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“We always regretted not growing coffee 10 years ago,” Jackz Lee, the co-founder of Sabarica Coffee, jokingly told us. “But the next best season to grow coffee is today.”

A forestry graduate first and foremost, he’s deeply passionate about changing the status quo for Sabahan coffee farmers. Which may seem a little out of place if you only know him for his work as a Mount Kinabalu mountain guide.

But he’s always been a coffee lover and actually turned this passion into a business in 2015. At the time, his line of work was disrupted by the earthquake that happened. This led to him “accidentally” getting involved in the upstream coffee industry by opening a cafe.

Image Credit: Jackz Lee

Back then, he and his wife (and Sabarica Coffee’s co-founder), Chelsea Lam, were looking for better products for their cafe. They were specifically seeking freshly grown coffee beans.

Being based in Sabah, the duo decided to enquire at the local agriculture department, which arranged a visit to a small-scale coffee bean farm in the Ranau district.

Little did they know, this would be the catalyst for the launch of Sabarica Coffee, a speciality coffee producer with a much bigger goal than just selling beans.

Image Credit: Sabarica Coffee

A trip that changed their lives

With the number of coffee houses we have, it’s not exactly a revelation that Malaysians love the beverage. We also have several coffee plantations nationwide that are usually managed by small-scale farmers.

Such is the case in Sabah, where some villagers in the Ranau district were given coffee seedlings by the state’s Agriculture Department. The goal was to help supplement their income, particularly since vegetable farming was becoming too competitive.

Jackz Lee (second from right) with the local coffee farmers / Image Credit: Sabarica Coffee

It was one of these farms that Jackz and Chelsea visited. 

However, after meeting with the farmers, he realised that many of them didn’t have much knowledge about coffee processing. This includes farming and pruning methods to gain higher yields, as well as setting the right target market.

Elaborating on this, Jackz said that most of them intended to sell the crops to local Hainanese coffee factories. But they didn’t know this meant losing out on profits, as the nature of their arabica coffee beans could put them in a more premium category.

So wanting to give the farmers better bang for their buck, the couple bought their beans instead.

Image Credit: Sabarica Coffee

A shortage of adequate equipment

They started by introducing these arabica coffee beans to their cafe’s customers. Eventually, many of the couple’s friends who were coffee roasters began asking to buy the beans and they happily obliged. 

However, the demand began outweighing the supply. The quality was also inconsistent at times which affected the amount of coffee beans that could be sold.

Much of this boiled down to the fact that all the villagers Sabarica Coffee works with are small-scale farmers. 

Image Credit: Sabarica Coffee

This means that they have to process the beans from A to Z by hand in small batches.

Without the physical capacity of machineries, they risk losing out on higher yields. Because the reality is it requires adequate land, equipment, and manpower to maximise their profits, Jackz shared.

It’s not a very sustainable income source as it takes a long time to get the end products. “From harvesting to drying, it will [take] maybe six to nine months from the day you harvest the coffee cherry,” Jackz explained. “So they will only receive their money after nine months.”

Image Credit: Sabarica Coffee

Plans to meet demands both locally and abroad

To fix this, Jackz told us that the couple wants to establish a factory for Sabarica Coffee and bring machinery into the process. 

Instead of processing the beans from top to bottom, the farmers need only focus on tending to their crops. This would allow them to grow coffee cherries of higher quality and expand their farm size.

Image Credit: Sabarica Coffee

Together, the brand and the farmers that they collaborate with can eventually produce enough to supply awaiting international customers. “We’ve received quite a number of enquiries from [brands in] Australia and Dubai. They wanted to buy our coffee in containers, each container is about 19 tonnes (19,000kg).” 

So he’s not too worried about having excess supply.

Image Credit: Sabarica Coffee

In the name of advancing the local coffee industry

That said, Jackz admitted that it’s quite an ambitious plan. Sabarica Coffee isn’t a large company and the farmers are still learning the art of coffee planting from Jackz and others in the field. 

Without any external funding thus far, the brand hasn’t been able to expand and meet its full potential yet.

The couple are currently looking for investors that could boost their efforts in starting a coffee nursery. That way, the brand would have more trees, resulting in higher crop yields over a shorter period of time.

Image Credit: Sabarica Coffee

“Hopefully this year if everything goes smoothly, [we] will germinate 200,000 seedlings. It’s the biggest asset for our industry,” Jackz said.

Geographically, the forestry graduate isn’t concerned about the land’s ability to produce crops. With Sabah being near the same latitude as Ethiopia and Panama, he believes it has the potential to grow similarly good quality coffee.

Looking further ahead, though, the couple wants to have a coffee park with an interactive showroom to educate the public on Sabah’s coffee landscape. 

“I believe this will change the whole industry’s perception, [and] people [will] come to Sabah for Sabarica Coffee,” he proudly stated.

Image Credit: Sabarica Coffee
  • Learn more about Sabarica Coffee here.
  • Read other articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.

Featured Image Credit: Sabarica Coffee

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Vulcan Post aims to be the knowledge hub of Singapore and Malaysia.

© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)