As we continue working to spotlight voices from producing countries, we were excited to interview Red Fox’s own Carina Barreda and Fabian Viveros Léon in the Foxhole. Fabian and Carina are linchpins of our sourcing program, helping with on-the-ground quality analysis, producer support, and relationship development, among many other things (more in their own words below). Both come from key coffee producing countries in which we’ve worked since the beginning (Fabian from Colombia and Carina from Peru) and have a ton of insight to offer into the current situation and long-term developments both within coffee production and the larger political situations that affect and underpin it. In this Q&A, Red Fox co-founder Aleco Chigounis and head of Red Fox Sourcing Co Ali Newcomb interview Carina and Fabian in Spanish; the interview has been translated and edited for clarity.
Aleco: It is a great pleasure to have you both here. We want to talk about your work, your perspectives on the coffee industry, and your thoughts on the future. But let’s start with your roles. Fabian, can you share what you do with Red Fox?
Fabian: We do a little bit of everything. Here in Oaxaca, we meet and organize bringing on new coffee producers and relationships. I’m also in charge of quality control, all of the follow-up from the production through to the final shipment, managing the whole chain so that the entire relationship from the coffee producers to the final client becomes one and is fully transparent in our business.
Aleco: Nice, thank you! And Carina?
Carina: I do similar work to Fabian. I am in charge of managing the labs, first in Peru and now also in Mexico this season. That means handling the logistics for the samples we receive, organizing the cupping sessions, organizing communication with certain cooperatives regarding their results, and most of all, quality control of the offer and preshipment samples we receive, making sure that the lots we buy meet the quality standards that we need them to meet in the dry mills. I also play a role in marketing.
Ali: In all of our operations both in Peru and in Mexico, there are a really wide range of activities and responsibilities and you two are definitely do-it-all kind of people and you get involved in everything.
Aleco: With all the experience that you both have, in Mexico, in Peru, and also in Colombia (Fabian is Colombian for those who don’t know), how do you see the future of coffee production in those countries? Because a lot is changing fast. What is your perspective?
Carina: I have more of a relationship with Peru because I spend more time working here, am from here, and I have been working in the coffee industry here for years. I think we need to look at the future of coffee production in Peru through an optimistic lens. We are in a very complicated political situation, coming out of a very unstable political situation. In one way or another that is going to affect the coffee production chain. We will probably see some effects this current harvest. But aside from this political panorama, I feel there’s still plenty of room to grow in terms of how much coffee is being produced, not only at the specialty coffee level, but at the commercial level as well. And in terms of quality, I feel like there has been tons of improvement if we look at the past, especially since the period of coffee leaf rust. Domestic consumption has also increased, which almost automatically leads to higher production and incentivizes it at a national level. So even though this season and coming years might be a little bit unstable because of the political situation, I think it’s worth it to see it with optimism. What do you think about Colombia?
Fabian: Colombia as you all know is a very developed country when it comes to coffee. They have progressed in many areas like quality control, transparency in production, and every day they are innovating in production and processing. They are very far ahead.
In regards to Peru, it reminds me of Colombia years back, in its massive production, and I see huge potential in Peru to develop great coffees, great volumes and great quality. More microlots, new regions. There is still much to explore in Peru.
In Mexico, we are developing and searching for new regions and producers to work with, in all the areas in Veracruz, Chiapas, and Oaxaca, each one of them still has a lot hidden. There’s so much quality to continue to grow and develop, and we are searching for all this. The expectation in Mexico is growing a lot, because they are small producers, and very dedicated to coffee.
Carina: Yes, to add to what Fabian is saying, I had the opportunity to come to Mexico for the first time and to get to know coffee production in Mexico, and I agree that there is so much potential. There is still so much more to do and help grow and be a part of. Another way of putting it is that I think that Mexico has the ability to become a country that is recognized worldwide for its coffee quality. With a bit of organization.
Fabian: With a bit of organization.
Carina: And a bit of government support, which is something that all of Latin America is lacking.
Ali: It is very interesting not only to hear your perspectives but also your comparisons of the different countries. On the same subject, how do you see the transformation of commerce in these three countries?
Carina: Well, I honestly don’t have an experience as broad as you all have in terms of trading and coffee commerce. The experience I have is basically thanks to Red Fox and the 3 years I have been working with you, so I don’t have a comparative way to see the transformation of commerce in Peru. What I do think is prudent is to always stay up to date with the new trends of consumption in the market. To know what our clients want, what our clients are looking for. And, on the other hand, what the producers are able to produce.
Fabian: In Colombia the transformation of the market has been enormous. The market conditions for the producer make it very easy to take their product and sell it on any corner and obtain good prices, and it’s very convenient. Everything is ready for the producer to decide where they want to sell their coffee. It is very easy in Colombia to find that kind of market. It is quick and safe. Peru is in the process of getting there. Their volume is huge, and it’s not that easy to find a market for that kind of volume so, the development is going very steadily with the cooperatives looking for markets and presenting the palette of their profiles and the good coffees that you can find in their respective areas.
Here in Mexico, the market is developing faster, because the national coffee shops go looking for their coffee at origin and that helps the producer know their market, know who they are selling their product to in what shops it is going to be sold. So you find a different mix here compared to the other countries, because the national market in Mexico consumes a lot of this coffee, and prices are very competitive with the national companies, and it’s highly coveted coffee inside the country and outside. For all the producers in a lot of areas, there’s a high and constant competition for their product.
Carina: I think it is interesting what Fabian is saying about the consumption culture in Mexico. It’s not as old in terms of specialty coffee as Peru, but I think it has taken off with a lot of force. One of the things that surprised me the most about coming to Oaxaca was to find this fervent culture of third wave coffee shops that want to get into the specialty market. And even though Peru started a few years back, before Mexico, you can’t find as many coffee shops in other regions outside of the capital. I think that’s another remarkable thing about the internal consumption in Mexico.
Ali: I’m with you, the coffee culture impressed me a lot, and they are so proud of Mexican coffees, and that people are willing to pay a very good price that competes with the international markets. That’s something we don’t see in Peru, people are not willing to pay those prices. And the coffee is not as valued in the same way we have seen in Mexico.
Changing the subject, and I think this is a really broad question because we are in the middle of the protests in Colombia, we just came out of the elections in Peru, but I wanted to know your opinions. What can you tell us about the political situation in Peru?
Carina: How much time do you have? The political situation in the country is in a very complicated moment, as you said. We haven’t finished with the presidential election yet, an election that should have been finalized a few days ago that has gotten complicated due to fraud accusations.
On top of that we’re coming from 5 years of exhausting political instability. In the last 5 years, we’ve had 4 elected presidents, which has damaged a population that also had to deal with the pandemic. Through all of this political instability, aside from the emotional stress that the population has already been through, it has considerably affected the financial health of the country. The Sol (Peruvian currency) has devalued in comparison with the dollar, which has raised a lot of concern within the population as well. The scenario we are facing right now is a possible very conservative left socialist government. There is a general fear in the population, which Fabian and I were just talking about, which is the fear that the entire Latin American population has right now of falling into a socialist model of a dictatorship like the one in Venezuela.
It’s not a very pleasant scenario, but it is what we are facing, so we are trying to keep calm as much as possible, to avoid creating more panic, to avoid creating price hikes, to avoid creating more instability, no? It’s going to be interesting, to see how all this develops in the next 5 years. We have to pay attention as a company and see how this will affect the agronomic sector and what kind of policies in the agronomic sector will be implemented by this new government.
I would like to think optimistically that we are going to maintain the level of production, not only of coffee, but in our work specifically. That coffee production will be maintained, that the internal consumption will continue to be incentivized. I would like to think that the rights of the agronomic sector are going to be protected. But we still have a lot to see, because there is no clarity about what this government’s policies are going to be in regard to the economy and the agronomic sector. That’s a short summary.
Fabian: As far as Colombia, the Colombian people have been enduring the issues that are coming to a head now for a long time, and they’ve felt very vulnerable with the decisions that the current government has made. With the abandonment of the people’s needs and everything that the government has done, the Colombian people have reacted. Unfortunately, now with Covid, the resentment has been much more brutal.
Ali: Going back to your idea, these are issues that have been present for many years, and now everything is coming to light. These are not new issues, but rather years and years of resentment.
Aleco: It is like boiling water passing its limit, no?
Fabian: Yes! Yes, as Ali was saying, people’s resentment has exploded now, and because of the pandemic everything has gotten more complicated. The government has also been unwilling to listen to the people. There are many industries that have been left unprotected by the government. Now, during these times, they have gotten together to unify their voice, unify their shout, against the president, the government, because of their bad decisions. Commerce has been affected. In many instances they have cut gas, energy, water, access to food has been blocked for people who are far away, it has been very complicated. It’s the dissent of an entire population, everyone who has been mistreated by the system, and it’s affecting us all. The entire production chain, the health chain, and the entire system in Colombia has been … well, it has collapsed.
Carina: Do you have presidential elections soon?
Fabian: Yes, same, we have presidential elections soon, and that increases the internal conflict even more, and the conflict of interests. The instability.
Aleco: Thank you for this, we know that everything is changing daily in the two countries, and we are in front of the television, the radio, the internet, looking for any kind of news that we can find. Your perspectives are invaluable.
Carina: I want to thank you for the space, for me and Fabian. I feel like we have to be paying very close attention to all changes, how they can possibly affect the coffee industry, and the possibilities of the producers.
Aleco: Thank you very much for your time, you are two of the most powerful ingredients in our recipe, our company. I thank you all for everything. And I will see you soon in Peru, or Colombia, Fabian.
Fabian: Thank you Aleco, see you! See you soon!