Direct trade

Direct trade has over time changed from an innovative or even groundbreaking approach to an industry almost-standard, and afterwards even a doubtful marketing tool. Even though the vision behind a connection between roaster and farmer has remained similar, the approach and communication of it has changed over time. I myself have also noticed my vision on it changing over time. Since this vision became one of the pillars on which the Shokunin Coffee Collective was built, I felt the need to elaborate on it.

Six years ago

I went on an origin trip to Colombia with my parents and my sister. It was organized by an importer that we already knew. We visited five different farmers and got to understand the process and culture a lot better. Months later, my parents opened their own coffee shop, and the main feature was the coffee from three of the farmers that we visited. It was bought through this importer who had it on his offer list, but still we felt that we were importing the coffee ourselves and that we made a difference in the coffee scene. The goal was to keep working with this coffee, but over the years we noticed the importer had difficulties buying the new crops, and we had to shift our offerings. Nowadays, none of the original three coffees are still for sale.

Two years later

I was head roaster at Man Met Bril Koffie in Rotterdam. Whereas the goal was to make the best coffee and little attention was paid to the visionary aspect, we did give direct trade a few tries. The owner had visited a farm in El Salvador, from which we kept buying coffee every year through an importer. We one time bought coffee from one of the farms that I had visited earlier. Whereas this approach had a little more stability, there was little going on except for repeated purchases. Still, we called it our “own import”.

Two years later

I was manager at a different roaster in Rotterdam: Stielman Koffiebranders. Here, the farmer was put in the spotlights, and the company was used to buying coffee from importers that emphasized fair trade. They knew the farmers that they bought coffee from; two of them had even visited the roastery. The importers had a similar vision and this gave the company the confidence that a fair price was paid to the farmers; therefore this is what was communicated to customers. They kept working with the same importers, and whenever a special project was going on, they were interested. This already showed a bit more involvement, but instead of getting involved with the farmer, it put the focus on the importer.

One year later

I was in a position to make dramatic changes to the company. By thinking more about the coffee chain and meso economics in general, I realized the change that my vision on direct trade had made. I had the opportunity to visit one of the farmers that we had worked with for two years, and afterwards I met many of my producers at World of Coffee in Amsterdam. My most important importer and partner for inspiration, This Side Up, showed me how easy it could be to gather people with our vision together and to do things, as long as you really want to. The producers had a great time with each other, and I felt the energy in such a connection between parties across the chain. This is when I realized that we could make serious changes together.


I own and manage both Stielman Koffiebranders and the Shokunin Coffee Collective. Shokunin has given me the freedom to start something entirely new and therefore fully follow my changed vision. Whereas in the past, I felt that buying coffee from a producer that I knew was already direct trade, I now know better.

I believe that true direct trade is not about knowing whom you work with or even buying their coffee every year. Trade is a two-way street where you work together to create value. This means investing, taking risks, communicating and empathizing. We now search for producers that have the right mindset, and when we find one, we can look for opportunities to grow. Things start off with us expressing our confidence and our sincerity in long-lasting relationships. We look at the processes in that specific origin, how those affect the flavour of the coffee and where improvement points lie. Together with the farmer, we develop premium systems and investment plans to work on these issues. We try to find new ways to create more value with the same product; these can be marketing tools or process changes.

The roaster takes the central role in the chain. They communicate between producer (product creator) and consumer (value judge) and seek ways to create sustainable value for both parties.

Ana Restrepo

One of my proudest direct trade achievements thus far is our producer Ana Restrepo. I met her during a cupping in Cali when I came to visit Juan Pablo Argote. There was one coffee on the table that I found had quite some potential, and when I asked whose it was, I got to talk to Ana. She told me how she had recently returned to Colombia to take over her parents’ coffee farm. She wanted to start investing in the farm and the processing so that she could start producing specialty coffee. I told her that we’d keep in touch and see how we can work on this together.

Her coffee was not high specialty yet, but the combination of this story and the classic Colombian flavour profile made me confident that I would find customers for it, so I decided to start importing her coffee myself. This is an example of how a roaster can align his customers’ values and the product delivered by a producer.

When the coffee came to the Netherlands, it got a huge kickstart, and we knew the project would be a huge success. I kept in touch with Ana to give her updates on what kinds of businesses use her coffee, so she would know her end consumer better. The feedback I got from those businesses and private consumers, I translated to technical coffee knowledge and communicated to Ana. This is how we got to identify key process improvements, and with those we could start working on quality premiums and investment plans.


Direct trade is not just a sustainable way of working. However strange it may sound, it’s also an effective way to create value out of thin air: value for the producer through stability and trust, and value for the consumer through experiences and involvement. This is how specialty coffee can be made a more fun experience for everyone and how the future of it can be made more sustainable. The “direct trade” that we did years ago was not wrong at all, but it did lack actual involvement. I’m proud to see how these ideas got nurtured and evolved over the years, and how we can now present numerous offerings that all follow this one vision.

Shokunin is called a Coffee Collective for this exact reason. Producer, roaster and consumer are all involved to create more value in coffee.