Jeff Abella is the co-founder and CEO of Moka Origins chocolate and coffee company. He frequently travels back and forth between Pennsylvania and Moka Origins’s farm in Cameroon, West Africa.
Casey: How did Moka Origins get started?
Jeff Abella: My team and I had been living and working in West Africa. Starting in 2007, I did a ton of travel back and forth, running not-for-profit work and working in coffee growing and cocoa growing communities. We were constantly on the go.
My business partner and I started Moka Origins farm in 2015 in Cameroon and really jumped in with the community to start our cocoa farm and address the needs that everyone was facing and work collaboratively with communities to do that.
What’s it like traveling around the farm?
JA: These are really rugged conditions. We don't have an established road network, and there's often no water or electricity. So we carry everything in and everything out. We've learned a lot about being lean with our travel, and how to be smart about our packing and luggage.
How long does it take to get to the farm? And how do you pack for it?
JA: For our farm work, we'll sometimes have a full 24 hours of travel and then a 15-hour ride to the nearest city. Then we'll have another half day on bush roads to get to our farm. One of the things we’ve learned the hard way is to be smart about the kind of protection you want to put your clothing in and what kind of suitcases and and lined bags you want to use.
What kinds of bags work best, in your experience?
JA: We quickly learned that hard shells and waterproof bags are great for this kind of terrain. Still, I pack everything in a big garbage bag because when I'm going on these long expedition trips, luggage will be on the tarmac, and if there's a delay, if it’s monsoon season in West Africa I can see my bag out the window getting poured on. Garbage bags are not the most sophisticated technique, but they’re what I've found work best.
What other extreme conditions do you have to prepare for?
JA: We could be in a city and if our vehicle breaks down, we could be stuck on the side of the road in the dusty season. Then you’ll just keep getting blasted with sub-Saharan dust. Everything'll be covered in red silt. But with garbage bags, I know at least my goods and bags are fine.
How often do you get stuck in a storm like that?
JA: All the time. In the rainy seasons we get to these the bush roads and everything's clay soil, which is really beautiful. But when it rains, it just turns to almost ice. And so we're constantly getting stuck in the mud. My wife will be out pushing the car and I'll be out rocking it back and forth.
We've even had instances where we have to have a community lift the cars up and move them because the ruts can get four to six feet deep, so you're in potholes the size of your car.
What are you typically carrying in your luggage when all this is going on?
JA: We're usually carrying really fragile, delicate things. Oftentimes we'll have survey drones in there, soil testing kits, and medical equipment. So I like to use hard shells to protect all the gear.
But you're also carrying coffee and chocolate back and forth — how do you make sure everything stays intact in such unpredictable conditions?
JA: I always travel with squishy coolers — you can get really small ones online. I'll usually put a few chocolate bars in there. It provides a little insulation so your bars will be okay even if you have a few hours of direct sunlight on your bag. You could have 10 or 20 bars in there and they aren't gonna completely melt.
It’s also important to keep chocolate tight. So like if I'm carrying 10 bars over, I'll have them stuck together in a small box or even rubber banded, keeping them together like a block. Then I'll put those into a plastic bag and put the whole thing in my squishy cooler. I cover all this in a hardshell case. A duffel could also work, but I like the hard shells because they offer a little more protection. Chocolate is fragile and could melt at around 75 degrees enough, so a hard shell helps to keep the temperature in check.
I also put the bars in plastic Ziploc bags. Same with our coffee. That really helps to provide extra freshness and avoid cross-contamination issues.
What’s your number one tip for packing chocolate?
JA: The most important thing is making sure you bring enough chocolate. I always double what I think I'm going to need for myself. This way you can share with new friends you meet along the way.
For the coffee snobs out there — myself included — what’s the best way to travel with coffee?
JA: There’s this company called Handpresso that makes an espresso machine. Instead of an electric pump, it has a hand pump that builds pressure and can press a really perfect shot.
Then there’s a cheaper version that’s even simpler to use — it’s one of my favorites because it's plastic and a little bit less prone to breaking. It’s called the Aeropress Go, and the case is a coffee cup. I took it on my last trip to Mexico and I was making gourmet coffee right on the flight as everyone else was sipping the stale stuff.
Which of your chocolates pairs best with airplane coffee?
JA: Probably our espresso bar. I think of it as a shot of espresso on the go. We roast our espresso and put it into our stone grinders with our cocoa beans for four days and it turns into a creamy, flowing chocolate. The espresso completely liquefies with the chocolate, and so the end result is a chocolate bar that's completely creamy, that tastes just like espresso and chocolate. It's a really good bar.
Learn more about Moka Origin's upcoming Origin Trip to the Sierra Norte Mountains of Mexico here.