Jean Bosco & Longin of Dormans Rwanda on Kanzu Coffee, 2020, & Covid-19

We were able to connect with Jean Bosco Seminega and Longin Muhizi of C. Dormans Rwanda in the Foxhole and talk all things Rwanda, Covid, and the 2020 and 2021 harvest and shipping seasons. Host and Red Fox founder Aleco Chigounis has known both Jean Bosco and Longin for over a decade, well before Red Fox was formed and before the 2 of them joined Dormans. He is joined by co-host and co-founder and director of business operations Julia Fariss, who among many other things has managed our Rwanda operations since the beginning. Both Jean Bosco and Longin bring with them incredible histories and insight on Rwanda coffee production past and present.

Aleco Chigounis: Hello everyone, welcome back to the Foxhole. We have another special episode today. I am joined by my co-host Julia Faris. Julia has been helping me run the business since day one as our director of business operations but also as our coffee buyer in Rwanda. We also have 2 very special guests from Rwanda, from C. Dormans in Rwanda, Jean Bosco Seminega and Longin Muhizi. Welcome to the show, both of you! It’s great to have you here.

Jean Bosco: Thank you Aleco. We are happy to be here with you tonight.

Aleco Chigounis: I’m very happy to see you both. It’s been far too long. Both of these fine gentlemen here are our representatives of C. Dormans Rwanda, particularly the Kanzu washing station which is the one and only coffee that Red Fox procures from Rwanda. It’s one of my all-time favorite coffees and possibly our most popular coffee of all. Most of our clients, top to bottom, are buying Kanzu in some capacity because it really is a jewel of Nyamasheke. 

Quick background: Nyamasheke is the growing region where Kanzu’s coffee comes from on South Central Lake Kivu. It’s high up in the mountains around 2000 meters and has really green, lush, forested mountainside. Kanzu was built in the mid-aughts by Alphonce Kayijuka, who eventually sold the washing station to C. Dormans. I’ve been involved with Kanzu since 2007 when the Cup Of Excellence did a precursor event in Rwanda called The Golden Cup. Kanzu took third place, and at the time I was at Stumptown and split that lot with Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia coffee. I really fell in love with the profile and started to buy the coffee year after year from there. With that out of the way, I’d like to turn this over to Julia and we’ll get started with the interview and hear from these two guys. Enough from me!

Julia Fariss: Thanks, Aleco. Jean Bosco and Longin—if you would introduce yourself and start by telling us a little bit about your coffee career?

Jean Bosco: Thank you, Julia. My name is Jean Bosco Seminega and I’m the country
manager for C. Dormans Rwanda. I joined C. Dormans Rwanda in 2015 but I’ve been in coffee for the last 20 years. I started as a consultant, became a coffee business owner, then later I joined C. Dormans in 2015 as a country manager. 

Longin Muhizi: My name is Longin Muhizi, I have 13 years’ experience in the coffee industry here in Rwanda. I started my coffee career in 2007 in a USA project called Spread, where we were helping producers initiate and develop cooperatives, get financing, and connect with overseas buyers. After Spread I continued working with a number of cooperatives as a quality controller and cooperative development officer.  In 2010, I joined Technoserve, which was a project funded by the Bill and the Melinda Gates Foundation in order to provide a solution for poverty. After Technoserve, I joined C. Dormans Rwanda in 2012 as operation manager and logistics coordinator, where I work now. 

Aleco Chigounis: Great history Longin. That’s where I first met you, working for the Spread project. Really amazing project, for any of the listeners who aren’t fully aware. There was actually a project prior to Spread called Pearl, which morphed into Spread after different financing came in through USAID. It was a recovery project for the coffee sector post-genocide, and really boosted the ability to produce and differentiate specialty coffee in the international marketplace. Coffee producers’ prices have risen exponentially since the advent of that project. 

Jean Bosco: That was actually in the earlier 2000s, when the Pearl project started. There was another project supporting private companies called ADR that I was a consultant on for 4 years. I remember, we met in 2010, I don’t know if you remember.

Aleco Chigounis: I remember—you were working with Alphonce directly.

Jean Bosco: Yes, I showed you some coffees from Kanzu. So much time has passed since then!

Aleco Chigounis: Now we’re veterans in the coffee industry.

Jean Bosco: I’m thinking about retiring someday.

Aleco Chigounis: I’m not. I can’t even fathom yet but maybe, maybe.

Jean Bosco: Some people never retire from coffee, you know? It’s very hard to leave the coffee industry.

Aleco Chigounis: I’ve seen people try to leave before and they always come back. It bounces back into you and doesn’t let you go.

Julia Fariss: Jean Bosco, can you tell us a little more about C. Dorman’s history in Rwanda, when Dormans bought Kanzu, and what other washing stations Dormans operates now in the country?

Jean Bosco: C. Dormans Rwanda started operations in Rwanda in 2012. We started leasing washing stations, 5 washing stations in the western province. We were leasing at that time and in 2013 we started buying washing stations that we had been leasing. Our operations were concentrated in the western province, mainly in Nyamasheke district where we really feel that the best coffee from Rwanda is coming from. 

Since 2015 we continued buying washing stations and now, we own 9 washing stations. Aside from what we own, we also sometimes work with some small outside washing stations owned by small local companies where we pre-finance and help market that coffee. We currently have around 6,000 farmers registered that are linked to those different washing stations where we provide some services from farming to training, support, certification process, and more.

Julia Fariss: Longin, could you tell us a little about what makes Nyamasheke a special growing region for coffee and a little bit about Kanzu washing station?

Longin Muhizi: As Dormans Rwanda, we have chosen to be present in Nyamasheke district alone, because of the quality of coffee in that particular area. Bordering Congo in the west, it has a range of altitudes from 1495 all the way up to 2200 and above. It also has the natural forest called Nyungwe, with rainfall in that particular area ranging between 1300 to 1400 millimeters per year. The soil is volcanic as well. The quality coming from those factors was what pushed Dormans to buy the Kanzu washing station in the Nyamasheke area.

As Jean Bosco mentioned, we bought and started operating in Kanzu in 2012. Kanzu washing station is located at 1836 meters above sea level with great access to the hills covered with coffee and excellent agricultural practices. It is highly visible. Kanzu is able to produce 4 to 6 containers of exportable grade high quality. Because of the quality produced in that particular region, we always face competition from other trading companies. Our advantage depends on our relationships with farmers, so we build really strong partnerships, which makes Kanzu the best washing station to work with. To date, Kanzu is working with 535 farmers and those farmers are also registered under certification programs like Rainforest Alliance and trained in best practices to help them continue producing the best possible coffee. If you look at Kanzu’s last season, we were able to produce 4 containers of exportable grade coffee, and because of competition for cherry the price was very high. 

Aleco Chigounis: I’m very curious about the competition there and how it works. I’m sure it’s a battle for the coffee as it is every year. That is such a special area. You told us a little bit about how the harvest shook out in terms of competition and volume. How did you see it quality-wise compared to years past?

Jean Bosco: Kanzu has special quality all the time, so we always deal with competition. That means we always have to pay the highest price, and we know the quality is worth it. We thank you for the price you have been paying us so that we can pay a good price to the farmers we work with in Kanzu. We also keep close track of small lots of coffee for quality control because we know, when we focus on quality we need to really, on a daily basis, track the coffee we are getting. We are very grateful for the support to manage the quality down to a lot by lot scale for our top clients.

Aleco Chigounis: I have to say I regret not buying more coffee this year. The coffee was so good. We were as buyers, maybe you’ve seen this from other buyers as well, a little timid with the Covid-19 situation. Unsure of how things would shake out economically here in North America with our own clients and how they would be living through this situation, but in retrospect we should have bought another container. Next year we’ll be back strong with the full volumes again. When do you see the next harvest starting and how do you think it will shake out in terms of volume and quality?

Jean Bosco: In Kanzu, because of the higher altitude, we’ll see the next season start a bit late compared to others. Around the end of February, early March. This year, we’ll still be getting cherries into July, which is great. The late maturation gives time for concentration and the quality gets better over the course of the harvest. We expect a good crop, because the rain is what we want to see so far. We applied fertilizer already, and we’re expecting at least the same volume or more than what we bought in 2020. We’ll definitely have the volume you want, especially since you make such fast decisions. 

Aleco Chigounis: Thank you. That’s the mantra for us, to make quick decisions and move quickly. Be a strong partner.

Jean Bosco: That quick decision helps us so much.

Julia Fariss: And I wanted to say, regarding quality, all our work this year was done from our lab in Berkeley. No one was traveling and it’s always such a pleasure to cup those Kanzu offers, they’re so good. This year, they were just the highlight of cupping for me personally. I haven’t been cupping as much because I’m mostly working from home, so it’s just such a beautiful coffee and this year was definitely no exception.

Aleco Chigounis: So beautiful. It also seems like, and correct me if I’m wrong, that the potato issue obviously still exists but it’s much better controlled than it used to be. To give a very brief synopsis on what potato defect is to anyone who might not know, a specific kind of insect bores into the beans, leaving bacteria that create a raw potato flavor in the coffee. Really interesting, and unfortunately undesirable—it’s a problem that has hurt Rwandan coffee producers, which is why folks like Jean Bosco and Longin have taken great measures to try to eliminate it as much as possible. Thinking about the Kanzu coffees and the amount of times we’ve kept them this year across the different lots that we’re buying, we have a very low incidence of finding potato cups. Is there a special program or a special way that you approach the quality control of that now at Dorman?

Jean Bosco: There’s a lot of strict control and tracking of small lots. We cup every small bunch of coffee on a regular basis and whatever we get any potato taste, we keep it aside, we recup until we get all lots potato-free. We do a lot of hand-picking and we have very good cuppers at our office. We have 2 Q graders now and we work hard really on getting the best quality we can. Especially for regular buyers and committed buyers. The potato taste is still there we can’t say a hundred percent, you know? It’s very hard to control these potato tastes, but we try to track as much as we can to get the potato-free reloads.

Aleco Chigounis: I think you’ve done a very good job, thank you for that.

Longin Muhizi: Also going back to the farms’ practices, a lot has been done. We have a program designed for farmers. We deliver training on good agricultural practices and with those practices, you see there is really an improvement on how farmers are treating their coffee crops. That’s had an impact on reducing the potato. Pruning is really very important. The bugs that cause potato taste like to hide in coffee farms where the foliage is bushy, but when you clear the farm and carefully apply fertilizer, some pesticides when possible, and be consistent at pruning, the severity of the potato is really reduced. 

At the washing station where we sort the cherries, we also make sure that anything that has been bitten by any insect is removed during flotation. When you put coffee or in water, cherries that have been damaged by insects float and can be removed. Then, after coffee is pulped, we also do sorting in the pre-drying area. We call that phase skin drying, where we pre-dry the skin of coffee so that when you put the coffee under natural sun it cannot be cracked by the sun, allowing other issues to arise. During skin drying you can also easily pick out any defective coffee beans. Just to highlight that we do a lot of controls at every stage to be sure that the coffee we are going to produce is of quality desired by the client.

Aleco Chigounis: It’s great to hear about all the steps you’re taking. 

Julia Fariss: Could you two tell us a little about what the year has been like in Rwanda, what the impacts of Covid 19 have been both on operations for Dorman, for farmers, and also just on a human level?

Jean Bosco: 2020 has been very hard for everyone worldwide, and Rwanda was no exception. We had our first positive case on February 14th, and from then on positive cases kept increasing and Rwanda took major serious measures, starting in early March. We went into complete lockdown. By the time we started harvesting, the whole country was on lockdown. Farmers and the agricultural sector were allowed to continue operations, but with little movement allowed. Everything slowed down, it was very hard for us to keep the same level and speed of work in the field.

For example, in order to leave Kigali we needed a special authorization to leave. Fortunately we have washing station supervision at the regional level—our washing station managers were living at the washing station during harvest. We managed to get there ourselves during the harvest, but it was not easy to get in and out. 

Otherwise, Rwanda took serious measures. Now it’s mandatory to wear masks everywhere. Anyone in Rwanda leaving their home needs to wear a mask; social distancing is controlled as is testing. We, Rwanda, started testing in March because we were not prepared. The pandemic came as a surprise to everyone but over time Rwanda got more equipment to do testing. Now we have 5500 positive cases tested since that time with more than 90% recovered, fortunately and around 50 deaths. In June, the country started reopening slowly. Now schools are back. 

The country is slowly recovering, but we are still under serious control. We need to keep social distancing, some pubs are still closed, hotels are opening and all travelers need to get tested. Whoever enters Rwanda needs to be quarantined for 24 hours and tested. We took serious measures, and we are lucky now we can say it’s a bit under control, when you compare with the other countries. 

During the farming season, the risk was a bit high for us to keep financing, sending money to the field when we couldn’t go there on a regular basis, but we managed to anyway. We were lucky to have a good team and then we managed to get production and pay farmers and in the end it went well. 

One of the biggest negative impacts is still with us: the cost of living is becoming very high. Rwanda is a country that imports a lot of things including food and imports prices are very high due to transport issues at the borders. It’s really not easy; there’s a very negative impact on everyone including our farmers. Their cost of living is rising, and buying anything they need is more expensive. 

Julia Fariss: Yeah, in the US right now having a really big surge of cases and, it’s been a hard year here too. I’m glad that the measures in Rwanda have been successful at controlling Covid and that schools are back. Are you able to travel to the field now? Do you still need to get special authorization?

Jean Bosco: Now we can travel in the field. The western province was under lockdown for a longer period than the rest of the country because it’s at the border of DRC, but now it’s reopened so we can travel within the country without any problem for the moment. Only people going out of the country need to be tested first and when they come back.

Julia Fariss: How do you see things looking forward to the upcoming season? What are the plans in place for next year for coping with any more Covid-related obstacles?

Jean Bosco: We have hope that the vaccine will help and that Rwanda would probably be included in the first countries to get the vaccine. The pandemic was taken very seriously here in Rwanda because our country relies on tourism and has a service-based economy. So, that’s why in Rwanda this problem was taken seriously from the beginning. Now we have hope because worldwide if the pandemic can get under control with the help of vaccination then things will be much better next year.

On the farming level we are as ready as possible. We have applied fertilizer, but it wasn’t ideal. We used to have fertilizer from expert contributions and the government gave us additional support. Now the government wasn’t able to get that support so we probably won’t have enough, and this this year will be already reduced to what we have, but whatever we had was already applied on time. The rainfall has been good, so we hope that the production will be good. Farmers are in a hard situation, but we are in touch with the farmers, we are trying to work with them. Some of them are looking for some small loan for their production, and we try to help them to access some finance to pay their family expenses. 

We’re also struggling with training. With social distancing measures in place, we can’t gather people for trainings. It’s a bitter challenge but we hope to be able to do training as we can in respect of the committed measures.

Longon Muhizi: To add to that, we are working to increase the involvement of women in coffee farming, so we’re planning for when things get back to normal. We’re planning to create 4 groups of women in Kanzu, where we will be able to train them on different topics aside from coffee practices like basic business skills and financial literacy, so that in the off season they can have some activities that can generate income to support the household. After the training we help them to develop their business ideas, and also spread them to the other women surrounding the Kanzu region. 

We also plan to maintain certification which is good for farmers and helps them get higher premiums. And, we’re planning to contribute to production by raising seedlings which will be given to farmers for free—our plan is to distribute in 40,000 new seedlings in 2021 which will help us assure that in 3-4 years the productivity won’t drop off. That is also an assurance to Red Fox, that any volume they will have in the future as the company is growing, we will be able to supply.

Aleco Chigounis: That’s great news! Which varieties are you giving them as seedlings?

Longin Muhazi: There’s a new released variety called Rap C15; it was tested by Randall Clutch and released in 2015. It’s resistant to coffee bean disease and the quality and productivity are good.

Julia Fariss: It’s such a pleasure to see you and to hear how the year has gone for you. We so appreciate working with you and all the work that you do. We love that coffee from Kanzu and the work that Dormans does so, thank you so much for being with us.

Aleco Chigounis: Thank you both. It’s great to see both of you. Two of my oldest friends in
Rwanda.

Longin Muhizi: Thank you, thank you, Aleco.

Jean Bosco: It was a pleasure meeting you here. It has been a long time since we’ve seen each other. We hope you guys will continue buying Kanzu and it will be really a pleasure to work with you.

Aleco Chigounis: We’ll always be there—as long as Kanzu is producing coffee, we will be there. 

To learn more about our work, check out our journal and follow us on Instagram @redfoxcoffeemerchants, Twitter @redfoxcoffeeSpotify, and YouTube.

Tibed Yujra of Puno, Peru on Puno History & Launching An Association During Covid

We were lucky to get a chance to sit down with Tibed Yujra, a long-time partner in Puno, Peru, in the Foxhole for a conversation about his work in organizing a new producer association, Puno’s recent harvest, and the challenges posed to both by the Covid-19 pandemic. For more background on Puno’s history and Tibed’s role, click here.  

 

Aleco Chigounis: Hello everyone, welcome back to the Foxhole! We have a very special episode for everyone today. I am joined by my talented co-host Ali Newcomb. Ali is the managing director of our export and sourcing operations in Lima, Peru and Oaxaca, Mexico. Welcome Ali! How is the weather in Lima?

Ali Newcomb:  Good, very good.

Aleco: We also have a very special guest today, Tibed Yujra. Tibed is a former Red Fox employee, who left to start his own producer association and sourcing operation in Puno. Tibed has been a very close friend of mine personally for well over a decade and has a really amazing professional career history, and he’ll tell us all about everything he’s done back then and what he’s doing now. Welcome Tibed! 

Tibed Yujra: Thank you so much Aleco for the invitation.

Aleco: It is a pleasure, my friend. It has been a long time. How is everything in Putina?

Tibed: Always good, we are all good, very good here.

Aleco: It is important to know by the way folks, that Tibed is joining us from Putina Punco, deep in the Sandia Valley way out in the producer area just above town, in a little hamlet called Chorrillos. Tibed, can you tell us a little bit about your family, where you are from? I know you have gone from the plateau to the jungle and everywhere.

Tibed: My family came from the mountain range of Puno, and the majority of the people who settled in the jungle of Tambopata where I live, they are also from the mountain range. My parents settled there years ago. I was raised there and have lived there since. Then and now, my family has always been in the coffee world, and that’s why it so much.

Aleco: That’s good, and Tambopata is the jungle where you find all the coffee of the Sandia Valley, or no?

Tibed: Not only in Tambopata. We have two valleys: Tambopata, and the other one is called Inambari. 

Aleco: And that is where your family is from and where the famous area of Tunquimayo is, no?

Tibed: Exactly.

Aleco: That is good. Can you tell us a little bit about your professional story? How did you start in the coffee industry? And how did you get from there to here in the present?

Tibed: Yes, it’s a long story. Basically, it started with my parents. They started producing coffee in this jungle and I started working with them, to see how the coffee grew, how the production works, how the export companies work—the ones that existed here during those times like Cecovasa and other cooperatives. Now that my parents are older, they moved to the mountain range, to be more comfortable and take care of their health. And so, that is how I started. I then started working in Cecovasa almost 11 years ago. Sometimes I worked in the warehouses and sometimes quality control in the laboratories. After I left Cecovasa, I went to work for a nonprofit in Haiti called Veterinarians Without Borders. I helped a lot of Haitian producers to improve their coffee quality during those times. After that, I started working at Red Fox alongside Aleco, and with everyone in the team that are still working there.

Aleco: That is so good! A question, how long were you working for the group of the vets in Haiti?

Tibed: About two years.

Aleco: I remember when you and I met the first time in Putina, sampling something like 200 coffees in only two days. 48 hours cupping like crazy, and we became very close friends over there. But after, you left to go to Haiti, and to go work at other levels as more of a consultant. Then we met again in Incahuasi, right?

Tibed: Exactly! Yes, I worked at a cooperative in Incahuasi for a term as a consultant, and we saw each other then too, when I was finishing the consulting work there. 

Aleco: It made me really happy seeing you again. From there, we went together to the future, no?

Tibed: Yes, exactly!

Ali: Tibed, I wanted to ask you—we are very excited, with everything that you have initiated this year, your new project in Puno. I wanted to know if you could tell us a little bit about this project, and how it has been?

Tibed: Yes. The fact is that there are many producers, and despite all the effort that they put in at the farm level, they don’t receive the appreciation or money they deserve, and that is the reason why we have started to build an association to help the producers. So they can receive a fair price for the quality of their coffee. It’s a huge endeavor to cultivate the coffee, it’s not an easy task. I also have a farm, and it’s very complicated to produce specialty coffees. It is intense, the reality of a producer, and I think that work needs to be rewarded. That’s why we started this project: to put together a group of producers, organize them into an association, and allow them to export their own coffees, and so they can receive a fair price for the quality of their coffees and their work. 

Ali: And how has it been? Because, you started this in full pandemic, and even though you’ve known a lot of these producers for years, you’ve started from zero this year. All the social parts, talking to folks about all the work that you were going to do, the logistics of it, tell us a little bit about how you’ve been working this year?

Tibed: Well, for me, it has been very complicated basically because of the pandemic, because it was really difficult to travel or even communicate with the producers. The producers themselves were afraid, so they didn’t want to receive visitors. In general, it’s helped me a lot to know many of the producers of the area of Sandia. Both valleys, in Tambopata and Inambari, and this is the reason why they have trusted me so much. I think it’s fundamental. Definitely there have been a lot of roadblocks, but I think we’ve achieved something.

Ali: Yes, we are trying the samples of the first container and they are spectacular. 

Tibed: It makes me really happy to hear this.

Aleco: You have done an excellent job getting the best producers. Better than ever before. The coffees of the producers that we have been buying for the last 10 years or so. Good job!

Ali: Can you tell us more about the challenges that come from your specific location? Because you are working in a place that is very remote, where there aren’t any banks. What challenges have you had in that area, with financials and logistics?

Tibed: Yes, indeed, it is very difficult. The financial area especially, because it’s so fundamental to try to cushion the finances of the producer. They don’t have the luxury to be able to simply give you their coffees and trust that you’ll pay them later. They need some upfront payment. So, this part has been very complicated. As you know well, this area is very far away from the city, the trip is very long, and since there aren’t banks there, we have to try to transport the money safely and avoid theft and other obstacles.

Aleco: Coffee production in Puno has a very interesting history, all the trading and commerce of the coffee, doesn’t it?

Tibed: Yes, it’s very different. I have been in various countries, and I know, like for example in Honduras, the production and transport from the farm to the port is so close that it doesn’t take more than 4 or 5 hours of travel. But this area is so remote. Imagine it, from Putina Puno to the production zone of many producers, and we are not talking about its total, some producers are 6 hours away, some others 8 hours, and then from there to the port or to the processing plant that is located in Lima. It is very far, and we are talking near 40 hours of travel for the coffee, and that is very far, I think is the most isolated part in the world of coffee, if I am not mistaken. 

Aleco: I always tell the story of one time that you and I were in Pilcopata. It was many years ago but, many years ago. We were visiting someone, and we happened to see Mr. Ciriaco Quispe taking his coffee down bag by bag in a wooden wheelbarrow. His farm is almost a whole hour of walking straight up. It is difficult. And I can’t even imagine how to bring down 100lb bags in one of those wheelbarrows. Bag by bag, it has to take hours. Even days, no? It is insane. So, it’s not just a matter of where the production is, but how to get to the town as well. It’s incredible, I’ve never seen something like that in my life. 

Tibed: Yes, the topography is rugged. And making a wrong move while carrying the wheelbarrows, one can get injured or worse. 

Ali: How do you do it Tibed, this year? Did you go and pick up? Did you have a meeting point where the producers would come and deliver to you? 

Tibed: This year we had a temporary meeting point where Silvia has helped us a lot. She is a long time friend who’s also a coffee taster. So, that is the agreement that we made in the production area. But we also had a warehouse that we rented in the city of Juliaca. 

Ali: And from your warehouse to Juliaca, how many hours are in between?

Tibed: Well, by truck, it is about 14 hours.

Ali: That means just one way, no?

Tibed: Exactly, one way only.

Aleco: Can you tell us about your famous wife? Delia, winner of a great place in the Cup of Excellence competition last year and a renowned producer of the highest quality coffee? 

Tibed: Yes, my wife Delia and I started this growing project because we wanted to know the true effort of producing high quality coffee and be able to experience it with our own hands. You can see it in a book, or you can see it in biographies, whatever is written can say something, and something different is what you truly go through and work on. It is very difficult growing specialty coffee and at the same time, it’s a passion, and this is the reason why we started with the farm so we could experience all this. And to explain what truly happens in the farms and how we can actually improve the quality of the coffee for other producers in the community. That’s why we entered Cup of Excellence. Delia’s coffee, our coffee, ended in 11th place. We hope to be able to compete again in the upcoming years and see what happens. To see if we can win, that is also the goal, no? 

Aleco: Yes, I would say we know a lot of the stories of the coffees of well-known Puno producers like Ciriaco and Raul Mamani, Benjamin Peralta, and Wilson Sucaticona of course. And Abdon and Juan Quilla, but Delia’s coffee has added a higher level of quality. That amazing coffee. It is one of the best coffees in the entire continent of South America.

Tibed: Wow! Thank you for your appreciation for our coffee, it makes me really happy, and believe me, my wife is really happy for this as well.

Aleco: Yes, well we thank you so much Tibed, and say hello to her from us please.

Tibed: Of course, that I will do.

Aleco: Ali, what else?

Ali: Well, I’m just thinking you’ve had so many experiences, Tibed

Tibed: Yes. It will take me a life to tell you all of them.

Ali: What has been your favorite part of the farming project that you have with Delia? It seems like you started it primarily to learn from the experience, no? What did you get out of it and what have you enjoyed from it?

Tibed: Yes. In the farm we have many varieties, so that we can see the behavior of the different varieties. There are varieties that are very demanding in the fertilization, there are varieties that are strong and resilient. That is essential to know because, as a producer, if I want to produce specialty coffees, I have to manage my geographic location, I have to look for a good variety, so that knowledge is essential. The farm has taught me all that. What I like most is seeing the differences between all these varieties. I like it a lot because we’re also the ones who apply the fermentation in wet milling, and being able to experience the fermentation to see how it helps us. It’s complicated to use this method. It is very delicate, and just one mistake can damage the entire harvest of the day. 

Aleco: A question about the varieties: what variety does best in the microclimate of Tunqui and Putina Punco and all the area of Tambopata?

Tibed: The bourbons. 

Aleco: The bourbons, yeah. It is a very popular one in the area, no? It is something so special. It has floral flavors like the ones from Ethiopia. 

Ali: Tibed, I wanted to ask you, you have 3 kids, right?

Tibed: Yes, exactly!

Ali: And they have grown there in the ranch cultivating coffee with you all.

Tibed: Yes, during the pandemic yes. They have been here together with us.

Ali: And would you like for them, when they are grown, to be coffee producers? Or for them to do something else?

Tibed: It is a little bit difficult for me to say that because, I can imagine, each of my kids may have other likes, so for me personally, I think it would be good that they would be involved in the coffee world, but I think each of them will decide their own destiny, their own likes. Maybe one wants to be a doctor, or maybe another profession, I don’t know, they might not be involved with the coffee. Maybe they don’t like the world of the coffees but at the end of the day, they will walk their own way. But for me, personally, I would really like that.

Ali: Beautiful outcome.

Aleco: Well, then, is there anything you want to ask us or say to us?

Tibed: Yes, I am very happy to be part of the coffee world. It is my passion, and what I am doing is what I love. The world of coffee doesn’t have borders or a limit, and I think that, beyond borders, we find the world of the coffee growers, of the entire world. I think that we have to communicate with producers, and help the producers to get the best prices for their coffees, and for me, personally, I would be really happy with this. 

Thanks to Aleco for helping me during the 5 years in Red Fox and for knowing so much about the world of the coffee. When I left Cecovasa, I thought I knew it all. Then, I realized that that wasn’t the case, and that there was much more. I think the world of the coffees is very ample and there is a lot to learn. And thank you very much.

Aleco: Beautiful Tibed, thank you very much. You will always be part of the Red Fox family. And you will always be my brother as well. Thank you very much for your time, and for sharing the stories with us. Ali, I don’t know if you have anything else.

Ali: No, thank you so much Tibed, I hope you have a beautiful afternoon.

Tibed: Ok, thank you so much to you too.

Aleco: Thank you! Bye!

 

To learn more about our work, check out our journal and follow us on Instagram @redfoxcoffeemerchants, Twitter @redfoxcoffeeSpotify, and YouTube.

 

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.

 

To learn more about our work, check out our journal and follow us on Instagram @redfoxcoffeemerchants, Twitter @redfoxcoffeeSpotify, and YouTube.

Asorcafe’s Geovanny Liscano On Covid, Why Specialty is The Future, & 2020

After over 12 years working with Asorcafe leader Geovanny Liscano to source amazing coffee from Inzá, Colombia, we wanted to open the floor for Geovanny to speak directly to the specialty coffee market. Some background on Geovanny: he’s been a stalwart partner to us since 2006, back when he farmed just one hectare of land with his wife and father. The coffee was superb and over time Geovanny reinvested profits back into the land, bought surrounding plots, and built up processing infrastructure into a thing of beauty for the whole community. He is the model producer to look at when talking about reinvestment and potential at the farm level. His group Asorcafe is incredibly well-organized with a laser-focus on ethics and he’s a valued leader in the greater Inzá community. He’s now in his second run as Asorcafe President after being the association’s third President from 2007-2008. To read more about the smallholder communities of Asorcafe, click here.  

What follows is an interview with Geovanny, 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. Geovanny has a lot to say to the specialty market, and we’re happy to help him build the space for producers to talk directly to consumers.  

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

Geovanny Liscano: For me, coffee is all we have; it’s a product that is special to our area. In my family, we’ve produced coffee ever since we were children. Now, we’re proud because we had the vision of forming Asorcafe, the business we have today. Thanks to that producer association we met you, Aleco, who we and the producers are grateful to be working with today. In this moment there are difficulties, but we also know that good things come out of difficult times where we have to learn, to get inventive, and I think from there we will find strategies to come out ahead.

Aleco: Can you tell us a bit about your personal story as a producer, or about your parents and how they started to produce coffee?

Geovanny: Since we were very young, coffee production has always been a part of our lives, but despite that, I didn’t know nearly as much about coffee until we founded the association and started working with you and getting into specialty production. It’s brought a huge change to my family. I’m really grateful to have gotten into specialty coffee; I like it. In the case of my family, we feel good about working in coffee. We feel happy going to the farm, from planting a tree, to harvesting, the whole process. 

I owe everything to coffee and to the program we have with you because today, the price the local green coffee market and other C-based buyers are paying for coffee right now is booming—but Aleco, you know there are times when the prices dropped to 600,000 pesos, 700,000 pesos, and at that price we barely cover our costs. Profits from producing specialty coffee come from knowing you’re going to receive premiums. Thank God we as a family started saving those premiums and investing them into building solar dryers, buying a good depulper, building a good wet mill set-up to make the processing easier. 

Each day we have more love for coffee farming, those of us who depend on that crop. We do the work as a team, as a family. All of that makes us special. There’s a saying, “it isn’t the coffee that’s special, it’s the producer.” I think that’s right, you can have a very good variety, but if you don’t cultivate it well, you’ll never produce a good coffee.

Aleco: It’s always been a pleasure to work with you and your community. Was it your father or your grandfather who initially planted your farm so many years ago?

Geovanny: My father. My grandfathers also, but in the case of my farm specifically it was my father.

Aleco: Can you tell us the history of Asorcafe, how you started it and how you got to where you are today?

Geovanny: Before Asorcafe, we would see traders who paid unfair prices. They would come, meet up, and agree on the prices they would pay at the market. There were some producer leaders who thought about that and said, you go to town to sell your coffee and everyone is buying at the same cheap price. It wasn’t fair, and we could all see that. It led to us thinking about an organization, and we started socializing the idea with Yovany Castillo, who ended up being the founder, and with the other leaders there we started to organize and spread our ideas in all of the communities in the municipality. 

Before, you would put in the effort to produce good coffee, and take it, beautifully selected and when you got to the trader, they paid low prices and mixed it all up with low grade coffee, and that wasn’t ok. With Asorcafe we started to separate the lots, the coffee from the producers who took a lot of care in their production would be separated out. At first, we worked with Virmax Colombia. Once I got into specialty coffee, I liked it, and I see our future there.  

After forming Asorcafe, we learned to prioritize caring for the environment in our work. Before the association, we had learned that monocropping was the way to farm, planting coffee only. At Asorcafe we didn’t agree with that policy, and we started reforesting, planting trees, and switching to integrated crop farming where the farm has everything you need. Thankfully, it has been a model that many in the association have integrated. 

I’ve always told the people here at Asorcafe that Aleco’s program is open, that all of us could sell our coffee there and all of us could benefit from the premiums that we receive from Red Fox. Not all the producers in our community are quality-focused, there are some that don’t do the work that they should, but more than 50% of the members are committed. We set prices according to the coffee quality and those are the prices Aleco pays, and we at Asorcafe calculate the payment, deducting the expenses of the association—but we deduct very little, because Asorcafe always takes into account that the producer is the one who does the most work and puts in the most effort, so the largest amount possible goes to the producer. 

Right now, it’s difficult because of the high prices, the boom. At Asorcafe we have to make an investment to be able to get that coffee because the local price right now is almost as high as what we can pay, but when these booms happen—we’ve seen it before, and right now we’re seeing prices that we haven’t seen in many years—we know from experience that when we least expect it those prices will drop and we at Asorcafe still continue paying high prices. 

There are challenges, the pandemic has been very difficult, but we’re looking at strategies every day to come out ahead with the project of producing coffee.

Aleco: How is the quality of the harvest this year? I know that you are cupping a lot in Pedregal and that the producers are well versed in how to produce good coffee. 

Geovanny: Those of us that produce specialty are doing well. We’re doing things carefully, fertilizing well so that the harvest isn’t harmed, and I think there is good quality. 

Also, right now something very positive that we have as an organization is the cupping. Rivier does a really good job in the lab. We are very aware that he understands what he is doing and it gives us confidence in the organization. 

So yes, I think the end of year harvest will be good, hopefully the prices stabilize because they have been crazy. One day it’s one price, the next it’s another, and it’s been hard. 

Aleco: The prices are going up and down a lot?

Geovanny: More than anything going up, these days. It has been really complicated. The regional prices more than anything.

Aleco: Could you tell us a bit more about how the pandemic has affected you there in Inzá with the people, the logistics, the harvest, all of that—how has it been?

Geovanny: In our case here in Inzá, we’re in the countryside and thankfully we’ve been privileged because it has been uniting for family and community. 

From the perspective of being on the farm, it’s been good, because we’ve been able to work on lots of things that we were behind on. There was more time for each of us to work on our farms and so it hasn’t been so bad. 

On the business front, it has affected us. For Asorcafe economically it has been really difficult because here we have business locations and warehouses that we had to close for days in La Plata. Here in Inzá, we have also closed certain locations because it was impossible for suppliers and clients when people aren’t allowed out into town, everyone has to be in their house. That part has been complicated for us because you’re not allowed out. On the other hand, thankfully it has helped in terms of being able to spend more time with the family and working at home. 

Here in the municipality, just a week ago we had our first positive case. We’re now, once again, confined to our farm, our house, our community. So on the one hand, Aleco, we’ve been doing well, and on the other hand so so.

Aleco: Geovanny, it’s always a treat to talk to you. I think COVID has presented a lot of challenges but one of the advantages is I think all of us are learning to connect virtually.

 

To learn more about our work, check out our journal and follow us on Instagram @redfoxcoffeemerchants, Twitter @redfoxcoffeeSpotify, and YouTube.

Covid At The Farm Level: Inzá & Nariño, Colombia

The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are unpredictable from country to country, and even more so between the smallholder producer communities we work with across the globe. We were lucky to get some time to talk with the leaders of the two primary producer associations we work with in Colombia—Raquel Lasso of FUDAM in Nariño and Geovanny Liscano of Asorcafe in Inzá, both of whom are smallholder producers leading smallholder communities—about some of the effects they’re seeing in their communities so far. Perhaps surprisingly, not all of the changes this year has brought have been negative, but there are significant challenges and opportunities both currently operative and that lie ahead.   

Background: Covid-19 in Colombia 

Colombia’s Covid-19 response and healthcare infrastructure issues offer many parallels with the US’s, and in the country at large, the disease is not and has not been well controlled by government measures. 

Over the course of the pandemic, Colombia’s medical system has strained under the weight of hospitalizations. In mid-August, the country saw a massive increase in coronavirus infections, fueled by low levels of testing, inconsistent lockdowns from place to place, and hardly any contact tracing. Colombia registered the highest per capita COVID-19 death rate in the world, over Brazil and the US who came in second and third, respectively. During the first week of August, 2,139 Colombians died from Covid-19 (according to official numbers). Per capita testing levels as of August 12 were 40,000 per million, a low figure even compared to the 210,000 tests per million carried out in the United States. 

Mid-July figures showed the nation’s health care system either at capacity or in a state of collapse, with ICU occupancy rates in the high 80 and 90 percentage range in much of the country. Since then, total infections have continued to skyrocket. Lockdown measures continue to be inadequate and inconsistent, as does the government assistance that would allow workers to stay home without having to worry about meeting their needs.

 

After diagnosing its first Covid-19 case in Bogotá on March 6 and watching case counts increase in major cities, Colombian authorities declared a health emergency, first suspending public events, then restricting entry from select countries, then shutting down borders beginning with the Venezuela border, where the government feared a refugee crisis was boosting case counts. Case counts continued to rise in the following days and President Iván Duque and the Ministries of Health and Education announced suspension of classes for all public and private schools and universities in the country. 

By March 16, Colombia closed all land and sea borders in conjunction with the governments of Ecuador and Peru, and several departments issued curfews to avoid viral spread. On March 17 as more new cases were diagnosed, President Duque declared a State of Emergency, announcing specific isolation and economic measures to slow the spread of the virus. On the evening of March 20, he declared a 19-day nationwide quarantine, starting on March 24 and ending on April 12. Since then, Colombia’s national lockdown has been extended in some form or other eight times, through September 1, and the country has reported more than 267,300 official coronavirus cases and 9,074 deaths (which, considering ongoing struggles for adequate testing, is likely an undercount). Similarly to the US, leaders of departments, municipalities, and even specific neighborhoods have been able to tailor their own response to be more or less strict based on case counts, and many have reopened to various degrees. 

Remote Rural Communities Afford Some Protections

We’ve always prioritized partnership with remote groups who don’t necessarily have the same market access as their more centrally-located peers, and in the case of the rural smallholders we work with in Nariño and Inzá, that remoteness has been something of a safeguard against viral transmission and offered some protection against Covid-19. 

From the beginning, coffee production, milling, and exporting were deemed essential business and exempted from any lockdown orders. Initially, our milling and export partners were working at 50% capacity due to curfews forcing them to go home earlier in the evening than normal. When we talked to our supply chain partners in early April, transportation complications were reaching critical mass as availability decreased despite increased rates. Conditions deteriorated for drivers as there were no longer stops to eat and to rest. Ports were generally open for business though some had limited hours for loading and unloading. While we expected a lack of pickers would have had significant impacts on medium to large farms, the rural smallholders we work with did not feel those same impacts since the work they do involves family- and community-based support rather than migrant labor. 

In terms of distancing, Inzá-based Asorcafe already had collection centers in San José, San Antonio, Pedregal and Inzá, which helped everyone keep their distance through the harvest. In Nariño, Lasso’s biggest concern in early April was retaining membership outside of La Unión where there were already instances of infection. FUDAM eventually implemented parchment collection sites in each village to keep greater distance between communities, and sometimes even collected at individual residences where members were elderly or at higher risk.

Effects on Community Health

The Covid-19 pandemic has been both a physical and mental health crisis for the public, but in small rural communities that have been hit more with isolation and worry than the disease itself, the changes haven’t been entirely negative. 

“In our case here in Inzá, we’re in the countryside and thankfully we’ve been privileged because it has been uniting for family and community,” says Liscano of Asorcafe. The municipality recently had its first positive case, so restrictions have tightened once again. “We’re now, once again, confined to our farm, our house, our community,” he says. “So on the one hand, we’ve been doing well, and on the other hand so so.” 

Lasso has seen similar upsides. “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,” she says. “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.” 

For Lasso, it’s also been a cause for introspection. “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?” she tells us. “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.”

She also adds that the community health ramifications of Covid-19 have so far been less severe because the farms of FUDAM are diversified rather than monocropped, a priority of FUDAM’s. “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.” 

But, she says, “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.” 

Effects on Business and Finance

While there have been some positives on the mental health side of things and a lot of luck and care in avoiding community transmission thus far, the business and financial side of things has been less positive. 

While neither Asorcafe or FUDAM have had to deal with the labor shortages larger farms are likely seeing, one issue they’ve encountered is volatile and exceptionally high pricing. While, as Lasso says, this is a great thing in general for producers, it poses specific problems for small groups like Asorcafe and FUDAM, especially in uncertain times. While both of these groups pay prices well above the local market (we shared our pricing for 2019 in Paying for Coffees: Inzá and Nariño), the difficulty is in having the same amount of money to pay those higher prices upfront. So, while the local markets are still paying less than what Asorcafe or FUDAM would pay, they’re paying way more than usual and paying it on the spot. 

“Right now, it’s difficult because of the high prices, the boom,” says Liscano. “At Asorcafe we have to make an investment to be able to get that coffee because the local price right now is almost as high as what we can pay, but when these booms happen—we’ve seen it before, and right now we’re seeing prices that we haven’t seen in many years—we know from experience that when we least expect it those prices will drop and we at Asorcafe still continue paying high prices.” 

“For the producer it’s excellent,” says Lasso. “The producer wants to seize the moment and sell their coffee at a higher price. But it has made things difficult for us. For us as organizations collecting coffee, it’s 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.” She also notes that many producers in her area had replanted last year due to low prices and so this year, yields were low. “Hopefully next year there is more production, and hopefully the prices stay high,” she says. 

The volatility of coffee prices is a huge challenge under any circumstances, and while higher prices are definitely a silver lining, they still present challenges for small associations who do the work of paying consistent high prices but lack working capital to pay those higher prices upfront.

The pandemic has also created logistical difficulty for these small, remote groups. “From an economic perspective the pandemic has hit us hard,” says Lasso. The complexity of collecting parchment from neighborhoods and at-risk individuals increases cost and complexity for FUDAM. “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 our producers are more relaxed.” 

Asorcafe has felt similar effects. “For Asorcafe economically, it has been really difficult because we have business locations and warehouses that we had to close for days in La Plata. Here in Inzá, we have also closed certain locations because it was impossible for suppliers and clients when people aren’t allowed out into town, everyone has to be in their house. On the other hand, thankfully it has helped in terms of being able to spend more time with the family and working at home.” 

Liscano also notes a silver lining in being able to catch up on farm work. “We’ve been able to work on lots of things that we were behind on. There was more time for each of us to work on our farms and so it hasn’t been so bad,” he says.  

Rural Smallholders Know How To Face Uncertainty 

While Colombia’s national Covid-19 response hasn’t set coffee producers up for success, smallholder producers are no strangers to challenges, uncertainty, and risk. These communities have done everything in their power to put community health front and center and are continuing to produce beautiful coffee at prices that allow them to continue to invest in the community and the family.

 

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