FUDAM’s Raquel Lasso Talks Differentiation, Ecoforestry, & Covid-19

After over 12 years working with FUDAM leader Raquel Lasso to source coffee from Nariño, Colombia, we wanted to open the floor for Raquel to speak directly to the specialty coffee market. Some background on Raquel: she’s an innovative leader who inspires the best work from her community and gives it in return. In conjunction with her work in FUDAM, she formed a group called Manos de Mujeres that focuses on the empowerment of women growers within her community. Coffee growing can be a macho, male-dominated field, and a group that’s women-led and hyperinclusive adds a huge amount of value to the larger community. Their projects include getting the group FTO certified to increase income (especially for producers on the lower end of the quality spectrum) and opening an organic fertilizer facility so that organic production doesn’t come at the expense of productivity or conservation. To read more about the smallholder communities of FUDAM and Manos de Mujeres, click here.  

What follows is an interview with Raquel, first aired via the Foxhole on August 14th, 2020, edited for length and clarity, and translated from Spanish to English by Red Fox’s Ali Newcomb. Raquel has a lot to say to the specialty market, and we’re happy to help her build the space for producers to talk directly to consumers.  

Aleco: Raquel, can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your family? How did you get your start producing coffee in Nariño?

Raquel: I was born into a coffee producing family. As long as I can remember, I remember waking up to the sound of the coffee depulper. The most beautiful memories of my childhood are of being alongside the harvest, the wet milling, the selling of coffee, and enjoying the result of that sale. Coffee production has been the engine of development in our area. Because of coffee, many families have been able to get ahead. 

My family was big, and of the nine only two of us were able to study to become professionals. For me, and later for my brother Jeremias, my father’s vision was that we could acquire more knowledge, so that we could lead a happier, more beautiful life, a life where things were done with clarity. When I entered university, my father said to me, “I’m not sending you to university so that later you can look after me. I need you to go to university so that you do something for people like us: humble, without knowledge, and many have taken advantage of that lack of information to harm us, to not give us what is fair, to ignore us.” At that moment I understood his logic: I need you to work so that people don’t treat other people the way they treated me. And that has been our endeavor in life. 

We have to make it so that others live better, so that others have better prospects in life, and that’s what we’re doing. Jeremias and I, and I say this not with pride, but with truth, we have spent our lives trying to make it so that the history of our people, of our neighbors and our friends is written beautifully, and that all of us can have an abundant life. They raised my father under the logic that you had to be poor to go to heaven. Our logic is the opposite, it’s to live well, to have an abundant life, to have what you need. And do what we can so that others have a beautiful and abundant life. I think we came here to build heaven together with everyone else.

Aleco: To go deeper with that, what led you to start FUDAM?

Raquel: When we started FUDAM in 2000, we were clear on several ideas and one of those is that we, the producers, have a lot to do with degrading the environment because of poor agricultural practices, not just in coffee but in all crops. FUDAM was born with the idea of starting, among the producers, to improve and change those agricultural practices to minimize negative influence on the environment.

We realized we needed to continue with that ancestral tradition of helping our neighbors, of helping those who live close to you, of making those regular visits that families make. I remember when I was young lots of people dropped by my house. Nowadays those visits are more limited, and with the pandemic even more. We knew that as an organization we had to continue with those traditions of social interconnectivity among families. 

On the economic front, we were aware that the problem for coffee producers is that they are the ones who work hardest, assume the greatest risk, but earn the least. On the other hand, the trader assumes the least risk, works the least, and earns the most. If I send a load of coffee, and something happens to that coffee along the way, the one who loses is the producer. The trader isn’t going to say, “listen, there was a problem and I’ll pay for it.” No. 

We experimented with trading beans, trading vegetables, trading fruit, but it was very complicated, because of unfair competition, lack of working capital, and also logistical challenges, especially transport because transporting fruit is very complicated. We realized that coffee, unlike fruits and vegetables, had greater potential because it has a guaranteed market. We could have a more effective impact on coffee producing families, not only from an environmental perspective, but also from an economic perspective and familial perspective. In that endeavor we realized that coffee was a product with the potential to develop a commercial process using the logic that everything should be shared. You share the profits, you share the workload, and you have to share some of the risks. 

Aleco, I remember that you came many years ago with a man named George. You were really young. We realized that there was a good market for quality coffee, that it was possible to produce quality coffee, coffee that could be differentiated, and that it was possible to have a traceability system in coffee. Those are all of the things we at FUDAM had always wished for. We discovered that for us, as smallholder producers, producing high-quality coffee was the viable option. For the large scale producer, because they have a lot of coffee, the little they earn per kilo adds up. For us smallholder producers, if we don’t earn much on our small quantities, we are left with nothing. 

We started to do that work of quality, of differentiation, of traceability. Now there are other groups that work similarly, but back then we were the only ones who worked that way.

Aleco: How has the power disparity between traders and producers informed the way FUDAM operates?

Raquel: When I receive the coffee from our members, sell that coffee, and receive premiums for the better quality of that coffee, the majority of that additional payment has to go to the producer because the producer is the one who does the majority of the work, that puts in the majority of the effort and who takes on the majority of the risk. 

For us, that focus on ethics was easy. Why? Because we are coffee producers, we know what it is to wake up early, we know the whole coffee production process. So, if we know the production process, what is our philosophy? I treat my fellow coffee producers the same way I would like to be treated, with honesty and with transparency. I like things to be transparent, to be just, and to be clear and that’s how we work at FUDAM. We take that price premium and we transfer it to the producers. We only take what is necessary to cover the costs for the process of commercializing that coffee, the logistical costs. 

Aleco: Can you talk about some of the biggest challenges FUDAM faces in general? 

Raquel: As an organization of smallholder producers, our biggest bottleneck is working capital. Because of producing families’ economic circumstances, they need to bring their coffee to the FUDAM warehouse and be paid immediately. For the moment to get this capital, we not only take out bank loans, we also take out personal loans, and personal loans are very expensive and very complicated. Now, in these times with the pandemic, I started to think about a lot of things. I have a personal loan, and if something happens to me, what happens to my family? What happens to my daughter? My children? But if I have a bank loan it’s much easier, because with a bank loan there’s insurance, there are possibilities for the person who takes out the loan. 

This year, fortunately, we did have credit from the bank, even though we also had to take out personal loans. But FUDAM’s endeavor is that, to reach the point where we don’t need to, and hopefully there is time in this life and this virus doesn’t knock on our doors. 

Aleco: Can you tell me a little about how you’ve diversified production at FUDAM and what you’re currently working on with respect to ecology?

Raquel: We need to reconvert our coffee production into what we call agroforestry. I produce coffee, but I also have other products on my farm that not only increase my income, that not only feed me, but that also contribute to improving the environment. It’s a beautiful process, and the farms here are very different than the monocrop farms of 20 years ago. These farms have avocado, lemons, bananas, yucca, beans, other products that help to improve the quality of life of the family. We’re in the midst of turning our coffee plots into diversified gardens. I connect vegetable plots to food security, but I think of a garden as something whole, something varied, where you have absolutely everything. Thanks to the support of our buyers and roasters we’re achieving it. It hasn’t been easy, but we’re doing the work, and I know that with everyone’s support we’re going to go far. 

Aleco: You’ve talked a little about power dynamics between traders and producers. Can you say more about how FUDAM fits into that and where roasters fit as well?

Raquel: We all have to do our part. The producer does their part. We as an association and as producers do our part, the buyer does their part, the roaster does their part and the consumer does their part. I think it’s very cool that a roaster, in the US or anywhere, can know about us and we can have them visit and they know that if they drink a cup of coffee and pay a good price for that coffee, part of that good price is to reach the producing family here so that things don’t get stuck along the way. We are a private organization, and as a private company we should show ourselves and everyone that you can work honorably and transparently.

At the public level we have seen, if you do an analysis of the coffee sector in Nariño, it’s received more than 60 billion pesos but if you ask a coffee producing family how much of that they received, they won’t have an answer. If you go to that producer and ask, how much did you receive from FUDAM in premiums? They’ll be able to tell you without a problem, 500 thousand, one million, two million. Last year one producer received 7 million pesos for his coffee. If you ask a group of coffee producers: how has the government modified your quality of life, they’ll be left thinking, and likely won’t have an answer. But if you ask them: how has FUDAM contributed to changes in your quality of life? Without a problem someone will raise their hand and say, for me my life changed in this, in this and in this. And they are real, concrete things. So we do see, in coffee production, very good potential to contribute so that all of us as coffee producers modify and improve our quality of life.

Aleco: Could you tell us how the harvest is going?

Raquel: The harvest is coming to the end, the only coffee left is from the highest areas. This year was really hard, there was very little coffee because there was a lot of renovation. I didn’t think it would have such an impact on the harvest, but it was very hard. The pandemic also didn’t allow for harvest and wet milling to happen at the opportune time. The quality of the coffee declined. 

Aleco: I know that the prices on the local market have also been unusually high due to the pandemic. How did that affect FUDAM? 

Raquel: For the producer it’s excellent. The producer wants to seize the moment and sell their coffee at a higher price. But it has made things difficult for us. For one, because for us as organizations collecting coffee it is difficult because of the lack of working capital. Higher priced coffees mean a lot of upfront investment for us. But for the producers it’s great. 

I also feel bad because there was very little coffee in our area. It would have been a great opportunity for our producers, but unfortunately last year the prices were low and people renovated their farms. Hopefully next year there is more production, and hopefully the prices stay high. 

Aleco: How else has the pandemic affected the producing areas and farmers?

Raquel: For us as farmers, as residents of the countryside, the truth is the pandemic has provided an opportunity for us to spend more time on our farms and be in closer contact with our plants, to be in closer contact with our surroundings. We have been blessed, blessed because to be confined to a house in the countryside where there is coffee, where there are animals, where there is a vegetable plot, where there are things that aren’t confinement, that’s pleasure. 

But it’s worrisome to see the people who live in very small quarters, 50 square meters or 60 square meters must be disastrous. 

Also for us coffee producers, this pandemic has been a moment to look within ourselves and say what have I done and what do I still have left to do? This pandemic taught me that when the time comes of being faced with the end it makes you think, what am I taking away from this, and what I take away is what I did for the rest, and what I leave is the memory people have of me, so one way of not dying is to stay in the hearts of those you leave behind, to do something to remain in the hearts of everyone else. 

Aleco: How else has it affected you economically?

Raquel: From an economic perspective the pandemic has hit us hard. For example, we had to go out to the “corregimientos,” which are a nucleus of producers or of several communities, because a lot of our producers are older. So we loaded up the roaster and lab equipment and went up there to cup and receive the coffees to avoid producer risk.

I would tell my producers, it makes me nervous that the next time we have a meeting we have to ask which of our members are missing. That would be very painful. The idea is that we protect each other, and if you think that by not coming here your odds are better we’ll go to you. It increases our costs and complexity, but we’ve done it and we’re satisfied because our producers are more relaxed. In the warehouse we say “come, leave your coffee, I’ll weigh it, and go. And I’ll call you on the phone to let you know what happened with your coffee so that there aren’t any problems.”

Aleco: Has the pandemic affected your community’s health at this time? 

Raquel: The farms at FUDAM didn’t have too many complications because the farms are integrated: we have bananas, yucca, sugar cane, there isn’t a lack of fruit or vegetables, so it was easier to feed the family. To date none of our members have had any health problems related to COVID, but it has been an effort for everyone to try to come out ahead and try to overcome this. 

This is something where you tell yourself, I have to live and protect myself and do what it takes to get through this moment. I think we’re close to the end of the tunnel.

Aleco: How do you see this affecting the future of coffee production in your community? What types of support do you think are needed to create a viable future?

Raquel: One of the challenges that I see is that we need to start implementing strategies to get our youth to stay in coffee production with us. Sometimes we sit down at the top of our land and we look out and think, who is going to look after this when I am gone? At FUDAM we’ve realized that one of the ways that our youth will stay in the countryside and continue to produce coffee is by making coffee production an activity that is highly profitable. How do I make it so that coffee production is highly profitable? 

By producing coffee that is differentiated, good coffee that meets the needs of the consumer. I told my producers they have to focus on this. If some day a roaster from the US tells you that they want you to send them coffee with square beans we’ll have to find a way to make them square. And that’s where communication is important: for buyers to communicate what they desire so that we can satisfy the needs of consumers and establish long-term relationships. 

I see coffee production as having a future, but we have to be more precise. We have to standardize the processes because there are producers who produce good coffee this year, and next year, nothing. We don’t have standardized processes—sometimes we don’t have records of our processes. There are very few producers who can tell you this is how many hours I fermented my coffee this year, this is how it turned out. The complication is that our producers are older and sometimes when the years catch up to you and your expectations are not as high, it’s the same to you to produce coffee well or not. That’s why we need our youth to be the coffee producers of the future and make sure that they learn from us, that the way we learned from our parents, our children and grandchildren learn from us. 

If you come to my house and I want to make you a good cup of coffee, I  will put everything into making that good cup of coffee. I put all my effort into my empanadas so that they turn out as well as possible but if I make coffee carelessly, how is it going to come out well? We, as coffee producers, need to put love, care, to put our hearts into it, and that will be reflected in the product. I am very metaphysical and I do believe that love, that hope that one puts into producing coffee remains immersed in that coffee and that’s the good flavor that we all taste.

Aleco: Gracias Raquel, drinking coffee at your house is the best, but we could never talk to you without talking about the empanadas. They’re the best empanadas in the whole world, I’ve never had better. Thank you, Raquel.

 

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