Coffee beans are hugely vulnerable to climate change, which is why 28-year-old barista Ishan Natalie is busy climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa’s highest peak.
The national beverage manager for Woolworths Café and its partner TriBeCa Coffee Roasting Company, Natalie is a member of a team from Woolworths that was expected to summit the 5 895m Uhuru Peak today, before starting their descent.
The expedition is aimed at raising awareness about climate change, global warming and the effect that the mountain’s melting ice is having on coffee farmers in Tanzania, who grow the organic coffee Woolworths sells in its cafés.
Woolworths and TriBeCa have been mentoring these farmers to grow their businesses and have also helped the Kilimanjaro Native Co-operative Union, which supplies Woolworths with organic green coffee beans, to set up a café in Moshi town, the gateway to Kilimanjaro.
Johannesburg-based Natalie has also been meeting these coffee farmers, so the expedition is quite a personal trip for him, and he has already learnt a lot from them about the conditions they work in.
In Africa, Kilimanjaro’s melting ice cap is one of the most visible indicators of global warming, which is causing increasing average air and ocean temperatures.
“Coffee crops need a lot of water to keep the soil moist through the seasons,” says Natalie. “As the ice cap melts, water will be less and less available for these crops, which grow on the shady slopes of the mountain.
“But global warming impacts on all our lives. Just look at the weather changes recently in Cape Town and Durban, and the devastating floods in Australia due to the dramatic increase in rainfall. It’s quite scary, so I’m very happy to be part of this effort to bring attention to it.”
Last year in Cape Town, Natalie scooped the title of South Africa’s Barista Champion for the second consecutive year. His winning brew was an espresso-based drink titled Decadence, which consisted of layers of cream, milk, shortbread biscuits, Irish cream, cashew nuts, chocolate biscuits and lime zest.
Durban-born Natalie started his love affair with coffee in 2000 when he asked to be trained as a barista at the then newly launched Woolworths Café at Gateway Mall, KwaZulu-Natal. He went on to get training in Pretoria from TriBeCa, where he was taught the barista’s multi-faceted skills.
He says that coffee is “complex and fascinating”, and believes that learning how to grind coffee correctly and then how to extract a shot of espresso from the ground beans without destroying their natural and sweet flavour is the cornerstone of the coffee-making process.
“I try to ensure that every cup of coffee I serve is as perfect as it can be, and that the people drinking it understand the intricacies and delicacies of coffee,” says Natalie.
Being the best, though, comes down to how much hard work you put in. “It’s the level of commitment that sets apart those who are good at what they do from those that are brilliant at what they love doing,” he says. “I’ve worked so hard to get where I am now.”
It’s going to take hard work of the physical kind to summit Mount Kilimanjaro, but Natalie happens to be a gym nut too, so he is certainly fit enough. “What I’m not sure of is how my body is going to cope with the altitude and lack of oxygen. At the moment I’m finding the humidity here difficult to adapt to, because even though I’m from Durban, I’ve actually become more acclimatised to Johannesburg,” he laughs.
The expedition is being led by mountaineer and cameraman Sean Wisedale, and includes Simon Gear, of the environmental TV show 50/50, as well seven senior Woolworths staffers and two journalists.
Is coffee on the menu as the climbers ascend Africa’s highest point? Absolutely. On the way up Natalie will be making the first Kilimanjaro Iced Coffee, using water from the melting glacier.
The drink, consisting of espresso made from Tanzanian coffee beans, cream, ice and spices like cloves, cardamom and cinnamon, will be launched in Woolies cafés tomorrow for R16. - The Star