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Santiago heads to Honduras & Costa Rica: 2017

The transformation of the Honduran coffee sector has been attributed to the tenacity of many producers who got organised in cooperatives following sustainable standards of Fairtrade, Organic and Rainforest Alliance. In Honduras coffee is not just a product but a way of living. Many new areas were planted with coffee and others were renovated, increasing the output of the country from around 4.5 million bags before 2013 to a staggering 7 million in 2016. Nearly half of this volume was exported as certified coffee. We have always worked very closely with our suppliers offering them opportunities to add value to their coffees. Thanks to the support from many of our customers we have been able to develop exciting new projects with producers in Capucas, La Labor, San Marcos and Copan. For example, Project 121, a unique sourcing model that connects individual small-scale producers with individual roasters in a long-term manner has been a success, reaching roasters in the UK, Europe and Australia. Also, our suppliers have been able to respond to the demands of the specialty market by producing top quality coffees. Innovative producing and processing techniques which, in many cases, were exclusively available to just a few estates, nowadays are becoming more accessible to many small-scale producers. So, when you visit some of the producing regions in the country it is becoming more the norm seeing small batches of beans being dried on patios and raised beds from variations of yellow to black honey process and, of course, the super tasty naturals like those of Liquidambar farm, Sellin Recinos, and Maricela Aguilar.

As always on every trip to origin there is something that grabs your attention and this year visiting Capucas cooperative was not the exception. After successfully diversifying its coffee production with organic tomatoes, honey, lemon grass, flowers cuts, tourism and selling organic fertilisers, the cooperative has made a bold decision investing in future generations by introducing for the first time in the history of the country a virtual university in the heart of a rural community. This has been possible thanks to the commitment and dedication of all its members. Capucas keeps investing on research and development, especially on varietals and different processing techniques. During my visit, I was a lucky to take part in an evaluation of an experiment where some beans were anaerobically fermented for several days. The variables measured were brix degrees (sugar content), PH, temperature, and time. I was amazed by the flavours found in some of the samples we tasted. Still early days to make this new technique widely available to the members of the coop but they are going in the right direction

Also, I took part in an event to promote the best coffees from producers located in the San Marcos region. It was great to see so much enthusiasm by the producers who took part in the event. There was a panel of discussion covering topics from sustainability to opportunities of the specialty market. I had a great time there as I was fortunate to travel with a great bunch of people from the UK, Australia and Sweden. At the end of the day and after many hours of cupping we found a winner coffee. It was the lot from Ludwin Aguilar, who is also the president of Cocafelol coop, which got snapped by us.

From Honduras, I travelled to Costa Rica to visit some of the best producers in the West Valley, Naranjo region. Here like in other regions of the country producers have been investing in their own micro mills with the aim of capturing the opportunities created by the specialty market and specifically a demand for high scoring microlots.

The country has seen an explosion of micro mills in the past 10 years. According to ICAFE in 2007 there were 99 micro mills and currently the number is close to 260 legally registered. Traditionally, most of the producers deliver their coffees as cherries to their local cooperatives, (192 cooperatives as per 2016, according to ICAFE) which run a centralised wet and dry mill. This still the case for most of the coffee producers in the country.

The coops process, and in many cases, also export their coffees. Furthermore, they provide benefits to their members, like credit, social and health care and discounts on food shopping among others. However, many of the coffee producers were not content with the prices achieved in the conventional market and started to invest in their own mills to add more value to their coffees. This new model was perceived as a very good alternative to many producers who now are enjoying not only better prices but international recognition. But the future of this model remain uncertain as many producers are starting to realise that not everything they produce is “gold”. It costs the same to produce a microlot of 86 points and one of 89 points. The price achieved for the higher scoring lot should make up for the rest of the coffee produced and technically every producer should be able to achieve a very good average price. But the reality is a bit different. We have been told by some producers that if a lot of 89 is not perceived as “unique” by their potential buyers they might struggle to sell it as microlot and consequently lose money. This situation is happening more often than one might think and without access to the services provided by traditional coops, which normally buy the entire production from their members, they have become very vulnerable. This is exacerbated by buyers who come with a short-term vision who in the hunt for something new, neglect to see the big picture that sustainability is not just about microlots.

Next stop was Perez Zeledon in the south of the country. I experienced a different situation here. Back in November 2016 hurricane Otto badly hit the region provoking a significant destruction of its coffee crop. ICAFE estimated a 25% loss of output in Perez Zeledon and Coto Brus. The cooperative we work with in this region, Coope Agri, a few years back started to explore the possibility of expanding their production to new areas higher up in the mountains. This was a strategy to reduce the risks of growing coffee in the lowlands where very irregular weather patterns and Roya attacks have become increasingly common. Climate change apparently has made this possible. This way, the cooperative has been able to capture higher premiums (similar to those received by producers in regions like Tarrazu) for these coffees and maintain the benefits to their members. Aside from this, the cooperative has actively been experimenting with new processing techniques and so far, has produced great results. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of some of the washed and natural lots I tasted. Watch this space!

My time in Costa Rica passed so rapidly and I couldn’t have left without seeing our friends from the cooperatives Tarrazu & Dota. In 2011, we proposed to coop Tarrazu the creation a community coffee based on good experiences we had in others part of the world. The response from the coop was very positive and many communities started to get involved. Parritilla, San Gabriel, Trinidad, El Rodeo, Carrizal are some of the communities we have been sourcing from. The quality of their coffees has been great and the premiums paid for it have allowed these communities to make small contributions to the quality of their lives. For example, one of the communities we supported from the very beginning decided to build a concrete road to minimise the loss of terrain during the rainy season as they are in an area with a very steep incline. My last stop was Coope Dota. Even before I got out of the car I was already seeing a lot of things happening on the patios of the cooperative. Many small lots of coffee were being dried. Roberto Mata, the general manager of the coop, has been experimenting with new processes and drying techniques. It was very sad to hear he will be standing down as General manager of the coop, a worthy individual who has contributed a great deal to the development of many coffee farmers. This season we will be bringing some of their super tasty honey processes. Roberto even built a drying wheel, called RueDota, a clever way of blending the name of the coop and the Spanish word for wheel, rueda.

Every producer I met during my trip was feeling optimistic about the future of coffee and were making all the necessary changes and investment to grasp the benefits of the specialty market.  As always, we will support every initiative that brings more opportunities and adds more value to coffees and that contribute to sustainability and to farmers’ livelihoods.