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Smell the coffee for new opportunities for blind people in the coffee industry

March 3, 2019

India has a large population of people with visual impairments and finding employment opportunities for the community can be challenging given that the number of skilling facilities are so few.

It was this concern that led Mumbai-based organization Desai Foundation for Change (DFC) to look at coffee tasting and roasting as an possible avenue of employment for visually impaired people. DFC is a public organization working to empower women and children through health and livelihood in India. Its approach is to empower local community members to run projects.

People with visual impairments have a superior sense of smell, a skill that is used in the perfume industry to evaluate fragrances. Over the years many blind people have found jobs as fragrance evaluators and quality control executives. Why not use that quality in the coffee industry, thought Manasi Mahukar, who works with DFC.

We started looking for coffee brands who were interested in supporting this idea and after much searching, we heard from Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters, a brand that is interested in promoting Indian coffee in the market. They buy quality coffee from the Indian farmers directly and roast it themselves and want to promote the true taste of coffee. - Manasi Mahukar, Desai Foundation for Change

Struck by the idea, Blue Tokai agreed to partner with DFC to conduct an introductory workshop on coffee tasting and roasting in Mumbai. Taking the group of visually impaired people through the workshop was Shreyash, a coffee taster and roaster.

"The attitude of the Blue Tokai staff and their willingness to make this a memorable experience for the visually challenged was commendable", said Mahukar. "The workshop spanned everything - from the origin of coffee to conducting activities to identify and roast different types of coffee".

There were three kinds of activities done in the workshop. It started off with participants being asked to smell two kinds of coffee beans, one smelt of the earth and peanuts, while the other smelled distinctly like coffee. "The difference is because of the roasting", explained Shreyash. "The beans in one plate were not roasted while the other was. When you roast the coffee in different temperatures, you get different types of coffee - light, medium and dark"

The group was then asked to smell ground samples of these beans and identify the different aromas. Lastly, the group was given three types of coffee to taste after they were brewed in water.

"It was awesome and I gained a good amount of knowledge about coffee and the coffee industry in India", said Pallavi Pandit, a DFC member and participant. "Blue Tokai is confident about the capabilities of visually impaired people and they need some help to explore the area".

Another participant Shidesh Tendulkar found the workshop useful but raised some important points regarding accessibility.

"The tasting workshop was excellent but Blue Tokai told us that to become a coffee taster in India, one had to roast the coffee. If the company could coordinate with the Xavier's Resource Center for Visually Challenged [XRCVC] in Mumbai to make the roasting machine accessible, it would be first step to success on this path".

Perhaps another option could be to leave the task of tasting the coffee to a team of people with visual impairments and roasting assigned to a separate team. This is certainly a potential career prospect for the community and one with a great growth curve given the huge popularity for coffee in India.

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