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Ministration and Mobiles; Facing Challenges Head on in Nicaragua

This February saw us crossing over the border to Nicaragua to catch up with suppliers in a country where there has been a lot of change recently. The collapse of a large exporter recently due to bankruptcy meant that there was likely to be some big impacts across the country and so we made the short hop from a trip to Costa Rica to see what was going on. 

Landing in Managua we travelled up through the dry landscape before coming to the green slopes of Jinotega. Just south of Lake Apanas, the majority of Nicaragua’s coffee production happens here. Currently this is given at around 60 percent, with 35% from Matagalpa, which we were close to the border with. As we were to learn though, there are some quite stark differences between the two given that they are neighbours.   

Aldea Global

We were warmly welcomed by Ivania from Aldea, with time for a quick lunch in a cantina before heading off to the new wet mill. Ivania’s history with coffee goes back to being a picker as a child and having an insatiable curiosity to peek behind the curtains of the next stages. The grounding this has given her is plain to see as is the drive that has led to continuous innovation within the company.

Aldea Global, Nicaragua

The new wet mill is a big affair. Located a short drive up the side of the lake it was originally a heavily indebted coffee farm. With the bank threatening to call in the debts, Aldea stepped in to pay a fair price for a portion of the land enabling the farmer to clear everything completely. This land was to be used for a new mill to deal with the growth they have experienced recently. Rather than hurry in the building of the facility, considerable time and money was spent in investigating what were the best tools for each job, and then how best to get them to talk to each other.

Still very much a work in progress, a large amount has now been done and the mill is operational, using the incline of the hill to manage some of the flow of the product, and introducing predriers, raised beds, green silos and an amazing sorting and cleaning facility too. Guardiolas are app-run for precise monitoring and control; machines clearly labelled with good flow and a clear sense of design throughout the factory. In fact, considerable efforts have been made to understand the drying process with efficiency balanced with quality and replication of current practises. For replacing patio dried coffees, the drying is turned off during the night for instance, replicating the rise and fall of the sun and temperatures.

This increase in capacity and handling ability has come in handy – the collapse of the previously mentioned exporter has created a vacuum where not only do the farmers no longer have a market for their coffee, but also nowhere to process it. Arguments abound as to how to handle coffee that has been contracted but not delivered yet, and caught in the middle is the farmer.  

Aldea has been able to support the farmers and has provided processing services to them, as well as buying additional containers at more than fair prices. However, this meant they had to work very hard to then market those coffees in order to maintain cashflow in the business. Most of this coffee went to the exchange, so whilst prices were tight, there was at least liquidity in the business and most importantly, farmers were able to stay in business.  

Situations such as these throw up the issues that the larger exporters and multinationals can contribute to. There can be huge ripples if something goes wrong, and in part this is why visits are so important. Whilst a focus on a relationship is always important, understanding the lay of the land also colours an understanding of risks. It is also here that Ivania’s insight and years of experience within the industry combine with her drive to do the right thing.  

The Advance of AgriTech and App Culture 

The continual pressure on labour forces in large parts of Central America is nothing new, but this, combined with issues above and more, have produced fruit for Aldea Global in some interesting technical ways. A swathe of apps has been, or are being, continually developed in order to meet the multifaceted needs of the producer. The unavailability of many collection centres has seen a rise in middlemen collecting coffee door to door. The alternative for most Nicaraguans has been to load coffee on the roof of a bus and take to a mill, but AldeaRide is a system where the farmer can call for a collection. Think Uber, but for coffee. The convenience that comes along with the assurances Aldea bring with commitments to pricing and services, has seen the coffee they receive more than double each day. 

Financial apps are in place to provide a more accurate but also responsible method of lending money for investments in the farms. Similar to the EU, the previous focus on lending money from institutions would often feel that it existed to indenture debtors more than genuinely help circumstances. 

Aldea have helped this by helping not only working with the farmer to help understand and assess the precise need for the loan and so provide appropriate amounts but also to visually show timelines of repayments, outcomes of it being offset against crops delivered to the association and generally provide the kind of tools for an effective suite of repayment options that empowers rather than enslaves. This falls under the remit of Aldea Fundacion, which is regulated by the government and is located in Jinotega but in a separate office to Aldea Global. Delinquency rates are many times lower than the market expects, which is a sign of the success and the positive impact it is having.  

One related benefit to keeping things online is safety. Dealing with large amounts of cash can bring its own risks, particularly with collection centres needing somewhere secure to store it in an area that is often by design isolated and remote. By providing a full suite of linked services there are huge gains, and there are talks in place with a very large global payments provider to further improve the offering. It also contains the history of payments and receipts, further aiding business insights.

Aldea has an ‘Amazon’ style app (AldeaZon) that can provide a shop for the loans to be spent too – focussing on things like fertiliser and tools. This further keeps any cash from burning holes in pockets, but also provides an alternative revenue stream to balance the business and provide another leg to stand on.

A marketplace is also part of this, where farmers can offer their own produce for sale to other farmers within the app, increasing reach and providing bigger networking opportunities.

Another strand was creating a sustainable farm. Here, they have invested heavily in a two-pronged strategy to provide value. Firstly, there is a large expense related to agronomists, and with labour drain, these are harder to find. One agronomist is expected to visit 50 farms per month, and costs associated with both wages and travel are high. In an association with over 15,000 members, you can see how this quickly adds up.

~ Whilst the focus was on a large amount of technology, it is always the conversations with people that pull everything together

The first solution is a WhatsApp channel with a weekly audio clip, alongside videos and manuals produced in an app to illustrate what to do. This is produced by the agronomists and directly relates to what should be done at the time. There is then a picture Q&A service for any particular issues that farmers can send in, and covers not only coffee but other products such as beans and corn that producers also grow. This allows for a much more responsive comprehensive coverage. With 5-day weather forecasts and site-specific recommendations through the AldeaTech app, it becomes a powerful set of tools. 

The second prong is the use of AI. The foundation has been working hard to develop a soil nutrient reader that is both accurate and fast. Fertilization in Nicaragua represents 60% of the costs of production. Having a result on the nutrient content of your soil with a soil scanner and 10 minutes on a cell phone provides a low-cost solution for many farmers. This then means the nutrient deficit can be targeted and the correct fertilizer provided.  

The AI comes in correlating all these results and understanding and predicting what areas have what deficits and how much of what type of fertilizer is needed. If you are a single farmer, you buy an off-the-shelf N/P/K mix. If you are a collective of 50 farmers, all need a specific blend of perhaps nitrogen and phosphorous (the N and P), but not calcium (K), then the buying power of a larger group will enable that order to be placed without over-fertilization. The predictive nature of AI further enhances this by having this blend available in the AldeaZon app and so not delaying fertilization at the time it is needed.  

This is all very much big tech but rooted in real people.  

Grupo Las Nubes / Inrocasa

With a huge amount to consider and be excited about, we switched producers and towns. It was time to jump over to Matagalpa to visit Beneficio Las Nubes. Victor Robelo, the owner, has long produced a selection of options for us, and with so much going on, it was great to get up to speed with the current situation.

Las Morenitas

Labour issues with Las Nubes were less prevalent than elsewhere in Nicaragua. Sometimes (as was the case with Café Granja on a previous visit there), speciality producers get overlooked for their social or environmental efforts as the focus remains solely on the coffee. Visiting Las Morenitas, it would be easy to get excited by the Ethiosar (already producing) or Pink Bourbon (first full harvest next year). 5296 is in the nursery after coming up from Costa Rica, and one of my favourites in Brazil, Catucai is also growing. What also forms part of the landscape and is just as special are the single-storey white buildings, you’ll see below.

Well-spaced, the main building covers a large communal eating area and kitchen cooking for all the workers (on the left). This can be as high as 500 each day There are housing blocks that date back to 2008; options exist for families and solo workers, as well as female-only blocks. There are also separate showers or bathing buildings, as well as a laundry building (on the right). A school provides education for the worker’s children during the day and adult education classes in the late afternoon through to the evenings. There is even a separate kitchen for the children’s food With wages paid at over double the minimum rate on top of everything else, it’s not hard to see why labour shortages were last to hit here. 

What this translates to is consistent labour, with experienced pickers returning year after year and, therefore, better quality picks and less processing time needed to sorting the good from the bad.

The other thing in shorter supply than normal was rain. This was opposite to our trip to Costa Rica, where more rain had occurred, knocking cherries from the branches and reducing yields. Matagalpa is normally the dry state in the Nicaragua coffeelands with Jinotega used to far more rain, even though they are neighbours. The reduction in the rain means smaller cherries and, therefore, screen sizes this year, and closer attention to detail is needed as a result of that. It also means more beans per kg, so yields, in that sense, are down.

The normal weather difference means there are a large number of mills in Matagalpa for drying coffee. This is true for Las Nubes, who have their main mill, Beneficio Las Nubes, there too. It’s a quick drive as the majority of their coffee will be transported there for drying. We would visit a little later, but first we detoured to see Monte Cristo, a more mountainous farm in character. It sits on the edges of the Penas Blancas, encompassing rain and cloudforest, and forms part of the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve.

Monte Cristo

Driving over and around the slopes to Monte Cristo, we entered a forested farm. A large part of the land was kept as forest untouched, some of which had been replanted as forest when the farm was bought back, in 2016. A deep echoing roar of a howler monkey served to reinforce that this was not your usual farm. Named Congo, apparently he is quite large and definitely the ruler of this area. I was not going to disagree with him, should he show. Hunting on the farm is banned, and as a result provides havens not only to Congo, but wildcats, deer, boar and more. Antivenom is also kept on the farm just in case, as there are snakes here too.

El Encanto Catuai, Monte Cristo, Nicaragua

Monte Cristo is split across many plots, each with their own varietals. These include Maragogype and Pacamara which have been hit hard by rust recently. Caturra, H1, Paraneima, Catucai and Marsellesa all grow here too. The Encanto plot we drove through supplies us with our honey processed coffee from here.  We’d arrived after the harvest had finished but when the next important phase of farm life was starting: pruning. 

It’s easy to see the ruby red or golden yellow cherries as the jewels in the crown of farm visits, though learning about the work that goes into maintaining the quality of a farm is often much more rewarding. It’s also vital for a farm owner to be out walking amongst their trees. This is something Victor regularly does.  

Antonio Manega, farm manager at Monte Cristo, Nicaragua.

Antonio Manega is the farm manager here, and once we’d tracked him down out in the fields, he explained to us how pruning works on the farm. Trees are planted at regular spacings in even rows across the field. Line by line, the trees are inspected. Older trees are stumped lower each time, until they are finally replaced around 20 years later. The first height is at 60cm, second 40cm, and third 20cm. This helps manage the energy needs the plant needs to recover, alongside what it needs to recover from. If too many need replanting then the entire block is done. And here lay a golden nugget. 

For small farms, replacing a plant is commonly done tree by tree. This is often due to economic need. As a tree ages, yield drops, but ripping up a block to replant not only costs a lot for both the trees and the labour but also in the following 2-4 years of lost income. This is a result of the new trees growing and waiting to reach full harvest. That full harvest can be bigger than before, and offset some of those costs, but it’s a game of cashflow in that situation. Whilst we might suggest trees are replaced with higher yielding or more disease resistant varieties, the practical side of things is rarely that simple.

What this then can lead to is a replacement of old varieties with new, which sounds good. Disease resistance or higher yields are all benefits here. However, the cherries may not ripen at the same time. We rarely talk about harvest times of coffee in terms of early ripening or late ripening, but it happens as in every other fruit. 

This can lead to a tree that is not ripe when the rest of the field is being picked. If the colour varies too (maybe ripe is a deeper red, for example) then it becomes increasingly likely that it is harvested when not ready leading to a reduction in yield or quality. If not, then it will lead to an increase in labour as the need to revisit that tree to pick when actually ripe will spread the labour need out across the farm and raise costs.  

This is why pruning by line is better, or if replacing a tree, replacing with the similar trees around it. Understanding that human behaviour plays a large part in decision making and needs to be accounted for is important. It is recognising this that helps to lead to a better product at the end of the harvest.  

The other point this then brings up is timing. Plants are living, and much like the biannual cycle is affected by how they plant crops, knowing when to cut back can have a big influence on the next harvest. Leave it too late, and it can cost you a whole year of harvest while the tree regrows and recovers. Timing is important, and just because the harvest has finished doesn’t mean the work has.  

Nursery, Monte Cristo, Nicaragua

Santa Maria

As the light was fading we drove to the final farm of our visit, Santa Maria. Being at higher altitude it was still heavy with cherry. Red to our eyes but still unripe to Don Victor. The cherries are picked at a deep red to enhance the sweetness. Quality is paramount here as the region has Denomination of Origin in recognition of that. His favourite farm, there are plots named after family members, and Geisha, Pink Bourbon, yellow Caturra and Catuai are to be found.

Beneficio Las Nubes

The next morning we travelled to the main mill, Beneficio Las Nubes. Here was the receiving station for his coffee and space for his neighbours too. The raised beds which spread out were to show the detailed processing and intentions behind the coffees from here.

Honeys are pulped without water. And then paced in bags that are sealed, and stored under water to maintain temperature and lightly ferment between 4pm and 8am. This is often done on the farm the beans come from, and at 8, they leave for the mill. Arriving at the mill they get two days under the sun before being moved to shading. A fastidious approach to drying means near continual moving as they dry, so no pockets of moisture form. As the beans dry, the layer increases from a single layer to a few cms thick when nearly done. The agitation of the beans means that the parchment sometimes splits – these beans will be removed and placed on a separate table and not form part of the main lot. I don’t think I have ever seen such attention to detail as I saw here.

Naturals have a different approach. As mentioned earlier, only the fully ripe cherries are picked for naturals, having a high sugar content of around 26-28.5 Brix. They also only come from the middle part of the branches as will have benefitted from a touch more shade and are picked by 20 selected pickers on the farm. Yellow and red Catuai are specifically used as they exhibit the highest sweetness.

Yellow Catuai natural drying under single layer of shade. Beneficio Las Nubes, Nicaragua

Once picked, the cherries will ferment for 36 hours. They are then spread on the raised beds under double shade to slow the drying and increase the sweetness. The ground underneath the beds is sticky with the sugars that drip through. In the same way as the honey, the naturals are turned every 45 minutes for 45 days with a 5 day resting period once complete. This detail is to make absolutely certain the cherry develops no surface mould and concentrates the sweetness as much as possible. Funky fruit flavours are not the target here. As the cherry dries, the shading is slowly reduced and again the layers thicken.

Washed cherries are both pulped and then demucilaged before drying on patios, again with the attention to detail in raking and turning the beans. The dry milling then is done in a large warehouse with colour and laser sorters and an additional finishing inspection by hand pickers to make sure everything is as intended. Inspections are carried out every 20 minutes to ensure the quality, and if not correct, will go back around to start again. Daniel Valle is the manager of this part of the process, and it was clear to see how well organised and clean the mill was.

Victor Robelo, INROCASA, Nicaragua

Many trips often show these two differing approaches to quality and consistency. There is no one better than another really, each demonstrating a love for coffee in a different manner. Such are people, and seeing the two approaches in the same area speaks to the microclimates of behaviour as well as the area in which coffee thrives.

Undoubtedly, we will see more technology in farming. The advances and benefits it can bring, particularly in a world with pressures on labour, are huge. Many small producers rely on coffee for an income, so making tools more accessible to them and the path to profit smoother is a fundamental part of the future.

But the romance of the coffee producer is not dead. The care and attention to the smallest of details are what brought many into the world of specialty and continue to hold us there. The sheer design and intention behind processing and, ultimately, flavour allow us a framework to roast, blend, brew, and taste the full spectrum of options.

This perhaps underlines what we have always strived to source and sell, coffee for all.