A happy accident in the Lello Valley in the 1990s led to the creation of one of KwaZulu-Natal’s rare specialist coffee brands. We discover the story behind Assagay Coffee
Story Robin Lamplough
Thirty years ago, Rick James was embedded in a corporate career, but he had never quite given up his boyhood dream of becoming a farmer. In 1991, he bought three hectares of land on Lello Road in the Assagay valley. It was shaded in the morning by Botha’s Hill and looked up at the Alverstone heights. While he was planning to start a poultry farm on his plot, Rick found a stand of neglected coffee bushes. This discovery sent him off in a new and unexpected direction.
While nursing his coffee plants back to health, Rick researched coffee production. He sought advice from local producers and their organisations. When his crop was ready to harvest, he sent samples of raw beans to brokers. By that time, however, he had also devised a roaster of his own, using a discarded tumble drier.
He began selling Assagay Coffee at two nearby outlets – Richden’s Spar and Heidi’s Farmstall. Because he and his wife, Lesley, were still doing their conventional jobs, most of the work to produce their coffee was done in the evenings and at weekends. To keep packaging costs down, Lesley made calico bags on a desk in the bedroom. The result was a distinctive product, with the slogan “The coffee in the calico bag”. By 1994, Assagay Coffee was selling well and the problem was the lack of space on their original farm.
Planting coffee was nothing new in KZN. The Lutheran mission at New Germany had a small plantation in 1867. Soon afterwards, plants were introduced from Mauritius. They did well at Red Hill, north of Durban, and up the North Coast. Years before he produced an ounce of sugar, Liege Hulett was selling coffee to the Stanger Jail, but by the 1870s a combination of borer and blight had wiped out the coffee plantations and the experiment was abandoned.
It was only a century later, with a sharp rise in world coffee prices, that local authorities began to promote the crop, but the dominance of Brazil as a source, the risk involved and the high cost of labour proved discouraging. A coffee picker has to work with branches which bear – all at the same time – flowers, immature beans and others ready for reaping. A high level of training and expertise is, therefore, called for. As a result, coffee in South Africa has remained what one agricultural academic terms a “boutique” product, with a small and specialised market. It was in this environment that Assagay Coffee entered the industry, to become the only producer in the Durban area and one of just three coffee farms in the province.
In 2002, Rick bought 40 hectares in the Harrison Valley near Cato Ridge, which became the new centre of their operation. He now has 30 000 trees to tend, using a full-time staff of 10 people, as well as 10 to 20 seasonal workers. According to Ashleigh James, wryly calling herself the company “GDB” (or General Dog’s Body), all the work on the farm is done by a team of local women recruited in the Inchanga and Georgedale areas. To the familiar Assagay brand, the company has added another product labelled “Zulu Brew”. Clearly, the experiment that started in Lello Road in the 1990s has more than justified the faith the James family placed in it so long ago.
And, if you happen to know a small boy in desperate need of a container for marbles, you could do worse than give him an Assagay calico bag. Just don’t forget to fit it with a drawstring.