UTAMTSI: “A Story of Encounters” / “Eine Geschichte des Begegnens”

by Julie King ’12

Wednesday afternoon Prof. Antje Pfannkuchen, Jens, and I hopped in the car that Dickinson occasionally borrows through a car sharing company in order to drive to Lilienthal, a suburb of Bremen in Niedersachsen, where we had an appointment with a representative of UTAMTSI. As Dickinson-in-Bremen’s “Sustainability Intern” I got to come along to visit the fair-trade coffee company. When we arrived, I realized my expectations were all wrong – in the good way. Perhaps because of the giant building near the central train station with the giant Jacobs (Coffee) sign, I had expected something bigger, more urban and definitely more stereotypically corporate. In actuality, the UTAMTSI office and roasting house in a wooded area of Lilienthal is a small part of a complex that appeared to have some other offices as well housing for handicapped individuals.

To my surprise, our appointment was not just with a representative of UTAMTSI, but the founder himself, Mr. Morin Fobissie Kamga. The three of us sat down at a table with Mr. Kamga and another visitor who appeared to be a student. Before I get started on the fascinating story of UTAMTSI I need to explain its pre-existing relationship to Dickinson. In February Brian Brubaker, the director of Dickinson’s Office of Global Education, visited UTAMTSI to find more about the sustainable company that is coincidentally based in Bremen, Germany, and Yaoundé, Cameroon, both of which are the locations of Dickinson Study Abroad Programs. After hearing the “UTAMTSI Story,” Brian Brubaker must have spread the word, because the students in Yaoundé visited the Cameroon location where Mr. Kamga, who annually returns for the coffee harvest, shared his story and showed the girls where coffee beans are grown and then sorted. Therefore, it shouldn’t have a surprise, but it was still surreal to sit down with a man I had just met in Bremen to look at pictures of girls I know from Dickinson visiting the same man in Cameroon.

While showing us pictures of coffee trade and his home in Cameroon, Mr, Kamga began the fascinating story about how UTAMTSI originated. The son of coffee farmers in a village outside of Yaoundé, Mr, Kamga, persevered and worked hard in school to pass standardized tests in a land variable teaching skills and curriculums. Having learned English, French, and German he applied to a private university in Koblenz, Germany. After a short time he transferred to the University of Bremen where he studied economics. In his student-housing complex, he met another student named Stephan Frost. Having told Stephan all about his home and the coffee industry, where farmers only received 3% of the final sale-price for their coffee beans, Mr. Kamga rejected a job offer from the World Bank and decided to start his own coffee company with Stephan. With fewer middlemen he could offer better profits for the farmers near his home and better quality for his customers.

Spreading the word to farmers that he would pay 1.30€ instead of 0.30€ Mr. Kamga initially faced threats from a few crooked competitors, but now successfully has contracts with over 1000 farmers, who use peer-to-peer quality control and natural farming techniques. UTAMSI is also unique in that women and slightly handicapped workers are welcomed workers. There is even an employee to watch after the children while their mothers sort out good beans. Once harvested the beans are shipped to Bremen, where they are roasted, packaged and sold. The smaller location in Bremen also employs handicapped individuals who weigh, grind and package the roasted beans.

Additional UTAMTSI projects include the funding for a local health center outside of Yaoundé and contributions to rural schools that are always in need of supplies and adequate teachers. Student interns from Germany have gone to Cameroon to teach German and to help with the coffee bean harvest. And lastly, loyal customers have had the opportunity to travel to Cameroon for weeklong home stays with coffee-bean farming families.  Future plans include a trip to a business fair in September in Baltimore and hopefully a visit to Dickinson. Mr. Kamga also shared his ambition to open another location somewhere in Germany.

To fulfill the goal of our visit, we presented the idea that a professor and student from Dickinson’s International Business and Management department write a case study about UTAMTSI. The company fits perfectly with Dickinson’s mission to „engage the world sustainably,“ and as a former economics student himself, Mr. Kamga, happily accepted the offer, understanding the benefits of a case study about his company.

While we enjoyed a cup of fresh pressed UTAMTSI coffee and some cake, Mr. Kamga explained the meaning of the name UTAMTSI. In his native language Nafi “U” means “we” or “a collective group” (“Wir/Gemeinsam”); “TAM” translates to “meet” or “encounter” (“Begegnen”) and means the “the story of humanity is characterized by constant encounters” (“Die Geschichte der Menschheit ist von ständiger Begegnung geprägt”); and “TSI” translates to “water” (“Wasser”) and means “ancient cure that gives power” (“Uraltes Heilmittel, das Kraft schenkt”). Leaving UTAMTSI and smelling like coffee, I couldn’t help but think how accurate and fitting the name UTAMTSI is for the triangular relationship between the coffee company and Dickinson.  Dickinsonians helped sort coffee beans in Yaoundé, we saw the roasting process in Bremen, and when Antje returns to Carlisle, the German professors will drink coffee that completes the circle.