Carina & Fabian of Red Fox Sourcing Talk History & the Future in Peru, Colombia, & Mexico

As we continue working to spotlight voices from producing countries, we were excited to interview Red Fox’s own Carina Barreda and Fabian Viveros Léon in the Foxhole. Fabian and Carina are linchpins of our sourcing program, helping with on-the-ground quality analysis, producer support, and relationship development, among many other things (more in their own words below). Both come from key coffee producing countries in which we’ve worked since the beginning (Fabian from Colombia and Carina from Peru) and have a ton of insight to offer into the current situation and long-term developments both within coffee production and the larger political situations that affect and underpin it. In this Q&A, Red Fox co-founder Aleco Chigounis and head of Red Fox Sourcing Co Ali Newcomb interview Carina and Fabian in Spanish; the interview has been translated and edited for clarity. 

Aleco: It is a great pleasure to have you both here. We want to talk about your work, your perspectives on the coffee industry, and your thoughts on the future. But let’s start with your roles. Fabian, can you share what you do with Red Fox?

Fabian: We do a little bit of everything. Here in Oaxaca, we meet and organize bringing on new coffee producers and relationships. I’m also in charge of quality control, all of the follow-up from the production through to the final shipment, managing the whole chain so that the entire relationship from the coffee producers to the final client becomes one and is fully transparent in our business.

Aleco: Nice, thank you! And Carina? 

Carina: I do similar work to Fabian. I am in charge of managing the labs, first in Peru and now also in Mexico this season. That means handling the logistics for the samples we receive, organizing the cupping sessions, organizing communication with certain cooperatives regarding their results, and most of all, quality control of the offer and preshipment samples we receive, making sure that the lots we buy meet the quality standards that we need them to meet in the dry mills. I also play a role in marketing. 

Ali: In all of our operations both in Peru and in Mexico, there are a really wide range of activities and responsibilities and you two are definitely do-it-all kind of people and you get involved in everything.

Aleco: With all the experience that you both have, in Mexico, in Peru, and also in Colombia (Fabian is Colombian for those who don’t know), how do you see the future of coffee production in those countries? Because a lot is changing fast. What is your perspective? 

Carina: I have more of a relationship with Peru because I spend more time working here, am from here, and I have been working in the coffee industry here for years. I think we need to look at the future of coffee production in Peru through an optimistic lens. We are in a very complicated political situation, coming out of a very unstable political situation. In one way or another that is going to affect the coffee production chain. We will probably see some effects this current harvest. But aside from this political panorama, I feel there’s still plenty of room to grow in terms of how much coffee is being produced, not only at the specialty coffee level, but at the commercial level as well. And in terms of quality, I feel like there has been tons of improvement if we look at the past, especially since the period of coffee leaf rust. Domestic consumption has also increased, which almost automatically leads to higher production and incentivizes it at a national level. So even though this season and coming years might be a little bit unstable because of the political situation, I think it’s worth it to see it with optimism. What do you think about Colombia?

Fabian: Colombia as you all know is a very developed country when it comes to coffee. They have progressed in many areas like quality control, transparency in production, and every day they are innovating in production and processing. They are very far ahead.

In regards to Peru, it reminds me of Colombia years back, in its massive production, and I see huge potential in Peru to develop great coffees, great volumes and great quality. More microlots, new regions. There is still much to explore in Peru. 

In Mexico, we are developing and searching for new regions and producers to work with, in all the areas in Veracruz, Chiapas, and Oaxaca, each one of them still has a lot hidden. There’s so much quality to continue to grow and develop, and we are searching for all this. The expectation in Mexico is growing a lot, because they are small producers, and very dedicated to coffee.

Carina: Yes, to add to what Fabian is saying, I had the opportunity to come to Mexico for the first time and to get to know coffee production in Mexico, and I agree that there is so much potential. There is still so much more to do and help grow and be a part of. Another way of putting it is that I think that Mexico has the ability to become a country that is recognized worldwide for its coffee quality. With a bit of organization.

Fabian: With a bit of organization.

Carina: And a bit of government support, which is something that all of Latin America is lacking.

Ali: It is very interesting not only to hear your perspectives but also your comparisons of the different countries. On the same subject, how do you see the transformation of commerce in these three countries?

Carina: Well, I honestly don’t have an experience as broad as you all have in terms of trading and coffee commerce. The experience I have is basically thanks to Red Fox and the 3 years I have been working with you, so I don’t have a comparative way to see the transformation of commerce in Peru. What I do think is prudent is to always stay up to date with the new trends of consumption in the market. To know what our clients want, what our clients are looking for. And, on the other hand, what the producers are able to produce. 

Fabian: In Colombia the transformation of the market has been enormous. The market conditions for the producer make it very easy to take their product and sell it on any corner and obtain good prices, and it’s very convenient. Everything is ready for the producer to decide where they want to sell their coffee. It is very easy in Colombia to find that kind of market. It is quick and safe. Peru is in the process of getting there. Their volume is huge, and it’s not that easy to find a market for that kind of volume so, the development is going very steadily with the cooperatives looking for markets and presenting the palette of their profiles and the good coffees that you can find in their respective areas.

Here in Mexico, the market is developing faster, because the national coffee shops go looking for their coffee at origin and that helps the producer know their market, know who they are selling their product to in what shops it is going to be sold. So you find a different mix here compared to the other countries, because the national market in Mexico consumes a lot of this coffee, and prices are very competitive with the national companies, and it’s highly coveted coffee inside the country and outside. For all the producers in a lot of areas, there’s a high and constant competition for their product.

Carina: I think it is interesting what Fabian is saying about the consumption culture in Mexico. It’s not as old in terms of specialty coffee as Peru, but I think it has taken off with a lot of force. One of the things that surprised me the most about coming to Oaxaca was to find this fervent culture of third wave coffee shops that want to get into the specialty market. And even though Peru started a few years back, before Mexico, you can’t find as many coffee shops in other regions outside of the capital. I think that’s another remarkable thing about the internal consumption in Mexico. 

Ali: I’m with you, the coffee culture impressed me a lot, and they are so proud of Mexican coffees, and that people are willing to pay a very good price that competes with the international markets. That’s something we don’t see in Peru, people are not willing to pay those prices. And the coffee is not as valued in the same way we have seen in Mexico.

Changing the subject, and I think this is a really broad question because we are in the middle of the protests in Colombia, we just came out of the elections in Peru, but I wanted to know your opinions. What can you tell us about the political situation in Peru?

Carina: How much time do you have? The political situation in the country is in a very complicated moment, as you said. We haven’t finished with the presidential election yet, an election that should have been finalized a few days ago that has gotten complicated due to fraud accusations.

On top of that we’re coming from 5 years of exhausting political instability. In the last 5 years, we’ve had 4 elected presidents, which has damaged a population that also had to deal with the pandemic. Through all of this political instability, aside from the emotional stress that the population has already been through, it has considerably affected the financial health of the country. The Sol (Peruvian currency) has devalued in comparison with the dollar, which has raised a lot of concern within the population as well. The scenario we are facing right now is a possible very conservative left socialist government. There is a general fear in the population, which Fabian and I were just talking about, which is the fear that the entire Latin American population has right now of falling into a socialist model of a dictatorship like the one in Venezuela.

It’s not a very pleasant scenario, but it is what we are facing, so we are trying to keep calm as much as possible, to avoid creating more panic, to avoid creating price hikes, to avoid creating more instability, no? It’s going to be interesting, to see how all this develops in the next 5 years. We have to pay attention as a company and see how this will affect the agronomic sector and what kind of policies in the agronomic sector will be implemented by this new government.

I would like to think optimistically that we are going to maintain the level of production, not only of coffee, but in our work specifically. That coffee production will be maintained, that the internal consumption will continue to be incentivized. I would like to think that the rights of the agronomic sector are going to be protected. But we still have a lot to see, because there is no clarity about what this government’s policies are going to be in regard to the economy and the agronomic sector. That’s a short summary.

Fabian: As far as Colombia, the Colombian people have been enduring the issues that are coming to a head now for a long time, and they’ve felt very vulnerable with the decisions that the current government has made. With the abandonment of the people’s needs and everything that the government has done, the Colombian people have reacted. Unfortunately, now with Covid, the resentment has been much more brutal.

Ali: Going back to your idea, these are issues that have been present for many years, and now everything is coming to light. These are not new issues, but rather years and years of resentment.

Aleco: It is like boiling water passing its limit, no?

Fabian: Yes! Yes, as Ali was saying, people’s resentment has exploded now, and because of the pandemic everything has gotten more complicated. The government has also been unwilling to listen to the people. There are many industries that have been left unprotected by the government. Now, during these times, they have gotten together to unify their voice, unify their shout, against the president, the government, because of their bad decisions. Commerce has been affected. In many instances they have cut gas, energy, water, access to food has been blocked for people who are far away, it has been very complicated. It’s the dissent of an entire population, everyone who has been mistreated by the system, and it’s affecting us all. The entire production chain, the health chain, and the entire system in Colombia has been … well, it has collapsed.

Carina: Do you have presidential elections soon?

Fabian: Yes, same, we have presidential elections soon, and that increases the internal conflict even more, and the conflict of interests. The instability.

Aleco: Thank you for this, we know that everything is changing daily in the two countries, and we are in front of the television, the radio, the internet, looking for any kind of news that we can find. Your perspectives are invaluable. 

Carina: I want to thank you for the space, for me and Fabian. I feel like we have to be paying very close attention to all changes, how they can possibly affect the coffee industry, and the possibilities of the producers.

Aleco: Thank you very much for your time, you are two of the most powerful ingredients in our recipe, our company. I thank you all for everything. And I will see you soon in Peru, or Colombia, Fabian.

Fabian: Thank you Aleco, see you! See you soon!

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

Prudencio of Valle Inca, Peru on Building Trust & Community

Prudencio (Jose Prudencio Saenz Vargas) is the widely respected leader of Valle Inca in Cusco, Peru, one of our largest and most important relationships in the world. A Calca native, Prudencio grew up on a coffee farm, studied agronomy, and then went on to work as a bank loan officer before running Valle Inca—fiscal experience of critical importance to Valle Inca and the surrounding community, most of whom are smallholders averaging just 2-3 hectares each. His extreme quality focus has always been key to the group’s success. He helped Valle Inca producers move from drying coffee on plastic mats to raised beds, worked to improve drying, fermentation, and storage practices, and was the first producing partner of ours to implement GrainPro in storing parchment. He meets farmers where they are in the isolated reaches of Yanatile and Lares and works with them to produce the best coffee they possibly can for the best price they can get. What follows is a conversation with Prudencio, aired originally on the Foxhole and edited for clarity and brevity. 

Aleco: Hello and welcome to the Foxhole. Aleco Chigounis here with Ali Newcomb. Today we have one of our most special guests: our good friend José Prudencio Vargas Sáez, from Calca, Cusco. He is the leader of the Valle Inca group, which, while still being a relatively small and new group, has become the largest Red Fox sourcing partner by volume in the world. We have grown with Prudencio from 40 bags the first year, to almost 12 containers that were made last year and from there they will continue to grow. 

Welcome Prudencio! It’s a pleasure to have you here. 

Prudencio: Thank you.

Aleco: Can you tell us a little bit about how you started the Valle Inca group?

Prudencio: Yes. My name is José Prudencio Vargas Sáez, I am the son of a coffee producer, from the community Laco Llavero in the district of Yanatile, province of Calca, region of Cusco, Peru. I’ve been in the coffee industry my entire life. I was born on a coffee farm named Tomas Huato in Laco Llavero. Later I studied agriculture in a Salesian school. Coffee is my life. It’s my life, it’s my world, it’s what I do, and it makes me feel good. All of my family are coffee producers. There are coffee producers in my community that have really suffered from low prices in the past and been totally abandoned when prices were low. All of that is what inspired me to start Valle Inca.

Aleco: What year did you start the association? 

Prudencio: In the year 2015 and in our first year we sold just 20 quintals of coffee to Red Fox. It’s been six years since Valle Inca started taking form, but four since we had full legal status.

Aleco: How many producers did you start with?

Prudencio: We started with just five producers in the Yanatile Valley. Among them, we have Mr. Agustin Ccasa, Juan Jose, Eddy Robles, and other coffee producers that didn’t really believe in an organization like this at the beginning. Just like any other startup, there’s not much credibility early on. But by 2017, we were working with 50 coffee producers. In 2018, we worked with about 127 producers. And currently we are working with 260 coffee producers.

Aleco: That is incredible, Prudencio—congratulations!

Ali: How was the process for you, because you were a loan officer at Agrobanco (agrarian bank) before that, no?

Prudencio: Yes.

Ali: You were working with the coffee producers then but making agricultural loans. And from there, you went on to start Valle Inca.

Prudencio: Yes, that’s right. The thing is that I have been involved in agriculture my entire life. Beginning with where I was born, where I went to school, and leading up to the moment that I worked with Agrobanco making loans to coffee producers. It’s a different world and very helpful experience, and in parallel I was working with the organization that is now Valle Inca, but with a small amount of coffee. The financial experience has helped a lot. 

Ali: What have been some of the challenges? You started with only 20 quintals your first year and just five coffee producers, and now you have grown to a large organization, exporting a lot of coffee—more than 15 containers per year. What challenges have you faced in that process?

Prudencio: The main challenges are, paying a sustainable price to the coffee producer, obtaining high quality coffee, and being able to reach new coffee producers. And to fstablish equity so the producer, the intermediary, and the consumer are happy: that is the challenge that Valle Inca set out to achieve. 

But the biggest challenge in Peru is always getting fair prices for the producers. The next one, is the quality. That for us, is very important. The quality is very important, to look for, to research more. Find more producers, to understand the altitudes, the varieties, the genetics. Coffee is its own world, a world that millions of families depend on. All of that is the work we do. 

Ali: Regarding quality, I think we all recognize that you have been very successful, and just a moment before this meeting we drank a spectacular coffee from Combapata. 

Prudencio: I am drinking a coffee from Alto de Cedruyoc, from Emilio Gutierrez. It’s early coffee from the 2021 harvest.

Aleco: Very good.

Ali: Prudencio, I know Valle Inca plays a big role in the community, more than just buying coffee. Can you tell us a little bit about that role and how this has played a part in facing the pandemic?

Prudencio: As you said, Valle Inca is not just an organization that buys and sells coffee. Our goal is to find a sustainable future for the community. We work to be calm and coordinated in our decision making, and that was key during the pandemic to maintain trust and support the community. At Valle Inca we keep our word. We fulfilled everything we committed to and focused our resources on producer needs. If someone needs a loan, we have to find a way to do it, whether we have the resources or not to support them in their hardest moments. Now we have to look after health issues, social effects. For example, right now we’re working to get psychologists for the producers, so they can improve their mental health and quality of life. We’re also responsible for finding a good price for them, to offer them that stability. In turn, they do the best work they can offer. 

That all helped us a lot through the pandemic. 2020 was a very difficult year, but as a collective I have to thank Red Fox, and your clients for the donation you made to us. It all adds up. Here in Peru, we were lucky to be able to look for help from the municipalities and NGOs to help all the producers: with staple goods, mainly to cover the food needs. At the moment, we are working full force disseminating information to gain the producers’ trust, and to improve their trust in the clients and the entire chain.

Aleco: What would you say have been the main achievements of the cooperative since you started?

Prudencio: Of course, when we started in 2015, Valle Inca sold 20 quintals, and never in our lives could we have imagined selling 5,000-6,000 quintals of coffee per year. Every year we set a goal, evaluating, analyzing, and measuring production factors and risks. The biggest achievements have been growing and selling more coffee, and selling coffee that was of a high quality, for the consumer, for everyone really. We want coffee we are all happy with. That’s the goal. We’re also proud of working on the social aspects, the collaborative association that we manage. To gain producers’ trust and always keep our word with them. 

Ali: That’s a great answer. Prudencio, I wanted to ask you this, because you are one of the people who does this the best. What is the key to having a good relationship and communication with the producers?

Prudencio: In summary: trust. The trust that exists between us and the producers. At the end of the day, we are a family, we are the Valle Inca family. That the workers at Valle Inca can feel at home, that they can feel that we are siblings, someone they can count on to share their weaknesses or their sad stories, everything: trust. A resounding trust like with Red Fox—just like we can trust Aleco not just to keep his word but to let us know if there’s a mistake we’re making, that’s part of trust with the producers as well, what mistakes are we making, and how we can improve, and all that. In that way we can all build  trust. That is the key to building an association. And of course, to keep our word.

Ali: Well, I love working with you. All of that work shows in how everything flows and you do an incredible job as a team, with the producers as well as with your employees, and with Red Fox, because you are always very direct, you are very transparent, and you make things flow very well.

Aleco: Yes, the communication has always been open and direct with you. That is fundamental, to be able to have a good relationship in this industry.

Prudencio: It’s very important. For example, in the beginning, we are very thankful to Red Fox because if Red Fox didn’t exist, Valle Inca wouldn’t exist either, and if there weren’t coffee producers, Red Fox wouldn’t exist either. Inca Valley is on the producer side, and all of us, we all fill a gap in this supply chain. What we have to do is improve every day, to increase the production area of ​​the producers, and continue to improve the genetics in the coffee in Peru. That is the main goal. We also have the goal of winning international competitions, national competitions, to continue being a transparent company, and to sell quality coffee.

Aleco: Excellent, Prudencio! Do you have any questions for us?

Prudencio: First of all, I want to thank Aleco for the trust, because when I started Valle Inca, we were very young. We were young and we didn’t know exactly what to do at every turn, and maybe we made mistakes, but we learned from that. Thanks to Red Fox for helping us out all these years. And for being an institution that we trust fully, because you’ve helped us grow, and have helped a lot of other businesses grow and organizations and cooperatives in Peru, in Puno, in Cusco, Cajamarca, and other places in the world. I would like to ask you if you are happy working with Valle Inca?

Aleco: Truly Prudencio, it is my pleasure completely … well, ours. We both made mistakes in the beginning. I wasn’t as young as you were. But just like you, learning to manage a business. It has been a great experience. There is a line, where you can see how much Valle Inca has grown, and how much Red Fox has grown. And they are parallel. And truly I feel like you and I, we have grown together in this, but it’s not only Aleco at Red Fox, as you know better than anyone, with Ali, with Carina, managing everything there. We both have very strong teams, and having this partnership has been a great pleasure for me. I am more than happy, let me tell you.

Prudencio: Thank you, thank you Aleco, for all your trust, I want to celebrate your team, it is exceptional, and it is very important, there you have Carina, Ali, Aleco, some others that I know, Jajaira, who helps us so much, with our exports and more. We have to keep going forward, continue supporting the producers. Everyone, keep drinking Valle Inca coffee, Cusco coffee, and Peruvian coffee. Thank you!

Aleco: To you!

Ali: Thank you very much Prudencio. It’s always a pleasure talking to you, and I am very thankful for your trust, and for being here, and being able to share with everyone.

Prudencio: Of course, thank you.

Aleco: Ok Prudencio, I’ll see you soon, in June for sure.

Prudencio: Thank you, thank you!

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

Ernesto Perez of Coatepec on Veracruz History & Mexico’s New Generation

We were lucky to get a chance to talk with Coatepec Veracruz-based producer, wet mill manager and community leader Ernesto Perez. A younger farmer who took over the family farm and mill just three years back, he’s working to guide community production into high quality specialty, tweak processing, focus on microlots, and help those around him get the best prices their work. He expanded his own wet mill at Finca Fatima into APG Coffee, a micro wet mill for the community that also offers agronomic consulting for other farmers to help rebuild soils and increase quality. Below is our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

Aleco: Greetings from Mexico! I’m in Mexico City at the moment, Adam is in Oaxaca, and our good friend Ernesto Perez is in Veracruz.

Ernesto is an amazing coffee producer and also leader of the group APG in Coatepec, Veracruz. He’s delivering some of the most exciting coffees we’ve seen over the last couple of years. 

Joining me in Oaxaca is Adam McClellan, who runs the Mexico operation for us. He’s been down there for a couple of months now with his family and will be through the season, as will I. Lots of good things in store for all of you throughout the season as we get into shipping season. But most importantly, let’s turn it over to Adam and Ernesto and see what’s happening in Veracruz. Welcome, guys.

Ernesto: Thank you.

Adam: Thanks Aleco and thank you Ernesto for joining us. Last year was our first year buying your coffees, Ernesto, and we had a really great response in the marketplace. A lot of roasters are eagerly anticipating more coffees from you this year and asking about them again. 

As you know, Veracruz is a newer region for us—I started traveling there about three years ago and we worked with another coop on the other side of Veracruz. Last year was my first year coming to Coatepec, and I was so impressed with your operation, your vision. To me, Veracruz is really interesting, very different from the other producing regions we work in in Mexico. I’m so excited to taste some of your coffees this year and I know that you’re wrapping up harvests now.

Would you be able to start by telling us a little bit about the history of Veracruz coffee production? 

Ernesto: Thank you, Adam. Let me start by saying what I know about the history of Veracruz coffee. As many people know, no one knows for sure which was the first state where coffee was produced in Mexico. Many say it was in Oaxaca and many say it was in Chiapas and Veracruz. But we’re definitely one of the first states that had coffee in Mexico, and right now we’re one of the three most important states in coffee production in Mexico as a country. I think we produce around 30% of the coffee from Mexico.

Being one of the leading states in coffee production in Mexico, there have been many ups and downs in our history of producing coffee. Lots of big companies have been involved in coffee in Veracruz for many, many years. We’ve always been known for having good coffees, but I think the specialty coffee culture in Veracruz, like the third wave of coffee, never really landed deeply in Veracruz. I think it was because there’s many, many big companies and the culture is not picking coffee correctly. And there’s a lot of things that were really hard for me to change when I started running the family farm and working with the community on quality.

So, that’s kind of an overview of Veracruz. As you know, Veracruz is one of the highest latitudes where coffee is produced on this side of the world. We are located right next to the Gulf of Mexico, so the weather is more humid and cold in Veracruz. I think the latitude and the side of the country where we are located really helps the quality, the weather and the microclimate create the flavor that’s unique to Coatepec. It’s always super cold and misty here during the harvest season, so that’s kind of why we can grow top specialty coffees at 1200 meters above sea level.

I’m really excited to be able to explain more about Veracruz coffee, so people can come, visit, and get engaged in our coffee culture. 

Adam: Can you tell us a little about your farm and your family? I know your family’s farm is Finca Fatima, and then you also run APG Coffee, but did your family start with just farming coffee before they moved into production and things?

Ernesto: So my great grandfather, he was from Spain. He came to Veracruz because he knew how to speak English very well, so he got hired by a company, called Arbuckle Brothers in the US, and he worked as an exporter and a cupper. His history goes back to the 19th century. So, he was in coffee many, many years ago. His name was Antonio Perez Galvan, so that’s why APG is called APG.

He was the first member of our family involved in coffee, so there’s a lot of history. My grandfather didn’t really export coffee, he was dedicated to producing machinery for coffee. He built a wet mill, and that is the wet mill that I’m currently using. It was where he took his clients to show the machinery, like his exhibition room.

Later, my father started exporting coffee in the 1990s. I think it was when SCAA was founded. So Ted Lingle, who was the founder of the SCAA, came to Veracruz a couple of times. My father got awarded first place a couple of times during the 1990s. Despite that, he decided to quit coffee because there was a lot of risk, because he was more into the commodity market. So many bad things happened in those years, and he decided that it was a lot of risk and he didn’t like the business.

So he rented the mill to another company and basically, no one was really using the mill correctly. That’s when I came in and I decided to make major changes. It was not many years ago really. I’ve been working in coffee for three years now. I went to college in the US. I worked in a company in the US for a couple of years, and I decided that my passion was not working in an office. So I decided to get deeply into coffee. I got my Q graders license. I traveled to El Salvador and I got my Q processing license with Emilio Lopez.

Then I traveled here in Mexico to visit Finca Chelin and Victor Lopez in Oaxaca to learn more about coffee processing, like fermentations and things like that. And then I came back to Veracruz with a really good perspective of what specialty coffee production looks like. I made some changes to the mill to modernize it so that I could use it to lead my company to what I saw as an opportunity, which was having full traceability of coffees, truly bringing that flavor of this region and developing the flavors correctly, the sweetness and all the fruit notes that we can find in coffees in Veracruz through processing coffee with longer periods of time, longer fermentations, longer drying times, and keeping everything fully traceable.

So that’s my approach and where I see the future of coffee. That’s the vision that I have currently in APG. I want to keep growing and positioning Veracruz coffee in many places of the world again. 

Adam: Awesome, thank you. I also want to mention for anybody listening that maybe didn’t realize, what I think is interesting and different about the production model in Veracruz compared to other states in Mexico or most of Latin America is that coffee cherries are traded to wet mills rather than coffee in parchment. You drive through the Veracruz coffee country and there’s really, really large cherry processing wet mills that are owned by many different companies. Maybe some of them are cooperatively owned. But, farmers will harvest and bring down their cherry daily. It’s unique to Oaxaca and Chiapas that are two main producing regions in Mexico, where farmers are individually processing on their farms and producing parchment and selling dry parchment to mills or coops, or directly.

Do you think that model helped you make big leaps in quality development pretty quickly, that you’re able to control processing from the point of cherry delivery? And I was also wondering, how do you select which farmers you’re going to be buying from? Do they approach you, or do you seek them out? How does that work?

Ernesto: Well, after all these years, we’re really excited about coffee, because when we started the prices were low and not many people were really investing in the farms. So there’s not many players left in farming here in Veracruz. We decided to invest in our farm, and it was not many years ago. I mean, it was just a property that used to have coffee many years ago, but my father renewed the farm with new varieties, with quality varietals. And that’s when I began to know other farmers, which we’re now more than just friends, we’re kind of like family. Like, for example, [name][13:09] from Finca Las Venturas, he’s a very good friend of my family. We work with other farmers that have that vision of producing high quality coffees. And their farms are located in the highest altitudes possible that have good varietals of coffee, that now don’t just have forgotten farms.

So that’s kind of how I select the farmers that I work with. I don’t call them my farmers, we’re really partners in this deal, because it wouldn’t be possible to do this without them. It’s really teamwork, what we’re doing in Veracruz.

And I think processing coffee from the cherry to the green bean, it really helps you control and standardize the quality of the product. Because many, many things can happen throughout the process that can affect quality.

We begin by knowing where the coffee comes from. We analyze the cherry and assess the quality of what we’re receiving at the mill, what percentage of ripes and unripes we have. We use technology to sort this coffee, to store it correctly, and to mill it and prepare it for export correctly. Our approach allows us to sell coffees that have a longer shelf-life. We’re also extending drying times a lot, more than most of the companies in Mexico do. We simulate drying temperature as if we were drying with the sun or under the shade. And fermentation for us is something that has existed in Veracruz for many years. We didn’t have the machines to remove mucilage before, so it would take 48 hours before to ferment coffees and get rid of the honey, the mucilage. Now, we still do the complete 48 hour fermentations, which I think creates more sweetness and a more balanced and round flavor in the cup. So, those are the factors we can control in the cherries, and I think it’s a good aggregate value for the product.

Adam: Can you talk more about your drying practices? Are you using mechanical dryers or raised beds? I know you mentioned the climate in Veracruz makes the drying one of the more challenging aspects of production there. I’d love to know more about how you’re managing all that. 

Ernesto: Well, one of the good things about Veracruz is that our seasonality is very predictable every year. The months of December, January, and February are usually extremely humid and cold. There’s always rain, and there’s always high humidity levels and high and low temperatures. So it’s really almost impossible to dry coffees with the sunlight during these months and we have to adapt to what we have.

So we use mainly mechanical dryers for the washed coffees that we process from December to February. And we always wait until March and April to process the natural and honey process coffees because we have a lot more sunlight and higher temperatures during those months. We even have to use shade to protect the coffees from the high temperatures in those months. The drastic change between the winter and spring months made us look at what we have and use technology to process all different types of coffees correctly for their needs.

Adam: Awesome, thank you. How many different producers are you working with in the region for your company, APG Coffees?

Ernesto: Of course we work with Finca Fatima, which is a farm. My neighbor, she won Cup of Excellence last year as well from her farm Finca Consolapan. We work with Jose Cienfuegos from Las Trincheras Farm. He won Cup of Excellence too. And we work with three or four other producers that are new, that we’re going to share samples with you this year. I think they have a lot to offer to the market.

So we’re currently a group of seven producers, and our approach for next year is to start growing our relationships with small farmers in higher altitude regions in order to have an economic impact on smallholder farmers. 

Aleco: That’s great. I’m just absolutely intrigued with the Mexican coffee industry right now, and specifically seeing the evolution of the industry, to see the coffee culture in the country. I think the cafe culture in Mexico City, and I’m sure elsewhere, is really bar none in producing countries. It’s really special to see what people are doing with roasting and coffee and just the general hospitality experience that they give to people.

 And there are folks like you, and we have other friends in other parts of producing regions in the country, younger generations that are kind of like the new face of the coffee industry here. Because as you said, the coffee industry was very commoditized for a long time, and also maybe an afterthought for the government in a lot of ways. But to see folks like you is really promising.

But it makes me wonder that there must be a whole new competitive landscape out there, even for you to buy cherry, to process coffees, to trade coffee locally. I’m curious what you’re seeing on that front, and what your take is in general?

Ernesto: Well, this year we had a 40% smaller harvest than last year in general, so coffee prices were super high this year compared to last year. It was much more competitive because there’s many companies that need coffee from Veracruz. But, since we work with committed partners, we didn’t have an issue with buying cherries, because, I mean, it was part of our shared plan. We are growing together, so it’s their investment. It’s not just an opportunity of the moment, we’re trying to truly build partnerships with companies like you, that you can find roasters that really appreciate the quality that we’re offering.

So as far as the cherry and the price, that’s what I don’t like about coffee — that some years we have a lot, some years we don’t have much, but it’s part of the agricultural business. That’s how it is.

Adam: What percentage of those coffees are you selling nationally? I think we’re both really interested in the national market in Mexico, and I think in some ways some of our biggest competitors here are our local roasters, which both of us think is super cool. We don’t see that in other origins. There is this whole young generation of Mexico that’s really excited about coffee because of the local roasters and the coffee bars and things like that all over the country. How does that play into your vision for selling coffee?

Ernesto: Well, that’s kind of the reason why our model has worked to improve the economic activities on the farm, because we provide immediate liquidity to the farmers. There’s a lot of people that are really into specialty coffee in Mexico, like a lot of specialty coffee bars. And there’s a lot of new, trendy things, many people getting into the specialty coffee market. But they all finance their own coffee production. They buy small quantities of coffee, and they don’t buy the inventories that they’re going to use throughout the year. So, basically the farmers have to finance these small coffee shops, and that doesn’t really work for them.

So, I really like that we’re growing, like our culture is growing, but I don’t like that the last priority of the market is to provide the financial liquidity for the farmers, which is where everything comes from. So it’s very delicate. That’s kind of my perspective of the market right now.

Adam: What would you want roasters, especially small ones who are just buying five to 15 bags of APG’s coffees, to know about how you produce coffee and the challenges you face? It must be exciting to see coffees with your name or Cienfuegos’s name on a bag in some of the top roasteries in the country? I mean, you’ve only been in this three years, and you’re already touching the top tier of the market, and we’re super excited to represent your coffees. So what are some things you want to communicate directly?

Ernesto: One thing I really want them to know is that although we don’t have many certifications, one of the things that make Veracruz coffee very special and very hard at the farm level is that we we really focus on conserving the forests that we have, all the ecosystems that we have.

I think this is something super special in Mexico. We, or most of our farms, produce all shade grown coffees. So this is a challenge of having a small production one year and a big production in the next year. But we are really aware of where we’re going in the future, and all this effort is to keep having healthy coffee production in the future, to preserve a stable environment and conserve our microclimates and stable weather. So whenever they buy a bag of coffee from us, I think they should feel that they’re really helping conserve the ecosystems here in Mexico.

Aleco: That’s fantastic. Adam and I were out in Pluma de Oaxaca, so a very different region. But I was really blown away at seeing how forested that area was and how healthy the trees were, too. I was a little surprised. I didn’t think that was necessarily how it was going to be, and really as good of shade as I’ve seen anywhere in Latin America. Very special.

Ernesto: Yeah. Sometimes it seems like you’re in Africa, in the forest. It’s incredible.

Aleco: Yeah, a little bit like Ethiopia.

Adam: Would you be able to talk a little bit about where you’re currently at in the harvest, and where the labor of the harvest comes from? Is it mostly local, or not necessarily?

Ernesto: It’s very interesting. Many people that live in Veracruz or used to live in Veracruz, they go to Mexico City for a part of the year and work in finding jobs in Mexico City. And throughout the harvest season they come back to Veracruz, and they love picking coffee. It’s a whole experience for them to come and pick coffee. But the good part of Mexico is that they have the chance to go work somewhere else throughout the rest of the year. It’s a good side of coffee production in Mexico.

About the harvest, we’re wrapping up the harvest now. I think most of our washed coffees are already done, and we’re working on the natural and special process lots, like all the crazy fermentations and honeys as well as the natural lots right now. I think these coffees that come at the end of the harvest are really special in flavor, because they went through all this time of cold weather. So I think they’re the most interesting coffees that come up.

Adam: We just have one more question. Lot separation and producer transparency is important to higher end roasters—is that something your mill is taking care of? Tell us a little bit more about how you separate lots and maintain traceability?

Ernesto: One of the major changes I’ve made in my mill is that before, producers just delivered the coffee and you would just throw the cherries into a place where everything gets mixed. Now, we’re separating every single entry of coffee by producer. We process, we ferment independently, and we dry independently, and we store the coffee independently. Every single lot has what variety it is, what time of the year it was harvested. And I think we’re doing a tremendous job at keeping traceability fully intact. It’s one of the things that is the most important for me, being traceable, fully traceable.

Adam: Excellent. Thank you so much. We, really, really value your partnership, and, for me, on a personal level, I think your vision and your execution is incredibly inspiring. I’m looking forward to tasting the coffees this year. I know that we have a lot of roasters excited for them. 

Aleco: Thank you, Ernesto. I echo Adam’s sentiments entirely. It’s a pleasure to work with you.

Ernesto: Thank you very much. And thanks to all the roasters that support this operation.

 

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

Esperanza Dionisio of Pangoa on Cooperativism, Women Leadership, & Covid-19

Photo courtesy of Mark Corpus of Reanimator.

Esperanza Dionisio has a reputation that precedes her. Leader of the Pangoa cooperative in Peru’s Selva Central and the first ever woman cooperative leader in Peru, Esperanza is an incredible speaker and a powerful voice for gender equity and women leadership. In this Q&A, Red Fox’s Ali Newcomb and Carina Barreda talk with Esperanza about her unique position in the Peru coffee world, her singular history as well as that of the Pangoa cooperative, and the impacts of Covid-19 on the most recent harvest and shipping season.

Ali Newcomb: I’m here today with my colleague Carina Barreda, who’s responsible for quality control here in our office in Peru. We’re honored to have a very special guest, Esperanza Dionisio. She is the manager of the Pangoa Cooperative in the Selva Central region of Peru. Esperanza, you were the first ever woman manager of a cooperative in Peru and you’ve had a very interesting experience. You’ve been a big inspiration for many of us here that work in coffee. Could you tell us how you started working in the coffee world and at the Pangoa Cooperative?

Esperanza Dionisio: I studied agronomy at University of La Molina, then went to Germany to study crop physiology. I’ve always been drawn toward tropical crops. I came here to Satipo, where one of my aunts worked as a teacher. That connection helped me find cooperatives who needed agronomic help. First, I worked in Satipo, starting in 1978. In 1980, I started with the Pangoa Cooperative, but in the technical area, in agricultural extension. My passion was rural development. At the cooperative I was in a good place to do rural extension. When I talked to the farmers, the agrarian federations, and all the engineers and cooperatives, they always raised the issue of low productivity, that the coffee crop produced just 11 quintals per hectare. I started working on that. I traveled to Costa Rica and Brazil, and the Pangoa Cooperative supported me with all of this. I achieved the goal of increasing the productivity from 11 to to 90 quintals per hectare.

I saw that the farmers were receiving much more money because of increased productivity, and I wanted to make a sustainable living as an agronomist. So I opened my own office in the plaza, which was another challenge, and waited for clients, the producers.

But then the Shining Path (Peruvian Communist Party) came in 1987, and I couldn’t do that work anymore. When people would come to my office, they would tell me such and such person is dead, and because I knew them, it would bring me sadness. One day one of the militants came to my office, and I had to close it down. Then I left for Ica with my husband. Later, we came back to the jungle. We hadn’t sold anything, we closed our home and we left, because we had thought, this too shall pass. The “senderistas” (militants of the communist party) weren’t going to stay here forever.

When we came back in 1995, the Pangoa Cooperative was going through a difficult period because they had paid out the members but not as they had promised. They had promised them $25, but they only gave them $1.70. So everyone was in conflict. They came to my house to find me, and asked me to help them sell the coffee, to manage the coop.

I accepted for one year, and now I have been here for more than 22 years. We renew every year. That is a good thing about Pangoa. When my year is up, it is evaluated. The team of directors comes and gives me advice, or they tell me what I should improve, and we continue working.
When I started, the cost of the coffee was $50. So, I said, “Wow. How is this going to work? How is the farmer going to be able to cultivate the coffee at that price?” The group was buying and selling based on the C market alone, and when the price was down it wasn’t sustainable at all—but even when it was up, it wasn’t enough to save. What farmer is going to be able to save when they are always in debt? I decided to investigate and see what else is out there, because I didn’t think that the C market price was our only option. That is not the purpose of the cooperative—the cooperative is an institution that develops something more for the members. We found we could make more from organic coffee, fair trade coffee, so we decided to pursue those certifications.

There were challenges throughout that. The bank would treat me so poorly every time I would put on the t-shirt of the Pangoa Cooperative. When we would go to the bank in the early years, our balance was in the red and they would say: “Are you the manager?” “Did they hire you?” “Well, you are all walking cadavers.” Wow! Walking cadavers.

We called an assembly, and during that assembly, I told them how I was treated when I was wearing the clothes of a farmer. It is horrible. So, I said, let’s work on improving the esteem of the famer so he can get some respect. Because at the end of the day, he produces good coffee, good plantain, good rice, he has the food. He has good cocoa. And that is how I started, and the next year, it was more interesting, and the next one, even more interesting. We kept surviving and growing and in 2003 we started to export.

Carina Barreda: You’ve mentioned many challenges that you’ve faced in past seasons, from production to coffee prices to certification. I wanted to ask you, this past year, how has the pandemic affected the work of the cooperative? What new challenges have come up, both for the cooperative and for the workers? And within the cooperative, what have been the challenges both to production and distribution of the coffee?

Esperanza Dionisio: On March 16th, the lockdown was announced, and everyone had to go to their houses. We had to meet quickly, the board members and the staff. The pandemic woke up our neurons to be able to face the quick changes, and adapt to the changes.

We also saw, as a group, that some of us were weaker, others were stronger. We agreed that to face this, our knowledge must emerge to face this pandemic collaboratively. It was a team effort, from the best team that exists. That’s how we have gotten through this.

The offices were closed at the beginning, but the cashiers were here, the registers were up and running. Others would work from home on their computers, and the rest worked in production and planning. We also had to study what Covid was. What is this virus, how does it attack? We trained ourselves a lot. We all did our part, we all brought news about how things were around us, in the hospitals, our relatives, our members, and we made team decisions.

In the beginning, we decided that the producers would all go back to their farms. Once there, they couldn’t leave, so we had to buy them groceries. We contacted people from Lima, and I have a colleague who works in the wholesale market. I called her and asked her, “can you get me this order?” We checked with everyone here. Then we started, like “coyotes,” to distribute groceries to all seventeen committees. The cooperative is well organized, all 17 committees participate in training. All technicians had the phones of the members so we could all communicate. Each person in their place, using phones to see how we were going to collect the coffee, how we were going to be able to move the coffee, how we were going to collect the cocoa, and ultimately reach our goals. We did an analysis to determine, if the farmers don’t have help from pickers, the harvest is going to decrease, and what is the minimum that we would have to collect, no matter what, to be able to maintain ourselves financially?

From there, we got a loan offer from the state through Fondo Peru with an interest rate of 1%. We have received 1.7M soles plus 500,000 soles. That’s helped. We were all attentive to what was happening. We retracted to the production area. If someone was down, the rest would cheer them up, and we would go on as a group. We didn’t get sick until August, and we were very well informed. We received a very important document from a doctor in Iquitos that gave us the security to work safely. Just like a simple flu, we learned about the first phase, the second phase, the third phase. And if someone got it, we would send them home. We didn’t buy the huge quantities of antibiotics that we were planning to purchase because we received this information from this doctor that helped us a lot.

We’re also grateful to the clients who continued to purchase from us, because what would we have done if the clients didn’t buy our coffee? They were buying our coffee, and our cocoa, just like in a normal year. The solidarity and the trust made all the difference. The farmers would send their coffee, right here we would do the analysis, and by phone or WhatsApp, we would send them the number of kilos that they would have to charge. Then the farmer would come to the register and get paid.

Ali Newcomb: Impressive, and it is something that we have always highlighted about Pangoa, its people, and its team. I remember in June, I talked to Mr. Albino, and he told me a bit about the things that you have just shared with us, the impressive speed and the scale with which everything was handled during the pandemic.

Esperanza Dionisio: We sent a letter to all our customers at the beginning, in the thick of the shock and the fear, and we sent another one at the end, now in December talking about how everything went. As I said, our neurons started working, and many skills have been recognized within the staff, the members, and the directive team. It has been very interesting.

Ali Newcomb: Changing the subject a bit, you have a committee for Women’s Development, right? Could you tell me about how it started and what kind of work do you do there?

Esperanza Dionisio: The committee for Women started in 1997, with PADECO, a program from the NGO SOCODEVI, back when we belonged to the cooperative union (Central de Cooperativas). In addition to a lot of practical initiatives, we do a lot of training on self-esteem. It’s a very important subject, for women to learn how to say no, with confidence, how to talk to their husbands, and for them to be able to help their kids feel confident as well. That subject isn’t something you learn overnight, it is something you do long-term. It never ends, we have new generations, new youth, the first ones are already grown, and we have to continue working on that subject, self-esteem.
In terms of projects, the women do a lot. They raise small animals, they cultivate vegetable gardens, we have sold and continue selling coffee produced by women (“Café Mujer”). Now we also have reforestation, with 90 women and 45 hectares reforested, half a hectare of solid wood per woman. Why have we committed to reforestation? Because we want to teach our kids to love Mother Earth. We want to teach them by taking them to plant a little seedling, so when it grows, they can have a feeling of belonging and love for Mother Earth.

Ali Newcomb: It’s very important. When it comes to the subject of self-esteem, it is clearly a challenge in the coffee industry. Are there any other challenges faced specifically by women?

Esperanza Dionisio: Women face how to ensure there is food for their children, for their family, they also take on the education of their children, the well-being of their children. Well, during the pandemic it helped that they had to stay together, children and parents. But usually they send them here, to town, so the mother suffers when the children aren’t with her, and they have to take on the responsibility of their kids being down here in the town. So, yes, women have a lot of challenges here.

Carina Barreda: We also wanted to ask you about the program of rotating economic funds that Pangoa has to help its members. Could you tell us a little bit about the program, where it started and how it has developed?

Esperanza Dionisio: Yes, that is a story! Yes, we have a rotating fund that we started with money from FLO Cert in 2006. That’s for the Education Fund which now has $100,000 in members’ hands, for the youth that are studying as well as the Health Fund. Why did we decide that the children have to study? In 2005, we noticed that our members were all elders, so we started having the youth participate in assemblies. That’s when we started to worry about their education: they had to gain the knowledge so they could qualify for positions here in our cooperative business. The youth wanted to take over the leading positions, but they had to be prepared first, so they started studying for various careers. There are lawyers, pharmacists, some studied for ADEX (export association). Later, we received a really good program from the government, Beca 18. That helped a lot, because now we have a lot more professionals in the field. That is important because in that way the companies improve the quality of their service. So, we have funds for health, renovating coffee farms, for quality control, for solar dryers, wet milling areas on the farm, fertilizers, a solid fund to rotate from producer to producer. It is in dollars and with 0% interest. Each has its own purpose.

Carina Barreda: I wanted to come back to something you mentioned before, about the younger generations. It’s a big problem in the coffee sector when the young generations leave the field and move to the city, or they choose a different path, and then we only have the oldest generations as the producers. This is different in Pangoa?

Esperanza Dionisio: Yes, we have been working with the youth since 2006. It has been many years. In 2012, we complemented, alongside VECO, an NGO that took over a project for youth, to train them in production, cupping, and the entire coffee production chain, to make the coffee industry more attractive. Once the youth start to cup, they start to think about where the coffee comes from: they know it comes from this farm, so they start noticing the plant, the variety, and at times they end up growing coffee, taking care of the land and preventing the land from being sold. Our message has always been, do not sell the land. Instead, reforest it. We have been reforesting constantly since 2000, reaching one million trees, and also to have the youth who work invest their money in trees, so they can have wood and money when they are old. We don’t have retirement; therefore, those trees would be their retirement plan. So the youth see reforestation as a business, and coffee as a business, especially now with this pandemic because they had to come back from the capital to their farm. Many young families have come back to the countryside, because Lima is impossible now, a city with a lockdown, there is no work, but the field still offers work. Fish farming, small animals, the diversification of crops, plantain, pineapple, coffee, cocoa. There are now more business opportunities here on the farms than in the city and they are valuing the land.

Ali Newcomb: Thank you, Esperanza. I love that you, as a cooperative, approach everything from an integrated perspective. The project that you have with the youth, environmental aspects, financial aspects, and that makes you much more solid.

Esperanza Dionisio: At the end of the day, we are a group of people, families, we have to exist, and if we want to exist in the market, we have to help each other and see the perspective and change strategies constantly so we can continue to go forward. You know, review the vision. This year, we are in the year of re-engineering, and Covid has accelerated the re-engineering for us.

Ali Newcomb: Yes, faster. That long-term vision is what brought you where you are today and what helps you to maintain and grow. This takes me to a question about prices, because with Pangoa this year, we tried out something that we had never done before. We started with Pangoa about three years ago with our usual pricing structure, which is to pay different prices for different quality tiers: one price for 84 and 85 point coffees, another price for 86 and 87 point coffees, etc., and what happened is, in reality, with all the work that comes with producing and selling microlots, the base price for those coffees wasn’t all that much more when compared to what some of your other loyal customers were paying. So last year, you and Albino proposed the idea of increasing the base price, and we decided to have just one base price that is much higher and differentiates us from your other customers instead of differentiating between an 85 and an 86. I wanted to know what, now that we’re at the end of this season, how did it work for Pangoa?

Esperanza Dionisio: It went very well. The higher base price is great, because it helps the farmer to differentiate himself from the rest. The technicians go and teach them so they can produce good quality coffee, and they make the effort. For the farmers who produce specialty coffee, not all of the coffee production is special. As the name itself says, one part of the production is special. That small part has a special price. And for the farmer that wants to do the work, it’s very good. Encouraging them with price is very good, and I thank you for that, and I thank your customers who are supporting Pangoa with that price.

Carina Barreda: Pangoa has demonstrated being an exceptional cooperative, a very successful case in the domestic and international markets. Coming from you, what advice would you give to other managers from other cooperatives, that are hoping to grow or become more productive?

Esperanza Dionisio: First, observe, see, talk, work as a team, and get everyone’s vision. That vision has to go along with the vision of the manager. If the manager doesn’t share the vision of the team, then there is a divorce there, so there has to be a union of visions, to be able to grow as a business. Another aspect is to comply with the cooperative principles. If we are a cooperative, we have to follow the Rochdale principles, that they fought for in 1844 and that we embody today. The manager should be a leader without a position. Do things right, and it is that easy. Work as a team, members, directive team, staff, see the strategies and be able to go on in the business.

Ali Newcomb: Thank you very much. Anything you want to ask us or share with us?

Esperanza Dionisio: I want to thank you for this interview, and to tell you that cooperativism is a very good system. It’s something that every organization can learn from.

 

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

 

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.

Asnake Nigat of Kata Muduga, Ethiopia on Covid-19, Agaro History, & More

We were lucky to get a chance to bring Asnake Nigat of Kata Muduga Cooperative Union in Agaro, Ethiopia into the Foxhole for a conversation about current events in Ethiopia, the upcoming season, and Agaro history, in which Asnake has played an instrumental role. For more background on Agaro history and the role Kata Muduga has played, click here

 

Aleco: Hello everyone, welcome to the Foxhole. I am here with a very special guest this week, Asnake Nigat from Kata Muduga. Asnake is out in the field in Agaro right now. Asnake, welcome, we are very happy to have you. How are you?

Asnake: I’m good Aleco, welcome. Thank you very much for introducing us to this audience of buyers. 

Aleco: Ah, yes, very happy to do so. It’s been a long time since I personally started buying your coffee and Red Fox has been buying your coffee since the beginning of the business, almost 7 years ago. Can you tell us a little bit how you got started in coffee in Agaro? I know you were a very important person at Technoserve in the original days of the project.

Asnake: Yes, as you know, some of the cooperatives in Agaro started in 2000. In 2009 Technoserve started, so most of the cooperatives joined in 2010. At the beginning, the coffee in this area was not well known.

The majority of the coffee was prepared as a Jimma 5, very poor quality coffee, so the farmers were selling this coffee to local traders. Local traders help, but they don’t worry about the quality, they don’t worry about the preparation, they collect the coffee as usual whereas Technoserve started dividing the coffee based on quality. They also advised the farmers to organize the cooperatives and trained them how to do the business. They trained the farmers to do the business preparation, to use new wet mill technology to process the coffees. They facilitated loans to cooperatives and training. Quality training, processing training, how to process the coffees, how to wash the coffees, how to dry the coffees. So, because of this, most of the cooperatives started with very small numbers. For example, in Duromina when they started at the time, it was almost 75 individual members.

Aleco: Oh, wow!

Asnake: In Duromina, in 2010, they only had one machine with a capacity of 1500kg per hour. Nano Challa started with 123 members and a very small machine, only 500kg per hour. Along with frequent training, Technoserve assigned business advisors to each and every cooperative. Such business advisors trained farmers how to follow up, process on their own, record-keeping, and cash management. These were very important changes for Agaro’s coffee. Now Duromina is very well known, now has three big-weight machines, so everywhere the volume is increasing. 

The dividend that Kata Muduga received from producers (they get 90% and pay the union 10%) at the beginning was almost 200,000 per dividend, but now Duromina, last year, for example, paid the dividend to five million birr. It’s a very huge amount. This year Nano Challa paid a dividend at six million birr. Nano Challa now has two big washing stations. Their members increased from 123 to 740 members. It is a big increment, and this coffee is now well known in the world. It is changing the farmers, how they produce the coffee, how they pick the harvest, so completely that even Jimma 5 (which used to be low-grade) is now very good, high-specialty coffee. The whole starting point to us doing exemplary in these areas was the Technoserve project

Aleco: Yeah, amazing how the value was changed almost overnight, in almost one season, right? For the Jimma 5 to now, the Grade 1 and Grade 2 coffees.

Asnake: Yes.

Aleco: Okay. So eventually, after a handful of years of Technoserve, you formed Kata Muduga Cooperative Union with Efrem and others to manage the cooperatives in the area, correct?

Asnake: Yes, exactly

Aleco: What led you to make that decision?

Asnake: You know, just previously the cooperatives were supplying their coffees to Duromina Coffee Farmers Union in Addis, but there were ups and downs. There were problems because the buyers were commenting differently, creating an obstacle to source Duromina coffees, to source Nano Challa and Yukro coffees. There were some problems and bureaucracy, so because of this, because of considering the different buyers’ comments and also that these areas are each special, Goma and Gera are unique coffees. The areas were good so we thought, why don’t we form one union to export this unique coffee to the buyers in order to be fast, reliable and on time to deliver these coffees? 

This is one reason, the second one is the system. Kata Muduga works on commission, which means that 90% of the price goes directly to the cooperative, so this makes it different from the other unions. This other union is buying Nano Challa coffee, sold to the buyer but at the Ethiopia Coffee Exchange price, so this union doesn’t like the commission system we use at Kata Muduga. Because the majority of the sale, 90% of the sale doesn’t go to the cooperative, it goes to the union level. In the Kolla Bolcha case, the peak, 90% of the price goes to the cooperative, the cooperative distributes dividends to the members. That is the system because, in this case, the cooperative is made of coffee farmers and we want to maximize the benefit they get from their work.

Aleco: Yeah, and it is really tremendous what you’ve accomplished in terms of getting the best value back to the farmer. What year did you start Kata Muduga and how many cooperatives were members of the union at that point?

Asnake: We started the union in August 2016, almost 4 years ago. At that time we had 19 cooperative members. The volume was very limited. At the second year 2017, that 19 raised to 26, at the third year raised to 30, this year during the fourth year, double the original. Now we have 39 member cooperatives at Kata Muduga.

Aleco: 39, that is really great, yes, amazing. Amazing growth, so you are seeing producers from the greater Agaro area wanting to become members and you are building more washing stations. It seems almost every year, no?

Asnake: The washing stations are increasing.

Aleco: Will there be new stations for the coming harvest?

Asnake: This year, we have one new cooperative, Racha, which is very close to Yukro. In Racha there was some problem with the quality last year. This year they are at full capacity with good quality coffee. There’s another new one in Gomma, a very good cooperative called Gerba. Did you taste this coffee?

Aleco: I don’t think so.

Asnake: Yes, Gerba is a new cooperative that is very good quality coffee adjacent to Kolla Bolcha, very good. It’s a newly developed cooperative, a very unique coffee, very high land. We will try to supply these coffees in the next harvest.

Aleco: Oh great, I look forward to chatting about that more. I can’t wait to taste that one. I’m curious about the coming harvest, but it’s really impossible to talk with anyone about their 

coffee harvest coming up without talking a little bit about the coronavirus. How has the virus affected Agaro and the coffee farmers and even yourself in the area out there?

Asnake: Coronavirus? Still, now in this area definitely. But, generally in Ethiopia, especially in our areas, there are not serious cases happening now. There are serious cases in Addis, our capital. The majority of coronavirus cases are recorded in Addis, but not serious issues in this area. I don’t know. 

Aleco: Okay, so maybe people are isolated and stayed safe, I’m guessing, is it true?

Asnake: Yes, in Addis, people are isolated. This disease is most common in the Addis capital city, not around in Agaro or Gera and Jimma areas. 

Aleco: Do you think that there will be an effect on the harvest that’s coming up or will people be able to work as normal?

Asnake: We will see on that, we will see during November. Currently it is not serious enough to affect the daily activities of the coffee harvest. Now, people are working and preparing drying beds, getting the loans they need for the season, everything’s now in preparation and it’s going well. But maybe we’ll see on that in November. Some Ethiopian health ministers expect in November to maybe see an increase of the number of the affected people. 

Aleco: Okay, well you, Efrem, Eden, everyone at the cooperatives and the producers have been in our thoughts, so I’m glad things are okay so far, we hope that everyone can be safe. Going forward and into the harvest and beyond of course as well. How is the harvest looking for the coming season? Is it going to be smaller and larger? 

Asnake: Not smaller, not larger, it is almost medium, almost the same as last years, because you know, coffee by nature is biennial. In some parts we expect high volumes this year and in some parts, lower. So it’s not such a big fluctuation in our areas. It’s consistent, sustainable production.

Aleco: It’s great to have a lot of reliable volumes for the producers to count on. When will the harvest begin this season and when will it end? Roughly.

Asnake: There are two starting times. In a little bit, in areas which are very low. Areas in the union, for example around Agaro, will start in the middle of October. Some cooperatives start after. The other cooperatives in Duromina, in Biftu, in Yukro starting at the end of October and beginning of November. The majority of the cooperative is the beginning of November and the end of November is peak time. So, the end of the harvest is the beginning of January.

Aleco: Okay, so normal season here. That’s good to know. Thank you. What, if any, adjustments do you have to make during the harvest season because of the virus?

Asnake: There is some change. We’ll have to take special care, like masks, sanitization, and also not gathering workers in one area. Distributing people in every bed so there aren’t too many people when sealing the coffees, and washing the coffees so we’re limiting the numbers in a single bed. And also collecting water, so those are some adjustments that will happen in the next harvest. 

Aleco: That makes sense. Do you have any questions for me, Asnake?

Asnake: No questions, just that I see all your marketing and I say thank you very much Aleco, you are doing a great job to introduce and market these coffees. I know you from 10 years ago, you know these areas. Your buyers’ support, it promotes this area’s coffee. I always tell the leaders of Nano Challa and Duromina, Aleco is a genuine buyer. Almost 10 years and above; you are introducing this area of coffees to buyers so this is very great support for the cooperative. Also, you are supporting the coffee farmers in this area, so I say thank you in the name of the cooperative and the union. You are always reliable. We trust you to trust these coffees and to continue sourcing them and advertise more to buyers. I see you, your website, and Red Fox, always writing about this area’s coffee. I say, thank you very much, you did a good job on this site Aleco.

Aleco: Thank you very much Asnake, to be considered reliable is good.

Asnake: When do you plan to visit by next harvest? 

Aleco: As always, I’m hoping there’s a way for me to come and work the same way that we always work, and to make decisions very quickly for you and to get coffee moving, yeah, so you’ll hear from me again I’m sure a few times before the end of the year and then we’ll plan for that. But yes, my plan is to come.

Asnake: In January?

Aleco: Yes, yes.

Asnake: January is a good time. Most of the coffees are moving at that time. The majorities we move a lot by loads. Most in December, starting from December, the middle of December, we move the coffees by loads. So January is a good time to cup that coffee. We will meet then.

Aleco: Perfect, my fingers are crossed to work business as usual again, Asnake and thank you for the kind words. You make it easy to work with you. To work with you and Efrem, and people who are so reliable and honorable. It is really honestly a pleasure for us and to continue to support the farmers in the way that we have and that I have for a decade now. It feels special to continue the relationship and thank you for the comment on reliability, that’s all we really hope we can be, so really, thank you.

Asnake: Thank you, thank you. I hope, I wish great success for you and your company, Red Fox. We will continue to work together, thank you very much Aleco. 

 

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

 

Marilu Lopez Padilla of Coopbam, Peru on Covid & Women Leadership

We were lucky to get a chance to bring Marilu Lopez Padilla, Coopbam smallholder producer and Women’s Committee leader, onto the Foxhole for a conversation about the challenges created by Covid-19, her role in Coopbam’s formation, and her leadership in the creation of Coopbam’s Women’s Committee.

Marilu is an exemplary member of Coopbam, a cooperative founded with help from environmental group Conservation International to help support and protect the forested coffee farms within the Alto Mayo Protected Reserve in Amazonas and San Martin, Peru. From its founding, the group’s core focus has always been how to marry coffee growing with the enrichment of both the land and the community, rather than stripping the environment of resources in order to farm it. Marilu speaks to how the cooperative structure and the role of women in communal economics serve that mission, as well as the challenges they face perennially and this year in particular. 

Ali Newcomb: Hi everyone, I’m Ali Newcomb, director of Red Fox Sourcing Company in Peru and Mexico. I’m here with Carina Barreda, who helps manage quality for Red Fox in Peru. Also joining us is our very special guest, Marilu Lopez Padilla from Coopbam in Amazonas, in the North of Peru. After a break, we restarted the Foxhole last month with the new concept of focusing directly on the people who produce the coffee that we all enjoy so much and letting them speak directly to the people who drink their coffee. Right now we are right in the middle of Peru season and so we wanted to invite someone from our supply chain in Peru. Marilu is a crucial member of Coopbam,  the group with whom we started our work in the North of Peru. Marilu, thank you so much for being here and sharing your time to tell us your experience. 

Marilu Lopez Padilla: Thank you Ali, I’ll introduce myself as well. My name is Marilu Lopez Padilla, I am from the committee of Beirut, in Amazonas. Thank you for having me here.

Ali: Marilu, Coopbam has a very different history than many other cooperatives in the sense that it is in a protected forest, and because of that, it has a key focus on protecting the local ecosystem. Could you tell me a little bit about the history of Coopbam and how it started?

Marilu: Before Coopbam, I didn’t have any stable customers for my coffee. We would sell to whomever would arrive ready to buy it. Sometimes it was for really low prices and sometimes for higher prices. Often, we had no choice but to sell to whomever would show up. 

One day, Edwar, the promoter for the Beirut committee, appeared when I was washing near the road and he said, I think you sell coffee. I said that I do, but just a little, and there aren’t any dried coffee beans at the moment. Then he told me that he knew a buyer looking for dried coffee to be able to sell and that I could take advantage of it. He hadn’t explained the buyers yet and I didn’t know what a cooperative was at that time, but thanks to Edwar I started to understand that they were planning to open a cooperative and were looking for coffee to start it. 

He explained the details and since then, we have been working with trust. Now I say it again, in front of Edwar (who’s holding the camera), I can’t distrust the cooperative because I am always sure that it is truly cooperative and they do it for all of us, and amongst all of us, so we are all united—that is why I trust the coop.

Back then, before we established that trust, Edwar came to take my coffee and as I waited for results and payment, I kept asking him when he would pay me. He took my coffee and days went by. Soon, they did pay me and the cooperative officially started the following year in 2017. By then, it was more known in the area and many wanted to become members and build committees. Our coffee had a guaranteed market from the cooperative, and we continued and continued and I always believed in my coffee, and I still believe in it. 

Carina Barreda: Marilu, from when you started working with Coopbam to today, how has your coffee production changed? How do you see your development?

Marilu: I am very happy with the development from the beginning to now. We learned things from the cooperative like managing planting, how and when to fertilize, to do everything on time and to be on top of the harvest so we can get a good product and to not to abandon the farm: the to-do’s of the farm.

Ali: In the Beirut subregion, what are your biggest producing challenges, especially for producing quality?

Marilu: When it comes to the harvest, we have to be really on top of it. Once it starts ripening we have to be there consistently. If not, when the winter comes, the coffee starts falling. In Beirut, parrots will come eat the coffee once it’s ripe—that is a big difficulty for us because we have to be ready to run over quickly and scare them away no matter what else we’re doing. It means we have to pay attention constantly.

 Ali: It seems like you do a great job managing the parrots and everything else. This year, the world is upside down and I think there have been more challenges than ever, no? I know Peru had one of the longest quarantines in the world and I know that in the rural areas, additional preventative measures were  taken. Can you tell us more about how things are there both on a daily basis and also the challenges that have arisen over the course of the season?

Marilu: We had many difficulties because of the pandemic. We are farmers, country people, and many say that in the countryside people live happily, and that is true in some ways, but not in others. Yes, we are less anxious because we are in the countryside. On the other hand, we have difficulties and we need help as well: sometimes for our children, other times for the house, and sometimes for other things like not being able to go out and shop for what we need. During the harvest, it was difficult because we needed to go out to other fields to help with labor there, but we were surrounded by policemen, rondas campesinas (groups of peasants that patrol to keep the countryside safe), and the army. 

To this day, we have the army nearby. From my house, you can see the army—they are always paying attention, they don’t allow people from outside to come in. 

And while that has created difficulty, maybe it has been because of that, and thanks to God, that we are all still safe and there haven’t been any cases of this illness in our area. We are still taking care of ourselves, respecting the protocols as the president mandates. He asks a lot of us, our people, and we don’t understand much about it. But we all take care of ourselves and we are in the front, fighting it as well as continuing our jobs at home and at the farm, for our own good, for our families’ health and ours.

Ali: Well, it makes me happy to know that you haven’t had any cases of the virus in Beirut but it sounds complicated as well; so you haven’t left Beirut? 

Marilu: No, we’ve stayed here. For example, we haven’t been able to attend a cooperative meeting since March. I’m a representative in the administrative council where we usually have many meetings, but none since March. Schools are now virtual here and my little girl is about to start her first year in elementary school. She is here studying virtually from home, and my son is also studying college virtually in Chachapoyas University. We are all here, all together with them.

Ali: How are you doing with the virtual school? Do you attend via TV? On the radio? How is it held?

Marilu: I am going to tell you this but it’s going to make you laugh—I don’t have a TV. The signal doesn’t reach here, so I don’t own a TV. The virtual classes that my little girl has to attend, I borrowed a radio so she could listen. I can also listen so I can help her with homework. The signal isn’t very clear but we make anything possible. We make it work.

Ali: So besides producing coffee, you have become a teacher.

Marilu: Yes, I work a bit as a teacher, a bit on my farm, a bit taking care of my house, doing all the chores and doing a little bit of everything.

Carina: What help or benefits have you received from the cooperative during these last few months, related to the pandemic? 

Marilu: They have brought us baskets with staple goods and supplies. Thank God we have been able to get something, I am very thankful. It has helped me tremendously.

Ali: Marilu, can you please tell me more about your work in the Women’s Committee at Coopbam?

 Marilu: We coordinate between the women of different regional committees to be able to expand and diversify our communal livelihood. Some members wanted to do other work like crafts and planting vegetable and fruit crops; it is so essential for the health to have fresh vegetables and we prioritize it when planting in our orchards. So that was our idea: different committees for different projects, for example, a committee for creating vegetable plots, another committee to make artisan crafts, and another committee to raise poultry, all of this to generate diversified sources of income. 

Because as women we always think, the most important thing is not to lack anything at home.  As a group we had plans to do many more projects through different committees this year, but as you know, this pandemic came and delayed a lot of that. I’m sure that as soon as this passes we are going to continue improving and conversing about many projects we will do. And the committees agree as women, to do it and fight to be able to go on.

 Carina: How did the idea come up about building this Women’s Committee? Who was the person who managed or who pushed for the development of this committee and what was the goal?

 Marilu: Well, the cooperative always talked about this, during our trainings. There are men who are married to coop members, but not all the men are members of the larger cooperative—sometimes the husbands aren’t the members, the wives are. In my case, I am by myself, but I am a member and I am also the president of the Women’s Committee, and I manage this role differently from being a cooperative member, but it is equal. 

That’s what gave us the idea, because we have women who are coop members but we wanted to broaden the group to include the non-member wives of the men who were coop members. We all wanted to do something for our lives and our finances, we are always in need of things and that was our agreement: the women who want to work united to do jobs cooperatively and get better at them. For example in 2018, our women’s group grew and sold over 200,000 seedlings.

A lot of us in the community are happy that we are producing all that we are, as committee members. Like those seedlings: in order to grow a seedling, it doesn’t happen from one day to another. You have to be on top of it: fighting, working, group by group every day, just like that. That was our idea, so we could improve our livelihood. That is why we formed groups in Beirut, Vilcaniza, Yambrasbamba, by Aguas Verdes, and other places.

 Ali: What is your favorite part of being a coffee producer?

 Marilu: What makes me happy is having you as a set market of clients to buy our coffee. We have our buyers and believe in them, and you also put their trust in our product that goes to you. We always try to improve our product and see the best way to have it delivered to you with quality.

Ali: Would you like your daughter Ani to be a coffee producer when she grows up?

 Marilu: I would love that. My daughter has learned about coffee since she was small, she has a bright mind. She likes to harvest the ripe fruits; she knows what to pick and what to discard. You won’t believe me but she already bites into the dried coffee to assess the moisture.  When she bites into the dry bean, she says it’s already hard, or it’s already dry. I know with time she will learn more and that she will like it.  

Carina: What other objectives would you like to achieve in the near or far future either in terms of coffee production or other personal goals?

 Marilu: My goal is, that with the help of God, with the production that we perform here, I want my son to keep studying and finish with the profession he is pursuing, for my son and my daughter to keep studying always. Right now it’s very worrisome with the whole pandemic but we are fighting it as best we can with virtual schooling.  

Ali: Thank you so much Marilu. Do you have any questions or comments for us?

 Marilu: Just to thank you and thank God for giving us this day to be here with you and you with us. Let it be the first time we do this but not the last. The only thing I would ask you is, once the pandemic is over hopefully you can come visit us again.

 Ali: Oh yes, I am looking forward to it and Carina as well.

 Carina: Yes, absolutely. 

 Marilu: Thank you!

 

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.

The Foxhole

Scroll down to see all episodes of the Foxhole!

Click here to register for the upcoming episode, starring Carina and Fabian of Red Fox Sourcing Co.

In this episode we are joined by special guest Casimiro García López and his son Omar of Pluma de Oaxaca. A second generation coffee farmer, Casimiro and his wife Reyna Petronila Luna farm 20 hectares (an unusually large farm for Pluma region) just outside San Agustin Loxicha, a community growing both coffee famous for its malic character and avocados. Casimiro’s older children support in both farm work and marketing, contributing agronomic knowledge learned in local courses. In the off-season, the family works as blacksmiths. He’s been one of the most consistent parts of our Oaxaca coffee community year over year, and we’re excited for you to meet him.

Prefer to listen? Check out the audio here.

In this episode we talk with Prudencio of Valle Inca association in Cusco, Peru. The widely respected leader of one of our most key relationships in all of Peru, Prudencio (Jose Prudencio Saenz Vargas) is a Calca native who brings former experience as a bank loan officer to his work running Valle Inca—fiscal experience of critical importance to Valle Inca and the surrounding community, most of whom are smallholders averaging just 2-3 hectares each. When he got started he was new to coffee production, but his extreme quality focus has always been key to the group’s success.

He helped Valle Inca producers move from drying coffee on plastic mats to raised beds, worked to improve drying, fermentation, and storage practices, and was the first producing partner of ours to implement GrainPro in storing parchment. He meets farmers where they are in the isolated reaches of Yanatile and Lares and works with them to produce the best coffee they possibly can.

Prefer to listen? Check out the audio here.

In this episode we host a conversation between Veracruz-based producer, wet mill manager and community leader Ernesto Perez and Red Fox Mexico sourcing and sales lead Adam McClellan. After Ernesto takes off, Adam and Aleco give us the rundown on the season thus far. A younger farmer taking over the family farm and mill, he’s working to guide community production into high quality specialty, tweak processing, focus on microlots, and help those around him get the best prices their work. He expanded his own wet mill at Finca Fatima into APG Coffee, a micro wet mill for the community that also offers agronomic consulting for other farmers to help rebuild soils and increase quality.

Prefer to listen? Check out just the audio here.

In this episode we had a conversation with Esperanza Dionisio, leader of the Pangoa cooperative in Peru’s Selva Central and first ever woman cooperative leader in Peru. We discussed Esperanza’s unique position in the Peru coffee world, the singular history of Pangoa, and the impacts of Covid-19 on the most recent harvest and shipping season. Esperanza is an incredible speaker and a powerful voice for gender equity. Prefer to listen, check out just the audio for this episode here.

In this episode, Aleco had a conversation with Eden Kassahun. Eden is one of Red Fox’s most integral supply chain partners and has been since we opened in the business in 2014. Eden and Aleco’s history together goes back to her days at Technoserve where they first met in 2009. Eden helps us manage our supply partnerships with Kata Muduga, Kerchanshe, and Kedir Jebril. Her role couldn’t be more critical to our success in executing early shipments as she manages much of the detail internally in Ethiopia as it pertains to transportation and logistics. Aleco also gave us the lowdown on how our Ethiopia season is shaking out on the whole. Prefer to listen, check out just the audio for this episode here.

In this episode Aleco and Julia had a conversation on the recent harvest, history, and future in Rwanda. They talk with Dormans Rwanda Country Manager Jean Bosco Seminega and Dormans Rwanda Operations Manager Longin Muhizi. Aleco has known both Jean Bosco and Longin for over a decade, well before Red Fox was formed and the two of them joined Dormans. Watch this episode to learn more about their histories in Rwanda coffee as well as the intricacies of the 2020 season. Prefer to listen, check out just the audio for this episode here.

In this episode we have a convo with Tibed Yujra of Putina Punco in Puno, Peru on the current season, current events in Puno and Peru at large, and effects of Covid-19 on this remote producing region. Prefer to listen, check out just the audio for this episode here.

This episode features Asnake Nigat of the Kata Muduga Cooperative Union in Agaro, Ethiopia. We talk about Covid-19 and current events in Ethiopia as well as explore Agaro specialty coffee history, in which Asnake has been instrumental. Prefer to listen, check out just the audio for this episode here.

In this episode we talked with Marilu Lopez Padilla of Northern Peru-based cooperative Coopbam on the state of the harvest, her history producing coffee, the effects of the pandemic, and what women leadership looks like in Coopbam. Prefer to listen, check out just the audio for this episode here.

In this episode, we hosted a Colombia producers roundtable with some of our longest-standing producing partners in the world: Geovanny Liscano from Asorcafe in Inzá, Colombia, Raquel Lasso of FUDAM in Nariño, Colombia, and Red Fox’s own Fabian Viveros León of Pitalito in Huila, Colombia. Prefer to listen, check out just the audio for this episode here.

In episode 7 we talk with special guest Menachem Gancz of Quentin Cafe in Mexico City and discussing how the Mexico season went down, what changes COVID-19 brought to this supply chain, lessons we learned, and what we expect the supply to look like over the next few months.

In episode 6 we explore the current and future retail landscape and the challenges it presents, as well as what reopening could look like, with some of the most innovative cafe owners from around the country including Eileen Rinaldi of Ritual Coffee Roasters, Erica Escalante of Café Reina (formerly The Arrow Coffeehouse), Mark Capriotti of ReAnimator Coffee Roasters, and Kyle Glanville of G&B and GGET. Prefer to listen, check out just the audio for this episode here.

In episode 5, we explore the limitations of FOB pricing as a benchmark, discuss how we pay for coffee, and talk through any questions you have around coffee pricing. Prefer to listen, check out just the audio for this episode here.

In episode 4, we hang out while some special guests share their funniest roasting stories.

In episode 3, we hang out while some of our most intrepid buyers and friends share their favorite travel stories.

In our second Foxhole session, Aleco, Adam, Joel, Ali, and Zach focus on Pluma de Oaxaca and swap stories with George Howell and Ric Rhinehart. Prefer to listen, check out just the audio for this episode here.

For our inaugural hangout, Aleco, Zach, and Gabby swap a few travel stories and bring in surprise guest Ryan Brown from the audience.