Henri Rodriguez joined Malongo in 1996, with a career background in agronomy and commerce. He is the company’s Export Director and is responsible for Africa, Southern and East Europe, the Middle East and Central and Latin America, as well as for France’s overseas departments and territories.
Malongo is the market leader in France's Fairtrade and organic coffee sector. Its Export Director tells us more about today's rapidly expanding trade in coffee pods from Europe to Africa … where the raw beans came from in the first place.
Q: How big is the African market for coffee pods and how important is it to a company like Malongo?
I can’t talk about Africa in general, because there isn't a great deal of information. As far as Malongo is concerned, we developed our own coffee pod system in 1997. We chose filter paper, without glue or polyethylene, as we wanted a material with minimum consumption requirements and environmental impact. These are genuine pods – made of paper – and not capsules, which as a rule are made of plastic or aluminium.
We produce around 7,000 tonnes of coffee a year, and pods account for around 35 to 40% of our output, with annual sales of 300 million. In Africa, we sell ground coffee as well as pods – in 250g tins or packets for supermarkets, and by the kilo for bars.
We operate in two different types of market in Africa. Firstly, individuals with small coffee machines that use our particular pod format and are sold through supermarkets and other retail outlets, and secondly hotel and catering professionals with professional machines customised to our particular pod format and manufactured for us under licence by big espresso machine specialists like La Spaziale, Schaerer etc.
Q: How does the current pod market compare with that for traditional coffee?
We now sell more pods than ground coffee in Africa, because we're trying to differentiate ourselves from the traditional coffee roasters already in the market. That’s why we developed our pod system with its unique selling points: its convenience, its environmental, ecological and ethical benefits, and its range of speciality coffees. By speciality, I mean the single-origin coffees which form an important part of our business. A substantial proportion, around 40%, is Fairtrade-sourced. Our Max Havelaar Fairtrade range is the market leader in Fairtrade coffee and coffee-related products in France.
These products are chosen by us, often in conjunction with cooperatives, working to official Fairtrade and Max Havelaar specifications and sold either as single-origin coffees or blended along with other Fairtrade-sourced products.
Q: If I've understood you correctly, this means you buy coffee at source, bring it to Europe and repackage it in pods which are re-exported to Africa?
Yes, that’s right. Our system of pod manufacture is patent protected and pretty hard to replicate, which means that production is controlled here in our offices at Carros, in the Alpes Maritimes. We’re not yet at the stage where we could outsource pod manufacture.
Q: Which African countries do you export to?
We export to North Africa – Morocco and Algeria – and to Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire, Gabon, Cameroon and Benin. And we're beginning to look at Ghana.
Q: Does the presence of the ECOWAS single market simplify matters in West Africa?
Not really, since we work with local importers – established local businesses that import and stock our products for their own customers. These importers often ask us to deliver to their French forwarding agents, so our involvement in downstream marketing is minimal. However, I can say that, in general, coffee-producing countries levy higher duties on imported coffee.
Q: What impact do you think the Economic Partnership Agreements between African countries and the EU will have on the pod coffee trade?
I think the key point will undoubtedly be the cut in import duties which will get trade flowing, not forgetting the simplification of the whole import process.
Q: Have the changes in the pod coffee market led you to develop any new sources of supply or new single-origin products?
Yes, of course. The improved packaging and storage offered by coffee pods encourages consumption of single-origin products. For example, it’s much easier for a café or restaurant that wants to offer a range of coffees, with a generic everyday blend plus single-origin coffees – Colombia, Ethiopian Mocha etc. – to do so with pods, because you have an individually packaged portion rather than a kilo of coffee to be opened and then go stale.
All of this fosters the move towards single-origin coffees. We’re doing a lot of work in Africa with high-altitude arabicas and Ethiopian mochas because these are very distinguished coffees, Ethiopia being the birthplace of coffee. We’re also working with Kenyan and Congolese beans. We have concluded a partnership agreement with Congo. The Kivu region produces fantastic coffees which we can promote in pod form. We also produce these coffees in traditional forms. But the pods have enjoyed great success with people in the trade, because they make it much so easier to offer coffee to the end customer.
Q: Aren't pods expensive for commercial purchasers, though?
Unlike packet coffee, pods don’t go stale. This makes them a very useful product and one that works well if there’s a drop in customers. Plus we’re talking about coffees that attract a considerable profit margin: in Europe, a coffee pod costs 20 centimes while a cup of coffee can sell for €1.50, so it’s worth devoting some of this margin to a top-of-the-range product and improved customer satisfaction.
Q: Do you include any robusta in your pods?
Yes. We do put robusta in some blends. There are some very well worked robustas that bring a real ‘plus’ to a coffee. They give body to the blend, so we sell blends with 20 to 30% robusta. There’s a worldwide fashion for milky coffees such as cappuccino and latte that absolutely must have a fairly strong bean, like robusta, but also one with plenty of flavour.