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The Cooperative behind the Coffees. Sol y Cafe: representing independent farmers in the Peruvian Andes

In the Northeast Andean region of Peru lies a small coffee town named Jaen. Though easy to miss on an atlas, high in the mountains, Jaen is home to coffee production that supplies much of the world. We speak to DRWakefield’s head trader Santiago Barahona to hear about the long-standing independent cooperative organisation Sol y Cafe, centred in Jaen, but surrounded by thousands of acres of coffee farms and representative of hundreds of local farmers.

“When they started, they didn’t even have their own building. They were working in a tiny warehouse, and they were given a tiny office by the Catholic church, alongside the projects running there,” Santiago says. Sol y Cafe began as a coffee cooperative in 2003, under the umbrella and investment of local church mission Caritas Jaen. Within just two years, however, they were representative of 27 local farmers, working for their interests and expansion, and connecting their coffee to buying markets. Since then, Santiago tells us that Sol y Cafe’s ascension has gone at such a pace that they are now “housing [Caritas Jaen] in the cooperative building – the other way around!”

Quality and enthusiasm

Over those 10 years, the working relationship between Sol y Cafe and DRWakefield has formed itself naturally. “We were the first buyers,” Santiago says, “but we believed those guys had good quality from the first lot, and we provided promotion and gave them access to better markets. We made the right decision. We’ve never been disappointed.”

And what is it about Sol y Cafe that resonates so strongly with Santiago? “The way they work is very unique,” he offers. “Their policy on quality is applied at every level, from the farmers to the warehouse to the mill to the managers.” And his point is given more weight by an understanding of the scale and value of Sol y Cafe’s work.

From Peru to London

The cooperative represents the essential interests of farmers. It creates an infrastructure and organisation to aid production all the way to sales. Their ethos may appear, from European markets, to provide high-quality coffee, but locally – at ground level – Sol y Cafe concurrently exists to improve the livelihoods of independent coffee farmers. Almost every facet of coffee production can go through – and thus be provided, sustained and informed by – Sol y Cafe and their programmes of training, education, finance and supply. They manage trade, finances, transportation, certification and plenty more.

The key is providing protection for coffee farmers where many other external elements are unpredictable and unreliable.

Santiago gives us an example: let’s say an isolated farmer has delivered his coffee for DRWakefield’s Project 121 microlot coffees. At the heart of the project is the connection between the individual farmer and those who buy and drink his coffee. However, if this isolated farmer’s standard this season falls below Project 121’s requirements (perhaps the weather affected his land, or perhaps his pest problem was higher this season), he will be left without a sale. Sol y Cafe’s work prevents this. As part of the coffee cooperative, the farmer can quickly attain feedback via Sol y Cafe’s channels, and instead contribute his beans to the wider cooperative coffee stock.

“They’re very good at telling the farmers exactly how things are. Good at monitoring everything from the farm to the point of selling coffee to us. They know exactly who is delivering what, who should produce what amount of coffee, what qualities are expected,” Santiago explains. So, our farmer still benefits from standard Fairtrade-defined price floors and organisational services, and he does not lose the sale. In sync, a second cooperative farmer whose coffee does match the quality requirements can fill in the Project 121 space. “Instead of Farmer A, you get Farmer B, and you get the right quality. But Farmer A hasn’t been forgotten,” Santiago says. “And next year he might come back with the quality and can easily return to, and resume, the relationship with a particular roaster.”

From London to Peru

Sol y Cafe also offers invaluable benefits to the other side of the coin – the importers. DRWakefield’s relationship with Peru’s farmers is shaped in no small part by the cooperative. Their role in this respect is just as involved and representative as when they are, say, bulk-buying sheet plastic for greenhouses or offering warehouse storage space to local farmers.

“Talking to a farmer directly is not always in the best interest of all parties,” Santiago explains. “It’s not about transparency, it’s about [avoiding] misunderstandings. I don’t have full access to what might go into farmers’ training, for example. How could I dictate a price if I don’t know these things?” The cooperative, in other words, is a vastly knowledgeable voice for the farmers, speaking on their behalf to the wider European and North American coffee markets. And in Sol y Cafe’s case, this voice is as diplomatically representative as one would expect: every member of the cooperative has a vote in its presidential elections.

The hidden hand

Sol y Cafe’s work can be overlooked. Coffee consumers are already aware of the origins of the beans – marketing specific coffees from specific regions is, of course, commonplace. But Santiago believes that the work of the cooperative, the organisation that binds together farmers, roasters, exporters and traders, is due recognition. Project 121 is “firstly about quality, and secondly about relationships,” he explains. “But without the cooperative, the project won’t work.”

Head here for more information on all of DRWakefield’s coffees, including the Project 121 microlot coffee represented, facilitated, trained and nurtured by Sol y Cafe.