Out of Africa and into Ontario: the story behind Canada’s first grower-direct imported coffee

Out of Africa and into Ontario: the story behind Canada’s first grower-direct imported coffee

David and Amy Wilding-Davies with their Zimbabwe Coffee Farmers of the Year award (Photo courtesy of Ashanti.com)

Ashanti Coffee might not be a name recognized by many of Toronto’s coffee connoisseurs, but maybe it should be. The company established Canada’s first grower-direct importing scheme for beans, which are shipped from Zimbabwe, roasted locally (in Thornbury, Ontario) and sold in Toronto stores. Owned by Canadian Olympian David Wilding-Davies, an equestrian who competed at the 1988 games in Seoul, Ashanti is unique for its importation methods, its quality control and its survival of Robert Mugabe’s land reclamation campaigns.

Ashanti’s single-origin beans come from Wilding-Davies’s farm in Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands, an area ideal for coffee production because of its climate, altitude and soils, but whose farms have lain fallow over the last decade due to the disastrous policies of Mugabe, the country’s ruler. Wilding-Davies originally fell in love with Zimbabwe during an overland tour of Africa in the early ’90s. After his wife, Amy, had a similarly swoony reaction during their honeymoon in the region in 1996, the couple became determined to settle there. Although they weren’t experienced farmers when they bought Ashanti in 2000, they relied on the knowledge of their staff and the surrounding farming community to get the coffee trees growing, and by 2003 they were voted Zimbabwe Coffee Farmers of the Year by their peers, and were starting to export hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of beans.

Just two years later, they fled the country and returned to Canada. All their neighbours had been forced from their farms by gun-wielding, government-endorsed squatters, and the Ashanti owners feared they were next. Never one to balk in the face of adversity, Wilding-Davies decided that instead of simply abandoning his land, he would remain in Ontario and fight to keep the farm from here. He established a café near Collingwood, starting this country’s first grower-direct bean importation business to distribute his coffee harvest.

With the help of a staff in Zimbabwe, who make the farm run despite a lack of steady electricity supply, the best unroasted coffee berries are hand-picked each April and undergo a rigorous screening process. The chosen beans travel from Zimbabwe by truck to the port of Durban in South Africa, by boat to Halifax, and finally by rail to Toronto. (The only hiccup in the journey is usually in Canada, where border guards tend to search shipments for drugs.) The beans are then roasted at Wilding-Davies’s operation in Thornbury, near Collingwood, ensuring that when the beans arrive at select carriers—like the Cheese Boutique, or Max’s Market in Bloor West Village—they are as fresh as possible.

Wilding-Davies is happy to point out the best part of this system: Without any of the middlemen who boost the price of a bag of Kicking Horse or Starbucks blend, Ashanti’s grower-direct model delivers high-quality beans at a much lower price. And with a commitment to treating farm workers ethically, and a percentage of the proceeds going towards two rural schools in Africa, Ashanti’s chocolaty dark roast or citrusy medium roast couldn’t taste any sweeter.