito Colombia to a new level.
On the import side, we added Stuart Ritson in early May. Stuart is managing all of our business in the UK & EU and there are very few people as qualified as him to do so. Stuart, along with our friend, Thiago Trovo, is also now running point on all our Brazil sourcing.
In September, we also added David Stallings to our numbers. Previously, David had managed roaster relationships for Long Miles and even with this transition will continue to do just that. Moreover though, he has taken the lead on ALL things Africa which means that he and Mike are taking the reins of Ethiopia and will take us to new heights.
Finally, in 2021 we also made the decision to firmly step outside the box of just sourcing and selling specialty coffee. For years, Jose and I had dreamt about building supply chains, similar to those in coffee, for cacao producers throughout Huila.
While Colombia is not a huge producer of fine cacao, it is partly in the Amazon basin, the birthplace of Theobroma Cacao. Therefore, throughout many parts of Colombia there are found some of the oldest cacao trees in the world. With a growing craft chocolate market, an increased demand for quality, traceability and transparency and still remarkably few sourcing/exporting/importing companies focused on building supply chains on behalf of producers and chocolate makers, we saw both a need and an opportunity.
In August and September, we landed our first shipments of cacao in the US & UK from producers in Gigante, Huila. The early feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and we feel as though we are on the cusp of something big!
At Finca Casa Blanca, a 200 year old cacao farm in Huila.
2022 & Beyond
Osito is still a very small business, mostly by choice, from the perspective of global trade. Though we are growing and trying to make waves where we can, we are still more prone to get caught in the wake of much larger operations.
That said, we remain determined and focused on our original goals; to build short, equitable and strong supply chains on behalf of producers and roasters/chocolate makers such that they are designed to hold up for the long term.
With that singular focus in mind, we have VERY big plans for this coming year.
Stay with us to see how it unfolds.
Team Osito. At least so far...