When he worked as an engineer at Starbucks, part of Dan Belliveau's job was to look for waste in manufacturing. But it wasn't until later, while running a coffee supply chain firm, that he started thinking about the problem of coffee cherries. The tiny fruits that hold coffee beans normally get thrown into enormous piles and trashed.
One of Belliveau's customers had come back from a visit to a farm and was talking about the problem. "He said, 'I'm literally waist-deep in this rotting coffee pulp that's all over our property,'" says Belliveau. "There's got to be something you can do other than just feed it to worms."
In the field, the fruits are tasty snacks. But they start to go bad almost immediately after picking, and that meant that they'd never been used in the past. While they are sometimes composted, most aren't, and the billions of beans that feed the global coffee industry also mean billions of wasted fruits. Belliveau solved the problem by developing a new process.
"Within a few hours of the bean being separated from the fruit, it starts to decay," he says. "But if you catch it in that time frame before it starts to decay and stabilize it, which is kind of the little secret that we came up with—once you get it dried, it becomes a very stable food."
CoffeeFlour, Belliveau's startup, dries the fruits and then mills them into a fine, gluten-free flour that can be used in cookies, pasta, and other foods. It tastes like fruit, not coffee, and can help reduce other ingredients, like sugar. Gram for gram, it has more iron than spinach, more fiber than whole wheat, and more potassium than bananas, he says.
One new product, a chocolate bar from Seattle Chocolates, uses the coffee flour to add new flavors while also bringing out more flavor in the chocolate itself by masking chocolate's natural bitterness.
For coffee farmers, being able to sell the fruit can provide a boost in income. If a farmer sells coffee beans to a mill for 80 cents a pound, he might spend 70 or 75 cents a pound growing it, with a tiny five or ten cent profit. The fruit, which is normally a burden that farmers have to lug down the mountain when they deliver beans, can now help farmers make an extra three cents a pound.
"That's not insignificant," says Belliveau. "When you're at harvest, and farmers are deciding who to sell their beans or cherries to, I've literally seen farmers who are walking with two 100 pound bags on their shoulders walk another mile for another quarter of a cent a pound. All these deals are on fractions of pennies. Small amounts really make a big difference."
The new coffee flour industry has also created new jobs for people processing the fruit—including for women. Unlike coffee beans, the fruit is light enough that women can easily move bags around in the processing center.
CoffeeFlour currently works with coffee farmers in Hawaii, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Mexico, and Vietnam, but hopes to expand to more than 40 coffee-producing countries around the world. Rather than aim to sell 100 million pounds for $10 a pound, they want to sell a billion pounds for a dollar each.
"It's the same business at the end, but you've done two things," he says. "You've impacted a far greater number of people and farms and countries, and you've also taken more product out of the environment that's polluting rivers and groundwater and even creating places for mosquitoes to grow. And you've turned it into a food supply that can be used locally and also exported."