Ethiopia Supply Chain Partner Eden Kassahun On Managing Logistics Through Covid 19

 

Eden Kassahun is one of Red Fox’s most integral supply chain partners and has been since we opened in the business in 2014. Eden and Red Fox co-founder Aleco Chigounis’s history together goes back to her days at Technoserve where they first met in 2009. She helps us manage our Ethiopia supply partnerships with Kata Muduga, Kerchanshe, and Kedir Jebril. Her role couldn’t be more critical to our success in executing early shipments; she manages much of the internal transportation and logistics details within Ethiopia. We sat down with Eden in the Foxhole to discuss her history and unique position in the Ethiopian coffee world, her role in our many Ethiopian partnerships, and the impacts of Covid-19 on the past and upcoming harvest and shipping season. 

 

Aleco Chigounis: Hi everybody, welcome back to The Foxhole. We have one of the most special guests we could have, one of our most critical supply chain partners in all of the world. We’re broadcasting live from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, today. Eden is in her office and I’m back in my hotel room. January is easily the biggest month on our coffee acquisition front in the entire calendar year. Part of what we do, part of the success of Red Fox is moving coffee from Ethiopia extremely quickly, something for which Eden’s work is key. We take pride in our ability to get coffee to market as fast or faster than anyone else in the trade. So in order to make that happen this year, I took all the precautions I could. Red Fox is learning how to travel anew all over again in 2021, and it’s a little bit stressful, I’m not going to lie, there’s a lot of concern—but this is what we do and we need to serve our client community, so we’ll be out here.

Now, for Eden. She and I have known each other for 12 years since her days back at Technoserve and she’s made an absolutely amazing career for herself since then. I often refer to her as the queen of Ethiopia for Red Fox. The role she plays in Red Fox’s supply chain is both behind the scenes and very much in the middle. That’s an important detail because there’s been a lot of talk over the years of middle men needing to be cut out or not playing the right role, and that’s really foolish and harmful. People play a critical role—from the producer all the way through to delivering that green coffee to the roastery and where it goes from there. Eden is a huge part of Red Fox’s success.

Eden Kassahun: Thank you Aleco, I’m happy to be here. 

Aleco: Could you give us a little bit of a background on how you got started in coffee and how your career has progressed? 

Eden: I joined coffee when I first started at Technoserve. My background education is computer science and software engineering, so I was supporting team Technoserve in IT. When I was working there, I was able to visit farms and learn more about growing coffee for the first time. The intention was for me to go and visit the office, which is up in the country, in Jimma. When I was there, I got the chance to see how the coffee farmers live, how they produce coffee, how they sell, which was not something I had imagined before that. I grew up in the city, and that was my first experience in the field. I saw how producers live and how that shaped their characters and the beautiful coffees they produce, and it was very attractive for me, and I wanted to go deeper into that side. I started to study the profiles, the terms, everything to do with coffee. Naturally I met very good people like you, Aleco, and that’s how I got started.

After a couple years getting closer and learning about coffee, including cupping, I started my small company operating in wholesale coffee. That’s how my business started 12 years ago. 

Aleco: I remember in 2009 when our mutual friend Chris Jordan told me about his project with Technoserve and the Gates Foundation in Limu, an area where a lot of us on the buying side were fairly certain that there wasn’t phenomenal coffee. Of course, you proved us to be incredibly wrong. Those coffees from Agaro, specifically the Nano Challas, the Durominas, the Yukros are just some of the most beautiful coffees in the world, undeniably.

I remember meeting you in the office when I would come in and cup and to see where you’ve gone from there is amazing. You’ve started your own company. You have your own crew there now.

How do you see your current role, responsibility, and objectives in the Ethiopian coffee industry now? How do you run the business?

Eden: Our company is responsible for filling the gaps between the supplier and the buyer, helping overcome the many barriers in that area. Technology is a barrier, language is a barrier, and even the culture, the culture of connecting producers and buyers. They very much need a bridge between them. On top of helping identify good coffees, we facilitate communication and shipment so that buyers get that good coffee on time and can deliver to their clients. It is a big role, and stressful sometimes, but it helps promote new coffees and growth for everyone involved.

Since we started working together, we’ve seen a lot of new coffees enter the field and develop better markets for their product. We’re able to identify and get top-quality coffees, which can bring a large amount of currency for us as a national entity. It also helps to get good coffees for good people, good coffee buyers.

Aleco: I think what you said about facilitating coffee moving quickly might be the understatement of the year. You’re a hero in that regard.

As I’ve mentioned before, Red Fox moving Ethiopian coffee quickly is really a big part of our success, and the role that Eden plays for us specifically in that is managing contact with all the producing groups over the course of the year, communicating with all of us. Once I arrive here—which is usually the end of December—she and I get into the warehouses immediately, like literally the day that I arrive in Ethiopia, and we start to bulk lots together and sample coffees. I roast the samples myself in my hotel room on an Ikawa and then cup them in Eden’s lab the next day. We make decisions really, really quickly. We try to get coffees into the mill as soon as possible which is very difficult in January because you have two very major holidays here in January: Ethiopian Christmas, which is usually the second week of January and then Timket, which is an even bigger holiday than Christmas. So to be able to operate in and around those moments is really tricky, and Eden is able to pull that off on a level I literally have yet to see anyone else be able to do here. It’s really a special thing.

Shifting gears a little bit Eden, can you talk to us a little bit about the pandemic and how COVID-19 has affected Ethiopia, how it’s affected the coffee industry over the last year?

Eden: The economic impact of the pandemic was very severe on the coffee trade in Ethiopia. The disease itself is not necessarily as bad as in many other countries, but it has affected a lot in the coffee trade and trade in general, especially during the lockdown when people were not able to move.

It’s now been three or four months where we can easily move without lockdown. But transport was limited—most of our people use public transport, and most of it was not operating or was operating at limited capacity. And there was little work, so it was really difficult for people to survive, especially in the big cities I think. Then when you go to the countryside, especially the coffee growing areas, there wasn’t much interest in the speciality side of the business, which brings relatively good money compared to commodity business. So that was a huge set of financial problems.

But if you ask about the awareness or people’s knowledge about that, I could say most of our people either don’t know or don’t really trust that there is a disease there. It was really rare for us to see people wearing masks properly, right Aleco?

Aleco: Yeah, especially outside of Addis.

Eden: Especially up in the field and the washing stations, people don’t care. Even people who are coughing—they go, it’s okay, I’m fine, I’m fine.

Aleco: It’s interesting to hear that the virus has been politicized in a different way but almost as heavily as it has in the US, that people think it’s more of a political thing and maybe it’s not actually real.

Eden: Initially when the pandemic broke out, people were in the middle of mass protests. Things were not politically stable last year during that time—of course, they aren’t stable most of the time, but this was bigger, so that every place was rallying for protests and gatherings. When they announced this state of emergency and told everyone to stay at home, not to gather and all this stuff, everyone thought that was to stop the protests. 

Aleco: Yeah, early on there was a heavier lockdown, right?

Eden: Yes, much, much heavier. We were all made to stay at home, schools, off the bus, the restaurants were closed. They were doing thousands of tests per day.

Aleco: How did the pandemic and lockdown itself affect the coffee industry? I know the lockdown happened in the middle of shipping season last year, and it affected interest from the global marketplace. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Eden: It became much harder to manage the coffee. The coffee unions have a lot of management power, and at the time of the lockdown they were operating at just a quarter capacity in terms of labor. And it’s not only the quarter capacity, they also work just half the day. So we really couldn’t get the work done in the same amount of time. It took us more than a month to ship coffees post-processing. The logistics and the quality inspection parts were really terrible. And very little coffee was coming in. The national banks which do permitting were also operating at a quarter capacity, which slowed things down immensely for getting permits to export coffee. All the customs stuff, the truck movements. It’s one of the sectors most highly affected by the pandemic. Because most of the tasks are labor intensive—they require human intervention. 

Aleco: So, along with all of the myriad of issues that you just mentioned, I know that demand in the middle of the shipping season started to fall off. I heard about issues from Japan, from Korea, from North America, from Europe, buyers trying to wash contracts out of fear of what lay ahead for them in their own marketplaces and their own ability to sell coffee, which was a devastating moment here. I know a lot of folks were in trouble last year, and I hope that all of them were able to survive and come back online this year.

But  with that said, I’m curious what your expectations are for the market this year in terms of being able to regain momentum and sell levels of coffee like you had in 2019 in years past. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Eden: I think the impacts will continue affecting especially the high-end coffees, because still, globally we see that demand is still lower. On the other hand, we’ve seen that demand for low grade coffee is higher than it was pre-pandemic. Of course, the season is just starting, but when we see the buyers’ interest and what they ask for, I think the demand will go to the low end coffees instead of the higher side. 

Last year there were a large amount of washouts, especially for high-end coffees, which discouraged most of the people who produce those, especially at the dry mill or washing station level. They ended up having to sell their high-end coffee in the commodity market, even if the coffee had a high value. So it’s discouraged some producers from pursuing high-end coffee, and they’re also dealing with financial constraints as a result. I expect to have less interest from the people who produce special coffee. There’s still that demand for low grade coffee, which shows that a lot of people are drinking coffee at home. That’s how I see it.

Aleco: I can tell you from our perspective, last year we were terrified in March, in April, in May. We’re still a little bit terrified about what lies ahead for us in the marketplace, and concerns about what types of coffee will be of interest to roasters around the globe, and what you said confirmed some of our thinking there.

But I have to say, I feel like we are in a very fortunate industry. I feel like there is a whole lot of resilience in coffee, that people aren’t going to stop drinking coffee anytime soon, and that there’s still a lot of hope and a lot of opportunity for the folks that are able to muster enough moxie to get through this period and come out alive on the other side, alive in the business sense.

So we’re hedging our bets on what we think the market needs. We think that there still is a whole lot of room to sell top caliber coffees at appropriate price levels, at those higher price levels. But I think in general, yes, I agree that there will be a little regression in terms of what people are willing to pay for the moment so that they do get to the other side of this.

I know many farms around the globe are facing a pandemic-induced shortage of coffee pickers. Is this an issue in Ethiopia?

Eden: Not really. Again, you’ve seen that people are not really aware that there is a pandemic, especially at this point post-lockdown. Of course last year there was an issue because of the lockdown shutting down transport, preventing workers from traveling to jobs. But this year, no, it doesn’t really affect us.

Aleco: Eden, thank you so much. We’re going to let you go, unless you have a message or anything you’d like to share before we go. It’s been such a pleasure having you on.

Eden: Yes, thank you very much. Once again, I’m really happy to have met you and been part of this friendship, and I hope it will continue like this. I’m really looking forward to sending over the great coffees. Thank you.

Aleco: I can’t tell you how much we appreciate you and your efforts. Thank you so much. Talk to you tomorrow morning.

Eden: Yes, as usual. On with your roasting, so that you can cup tomorrow.

 

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

 

Red Fox Coffee Merchants Origin & Shipment Update: Q2 2021

Hello friends, coming to you in the second quarter of 2021. We’ve put together a report on the current state of coffee affairs in the areas of the world in which we work. Buying coffee, while never easy or uncomplicated, has become more complex than ever, and we want you to feel included, supported, and looped in as we navigate that process together. With the supply and shipping disruptions we’ve seen over the last year and which we know will echo into the future, every link in every supply chain needs to be managed more carefully than ever. We want to help keep your finger on that pulse and hopefully make your job a little easier. This report contains some details as well as some broad strokes—if anything here piques your interest or leads to more questions, we’re always here to talk, so get in touch

Logistics & Port Updates 

We continue to feel the impacts of the widespread disruptions in trade and cargo shipping brought on by the pandemic and magnified recently by the container ship the Ever Given blocking traffic through the Suez Canal. For Red Fox, the global shortage of shipping containers has made it challenging to find bookings for the fastest, most direct ocean cargo routes that we prioritize. We’ve seen higher shipping costs, more rolled and cancelled bookings across the board on all shipping lines, and big bottlenecks at US ports, particularly on the west coast, that result in delays in getting our coffees unloaded, through customs, and stocked into warehouses. Ports, warehouses, and trucking companies are facing staffing shortages due to Covid-19, causing further logistical challenges and delays. 

We push to get our Ethiopia shipments afloat as early as possible every year, and are especially glad to report that, with the majority of our containers already on the water or arriving on the east coast, Suez Canal-specific delays have only affected a couple of our later shipments from Ethiopia, some of which we have chosen to hold in Addis until bookings can be confirmed, rather than have them sit at port in Djibouti. We know that long shipping times and warehouse delays are frustrating for everyone and we will continue to bring you as much information as possible regarding ETAs, arrival times, and coffee availability as these challenging conditions continue. 

Supply, Demand, & The C Market 

After a near 2 year high of around $1.40/lb towards the end of February, the C market seems to have settled in the mid-$1.20s/lb at the time of writing (approximate 3 month moving average). As Red Fox does not trade or hedge using the C market, there was little direct effect on our US operations. However, as the C market price continued to rise during Mexico sourcing discussions, we kept that $1.40 price in mind while determining what competitive quality premiums look like right now.  While global shipping lines work to renew vessel schedules across the world’s ports, warehouse stocks of green coffee across the global north continue to dwindle per various market reports. This has led to grumblings around increased C Market volatility though we’ve yet to see any major movement to date.   

Mexico 

About 75%-80% of the harvest is currently processed and collected in the central warehouses for bulking and dry milling. The Pluma/Sierra Sur and Mixteca regions are closer to 90%, while some regions in Northern Oaxaca will continue their final round of picking/processing through the first half of April. Chiapas and Veracruz are almost 100% finished with harvest. Our lab in Oaxaca has seen the heaviest 2 week period in our Mexico sourcing history at the end of March and samples continue to arrive from producers and family clusters from new and established relationships. We’re busy cupping offers as well as early preships, bulking coffees, monitoring the dry mill, and making sure coffees are ready to make their way onto the water. April is the primary month for milling across all three states in Mexico where Red Fox sources. Our first container is milled and expected to go afloat this week and four other containers will be milled this week and next.  First arrivals will be primarily community lots from the Pluma/Sierra Sur region of Oaxaca.

There is more competition for container availability this year due to the global container shortage but the big advantage Mexico has for shipping to other North American ports is the frequency of vessels arriving and sailing (most steamship lines call to port of Veracruz every 3 days). We also plan to continue to use the port of Manzanillo on the Pacific Coast for West Coast shipments where transit time is 5 days on the water port to port. We still expect these coffees to arrive in May through June. 

Covid-19 case counts continue to be a problem across Mexico and while a vaccination program has recently begun by the government, the rollout is slow and disorganized. More wealthy Mexicans with travel visas are going to the US to get vaccinations. The government recently released data showing more accurate cases and death counts than was previously being released and were 30% higher than previously reported. Another surge in cases is expected  after the Semana Santa (Easter) holiday where many people travelled and family gatherings are very common. Most businesses are fully open, and while mask wearing is very widespread in public and on the streets, it’s less common in family social gatherings. 

Smaller, more vulnerable communities continue to publicize information and precautionary measures, but many of these precautions unfortunately aren’t up to date and don’t prevent spread effectively. Where the latest science overwhelmingly points to aerosols in gatherings in poorly ventilated areas without masks as the primary method of spread, the smaller towns still focus on hand sanitizer and spraying down the outside of clothes and cars with bleach as the way to prevent more cases entering. We hope to see better information and  realtime science reach these communities quicker in the future.   

Available Lots: Peñas Negras makes its return to the offerings of community lots out of the Pluma/Sierra Sur region, near Juquila not far from the Pacific coast, just straight up the mountain. This community is one of the first to start and finish harvest in Oaxaca and this year’s lot is very balanced and sweetness driven, showing notes of Honeycrisp apple, chocolate syrup, and fresh butter. This and other Pluma community lots in the first shipment arrive to Continental, NJ the first week of May and 2nd week of May to Annex, CA. We’ll also have coffees available by the end of May in Dupuy, Houston and Seaforth, Vancouver this year.  

Ethiopia

Harvest has officially concluded for the season, Addis warehouses are full of parchment and peak shipping period is now underway. Vertical Integration, which allows for producers to establish a price agreement with an exporter prior to the harvest season, continues to play an emerging role in the specialty sector with more direct business concluded than year’s prior. The ECX continues to receive and trade less coffee.  

The Suez Canal incident and rising fuel costs for trucks making the Addis to Djibouti run have caused massive delays for vessels leaving port.  

Covid-19 cases are increasing at extreme levels according to our network on the ground in Addis, though accurate reporting remains difficult to find. Ethiopia received 2+ million doses of AstraZeneca in March per the WHO’s initiative.  

Available Lots: We were fortunate enough to move our first dozen containers, split between Agaro & Guji, prior to the Suez debacle. Fresh crop has arrived to Port of NJ as of 3/30. We expect availability in Continental Terminals NJ in the coming week or so of both Guji and Agaro coffees. ETA’s for coffees coming into both The Annex CA and Dupuy Houston range from to mid-to-late April.  

Kenya 

Kenya is now also in peak shipping season as the main crop has now concluded. 320,000+ bags have been purchased through the auction system and direct purchases since January 1. The fly crop (Kenya’s second, smaller crop) begins later this month and will conclude late May/early June.  

Shipments are delayed per the Suez debacle with lines still unable to communicate new schedules. Some fear a backlog into or even through May. Food grade containers are also at a premium.  

Nairobi is currently in lockdown as cases are now on the rise. Our trade partners are only in their offices on a rotating, need-to-be basis. The first round of 1,000,000+ AstraZeneca vaccines arrived in Kenya early March. The government expects 3,500,000+ vaccines to be distributed across the 2021 calendar year.  

Available Lots: Our first shipment arrived to Port of NJ late February and has now been sold out.  Our 2nd shipment destined to CA maintains a mid-April ETD from Mombassa.  

Guatemala

We are hearing reports of another month of harvest in Huehuetenango. Early offers have been outstanding and we’ll see more volume this year from producers from the Santa Barbara municipality. Look for Guatemalan coffees clearing on both coasts in mid to late May.

While travel has opened up between departments, public transportation remains extremely limited. This has exacerbated the shortage of migrant pickers and harvesting continues to be a struggle in most regions.

In vaccine news, Guatemala became the third country in Latin America to start vaccinating its population through the COVAX initiative, which uses the AstraZeneca vaccine. Guatemala expects to receive a total 6.6 million doses this year to reach its goal of immunizing 20% of the population.

Available Lots: We’re currently finalizing selections for an initial container to go afloat later this month/early May.

Peru 

Even though in January 2021 the national economy showed a drop of 0.98%, Peru’s agricultural sector remained afloat and growing. For its part, the Junta Nacional de Café (National Coffee Board) hopes that this year will be strong for coffee production. They expect production to rise 18% compared to last season, and the Cajamarca, Cusco, Amazonas, and Pasco regions will benefit from it.

In mid-January, the Peruvian government declared the arrival of the second wave of Covid-19. The government established different risk levels for the country’s regions and implemented restrictions for each level. One measure ensured that people taking domestic flights from extreme risk regions must present a negative Covid test from within 72 hours before the flight, as well as foreigners entering the country. 

Added to the general political instability of 2020 was a national scandal called “vacunagate”, where it was discovered that influential figures including the former president and the health minister had secretly received free vaccines from Sinopharm months before negotiations were finalized and doses were available to the population. The news aggravated the feeling of disappointment with political leaders. Currently, a limited number of vaccines are available and the vaccination process has begun. The Peruvian government presented a National Vaccination Plan that has three phases that extend until the second half of the year. The country is also preparing to face presidential elections during April.

Available Lots: A broad range of all regions and qualities available on all three coasts (Continental NJ, Annex CA, DuPuy Houston). A rep from our team would be happy to walk you through our offerings from Peru and make recommendations.

Colombia 

Heavy rains have stunted both flowering for Colombia’s second semester harvest and maturation for the imminent mitaca fly crop across Southern Colombia. Ports from Cartagena to Buenaventura are dealing with congestion due to limited availability with primary shipping lines. Port Strikes in Brazil and Covid-19 are the main culprits. Container availability is not currently an issue.  

Geovanny Liscano reports that Asorcafe is business as usual with producers focused on maintenance in the current between-crops season.  First picking at altitude in Inzá should begin by the second half of June. 

Covid-19 cases are back on the rise. The government has put in place new travel restrictions for those traveling internally within Colombia. The first vaccines arrived in Colombia mid-February with the government maintaining their plan for 20,000,000 doses to be distributed in the 2021 calendar year.  

Available Lots: Red Fox’s North American stock is dwindling as we prepare for inbound Mexican coffee late spring. Expect fresh crop coffee from the mitaca to begin shipping late summer/early fall.  

Rwanda 

Cherry picking in Rwanda is underway, with peak harvest towards the end of March. Reports of weather and rainfall have been promising, and we are expecting good quality and volume this season. We should see offer samples in our lab in late May/early June.

Rwanda has imposed some of Africa’s toughest anti-coronavirus measures since the pandemic began, including one of the first full lockdowns on the continent in March 2020. More recently, Kigali went back into lockdown for 2 weeks in January 2021, after an increase in the number of Covid cases. Case numbers have since fallen and restrictions have been eased in the capital, though concern about new variants remains high.

Rwanda received its first Covid-19 vaccines in February of this year and has been rolling out a wider vaccination campaign in March, with doses of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines supplied through the WHO’s COVAX initiative. The government’s goal is to vaccinate 30% of its population of 12 million people this year and 60% by the end of 2022.

Available Lots: Lot selection late May/early June with a container to both East and West Coasts likely to go afloat before the end of June.

Ecuador

Ecuador’s rainfall eclipsed the summer season and there continues to be excess rainfall. It seems that summer weather is finally approaching, which could bring the harvest a bit early. The October-November flowering was abundant, but there was minimal fruit. Producers have let us know that they are optimistic about what is to come this harvest season.

Ecuador received its first Covid-19 vaccines in January 2021, but has been rolling them out slower than anticipated. The country has contracts with Covax, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca. There have been a high number of cases and deaths in the country with a majority near the large coastal city of Guayaquil. The country’s goal is to have phase 1, vaccinating 2 million people completed by the end of April 2021 and begin phase 2. For reference, there are over 17.3 million people total in the country. 

Available Lots: With only a few lingering lots left uncommitted, get in touch with your rep if you have interest in sampling any lots still on the offerlist. Sidra, Typica and Bourbon Tekisic variety separations still available.

 

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.

Kedir Jebril Imamu & His Fabled Gogogu Forest Coffees

Central Guji is one of the coffee world’s veritable treasure chests. As the Ethiopian coffee trade has made itself over several times in the past 12 years, so has Red Fox. The advent of ECX prior to the 2009/10 harvest brought me personally to Uraga having to say goodbye to the strong relationships built over several years with privately held washing stations in Gedeb, Yirgacheffe and Bensa in Sidamo. Working through Guji’s Cooperative Union I found myself making trip after trip to Layo Tiraga in Central Uraga’s forests and eventually Yabitu Koba in the Ugo Begne forests building a pipeline for top lots to the US. The beautiful coffees in Yirgacheffe and Sidamo became an afterthought as I pushed to put this region on specialty coffee’s radar. As the Union found themselves in brutal political and financial struggles in the early years of Red Fox we branched out to working with small, independent washing station owners in the specific forests in and around Harso Larcho Torka, Bire, Gogogu, Ugo Begne, and Bere.

Enter Kedir Jebril Imamu. On the surface Kedir appears to be just another independent washing station owner from Dilla in the Gedeo Zone. His two brothers, Feku and Abdi, have coffees widely praised by the industry that Red Fox used to source and deliver in the immediate post-Union years. There is more notoriety on both of his brother’s names in the North American coffee market because they’ve been so widely traded and marketed by us and several importers post-Red Fox. But it’s the youngest brother that might just emerge as the new wave industry leader in Haro Welabu, the newly zoned Guji Woreda immediately east of Hambela Wamena and west of Uraga.  

Kedir grew up working odd jobs around Dilla, mainly construction. He eventually saved enough money to open his own coffee transportation company moving coffee from the bejewelled coffee forests surrounding Dilla—specifically Central and Northern Guji—down the mountain to major trade centers. 11 years ago, Kedir built his very own washing station, Gogogu Bekaka, in the Gogogu kebele of (formerly) Uraga, Guji. Since then Kedir has gradually increased his bandwidth with the neighboring coffee farmers growing his volume at Bekaka to roughly 2 container loads annual. 2 years ago, Kedir built his second washing station, also in the forests of Gogogu: Gogogu Wate. Production is lower annually here as Kedir continues to develop confidence from his neighboring farmers. We expect up to 200 bags available only this season.

Kedir’s the youngest of the Jebril brothers and he might just be the savviest. Kedir incorporated his own export company in 2020. That’s a big deal. Kedir will be exporting his own coffee direct to Red Fox this season. He delivered his coffee directly to ECX in Dilla for the first 7 years of Gogogu Bekaka’s existence. He worked with a private export company for the past 4 years through the country’s Vertical Integration system allowing privately held businesses to traceably purchase coffees again. Kedir wasn’t happy with this arrangement though—he knew his coffee was more valuable than the prices he was receiving for it. We bought his Gogogou coffees 2 seasons ago and plan to never let them go. This is the quintessential relationship archetype that Red Fox seeks out in Ethiopia; a small, locally held washing station with exclusive export to us in the US. Oh, and the coffee is amazing.  

GOGOGU HARVEST ‘20/‘21

The Central Guji season started in early November this year and will finish up in mid-January. Most washing stations will begin to prepare Grade 1 quality a couple of weeks into the season as the harvest picks up and ripening begins to become more dense. They’ll continue preparing Grade 1 quality through the season stopping in the final week or so as the very last fruit comes off the trees in their areas. The early and late season coffees will become Grade 2 quality. Kedir has stricter protocols. He processed the first month+ of cherry as Grade 2 and only selected the fruit from the densest ripening period of the season, Dec 10 – Jan 5, as Grade 1 this year.  His offerings from Bekaka and Wate are the purest essence of what the surrounding forests can be and are.  

Kedir’s fermentation process is extensive—he leaves freshly peeled seeds underwater for 60 hours compared to the average washing station’s 48. Coffees are then washed vigorously in elongated channels while also being selected for quality. The less dense Grade 2 quality beans are sifted off the top of the channel and taken to their own drying stations. The denser Grade 1 coffees eventually make it to a soaking tank where they’ll sit overnight removing any excess mucilage from the seed before they’re sent to the drying beds. Kedir keeps his parchment coffee covered in mesh for the first 5-6 days in order to avoid cracking and direct exposure to sunlight which can damage the integrity of the beans. After this first drying period the coffee is then opened to sunlight and left to dry for another 5-6 days before being conditioned in the storage warehouse for upwards of a month.  

Kedir paid 25-29 birr/kg for coffee cherry in the 2020/21 season. It’s important to note that the standard local price for cherry prior to last year was in the 14-20 birr/kg range for many years.  Increased competition through the Vertical Integration concept has very much increased financial viability for coffee producers across Centra/Northern Guji from Uraga to Haro Welabu to Hambela Wamena. 

THE GOODS

Even though these coffees are only a bumpy 20 minute drive from each other, the flavor profiles are uniquely distinct.  

Gogogu Bekaka: Tropical yellow fruits are the headliner here—sweet but bright, sparkly mango and ultra-ripe papaya reign supreme with lingering rosewater Turkish delight in the background.  The finish shows a more caramelized character along the lines of bruleed meringue or marshmallow. This cup profile has haunted me with memories of Yabitu Koba/Ugo Begne Forest coffees of years past for the past week. These lots will demonstrate a truly dynamic range across the flavor spectrum. So structured. Perfectly complete.  

Gogogu Wate: The Wate lots also conjured memories of coffees of yesteryear and right off the bat with their scallion-like aromatics. Scallion? Yes. Oddly enough, it’s the one single flavor attribute I seek out most in Central Guji coffees.  It’s an indication of 2 things: 1) that the coffee is mighty fresh,  2) so fresh that as the lot conditions over the course of a month or so that exact scallion character morphs into the most stunning honeysuckle/orange blossom fragrance. It sounds odd but it’s the secret sauce. Moving forward the cup profile itself in a word is electric. Key Lime.  Radiant, fresh, crisp Key Lime. Persian Lime. Kaffir Lime. Lemon Lime. All the limes. This is an effervescently refreshing coffee.  

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Ali Newcomb:  Good, very good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tibed: Exactly.

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

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

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

Tibed: About two years.

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

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

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

Tibed: Yes, exactly!

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

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

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

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

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

Tibed: It makes me really happy to hear this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ali: That means just one way, no?

Tibed: Exactly, one way only.

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

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

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

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

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

Tibed: Of course, that I will do.

Aleco: Ali, what else?

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

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

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

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

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

Tibed: The bourbons. 

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

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

Tibed: Yes, exactly!

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

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

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

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

Ali: Beautiful outcome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aleco: Thank you! Bye!

 

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

 

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.

 

Red Fox’s Fabian Viveros León Talks QC, Mexico, & Covid-19

A third generation coffee worker, Red Fox’s Fabian Viveros León learned about coffee cultivation, quality control, and trading from his father in Huila, Colombia, starting at a young age. Currently living in Oaxaca, he manages quality control for Red Fox Sourcing Company, running the lab, overseeing dry mill operations, and spending time in the field managing producer relationships. He also plays a key QC role in Peru and Colombia during sampling and shipping seasons. In fact, he’s in Colombia right now doing just that. 

We talked with Fabian about growing up in coffee, what it’s like working in quality control, the challenges he saw as Covid-19 ramped up in Mexico this year, and what he sees for the future. Since Fabian speaks Spanish, this interview has been translated into English by Red Fox’s Carina Barreda. 

RJ Joseph: Can you tell us a little bit about growing up with coffee?

Fabian Viveros León: My experience starts at home. I am the third generation that has been dedicated to working with coffee in Colombia. Growing up with coffee gave me the opportunity to learn all about coffee trees, processing, and trading. In 2014, I started learning about cup quality control, purchasing, parchment storage logistics, and in 2016 I began working formally as a purchasing and logistics analyst.

RJ: How did you end up working in quality control?

Fabian: A question was generated within me. I wanted to know how the process of evaluating coffee worked. So, I came across coffee cupping and its derivatives. From there I began to enter this new world of coffee, which I did not know previously, and that now has become my life and passion.

RJ: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve seen for producers regarding quality in Mexico?

Fabian: The biggest challenge that I encountered within Mexico was the lack of knowledge about the crop and how to work it properly. Also, gaining the trust of people who have been scammed previously. Another challenge has been dealing with the non-acceptance of new knowledge and practices of processing coffee to improve their product. Coffee is not a primary economy for the Mexican smallholders, so there is a lack of interest in developing new and better practices.

RJ: If coffee isn’t the primary economy of the producers we work with in Mexico, what is? What is their incentive to produce quality coffee?

Fabian: According to what I have observed, the primary livelihood for Mexican smallholders in the coffee-growing regions is divided between agricultural activities (planting corn, beans, vegetables, among others), sale of typical clothing from the region, and wooden crafts. The incentive to produce quality coffee is to diversify income sources since there is national and international market demand. Producers have seen a possibility to improve their livelihood with this crop.

RJ: What were some of the biggest successes over the past season?

Fabian: We strengthened business relationships with small producers. We have been able to form trusting relationships and provide producers with a sense of security that we want to work with them in the next harvests. Another success is that we were able to have a broader presence within the area and create a meeting point in Oaxaca for small producers. 

RJ: How does it feel to have the job of assessing quality and, in certain cases, telling producers if their coffee passed or failed as someone who’s been in a multi-generational coffee-growing family?

Fabian: It is a very big responsibility because you have to give the producers security and confidence to speak directly and explain the reasons for the approval or rejection of their product. In addition, you have to try to motivate them to keep improving and keep working with us to follow up on their successes and failures. The important thing is to speak to them from personal experience, to relate better, and to have compassion.

RJ: What do you think are the biggest challenges for you working in QC in specialty coffee?

Fabian: The biggest challenges are communicating the client’s needs, changing the way producers think and their understanding of how to manage their crop, and also all the follow-up for the additional work we’re doing. So basically, it’s communicating that knowledge, communicating that need, and starting to do the work. It’s a challenge for all producers in any part of the world.

It’s a chain, and when you get the producer to understand the whole process, the follow-through, the feedback, seeing the final result is really gratifying for me as the person doing the quality control, and also for the producer because they understand that it’s not just producing coffee, it’s putting your heart into it, investing passion—that is the most important for producing good coffee.

RJ: Which specific challenges do you think the pandemic will highlight for producers?

Fabian: To be able to transport their products to sell, that implies that they could expose their safety in order to be able to make an income and survive. Most producers are already at high risk for this disease, they are elderly people (average 60, 80 years of age). This will be a challenge for them and the leaders in their communities to establish control of entry and exit of people and limit exposure.

RJ: What was it like finishing the last season with the pandemic beginning to shut things down? What has it been like in Oaxaca since then?

Fabian: It was a tense moment for everyone. We had to start communicating with the producers so they could transport their coffee from their communities as quickly as possible. We had to find solutions and facilitate their transportation to the drying mill and thus avoid production delays, shipments, and other difficulties.

Oaxaca since then has been coupled with Covid-19 control measures. For a month, only essential services were open, and over time other types of non-essential services were available, with the necessary control measurements to adapt to the “new normal.” Now, there are already 75% to 85% of commercial activities operating for the national and foreign populations. 

RJ: One last question: are you feeling optimistic about next year in Mexico and the seasons that are happening now in Peru and Colombia?

Fabian: Yes! For next year we expect to see even higher coffee production, strengthen our commercial relationships, and look for new strategies to find new farmers. This year was very difficult for coffee farmers, and they will need the next seasons to overcome this 2020 crisis. I feel very optimistic about what we’ll see in the 2021 harvest.

 

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

 

Puno, Better Than Ever

Puno coffee—if you’ve had it, you know it’s unforgettable. Puno is one of the most exclusive and renowned growing regions in all of Latin America, and while we buy all the volume we can from our producing partners there, there just isn’t that much. The coffees are some of the best we taste all year not just in Peru, but in the whole world. Puno coffees have a dedicated following and are typically gone before they arrive, so we may not talk about them very often. But Puno, located in the South of Peru where Red Fox started, is a huge part of our story.

Members of what is now Red Fox had been working in neighboring Southern Peru region Cusco since 2006, but were pushed out in 2007 by a large, corrupt cooperative union that ruled the Cusco region and all the groups within with an iron fist, preventing us from buying coffee at higher prices and maintaining traceability. When we were pushed out of Cusco, we connected with trade partners in Puno and started working there in 2008, meeting producers and tasting their coffees, which were (and are) truly exceptional.

After tasting the incredibly floral offerings that come from Putina Punco at the 2008 National Cafe Y Cacao board competition, which governs coffee trade in Peru and held an annual COE-style competition and auction 10 years before the inaugural COE Peru, we met with Tibed Yujra, who was at the time the head of quality control for a large cooperative union based in Puno. During that visit, we cupped through a veritable ton of coffee with the cooperative: the ten best, they sent back to auction, and the rest, we bought. We’ve been buying Puno coffees since then.

Over time, we struggled with the cooperative union in that area, and they dealt with high turnover. Tibed left and did consulting and QC work elsewhere, and we met back up with him in Cusco after that region reopened to us, coming to work for us shortly thereafter. We discovered that the cooperative union we worked with in Puno wasn’t paying the full prices back to producers that we had promised and paid to the organization. After a few years navigating the situation in Puno as best we could and trying to get money back to the producers, Tibed left Red Fox and started his own company in Puno, helping us connect with producers and make sure they get paid the prices we promise them as well as helping them maximize the coffee’s potential. This year, we’re more excited than ever about Puno.

Puno, and specifically the subregion of the Sandia Valley where the producers we work with live, is home to some of the original Bourbon the UN brought there in the 80s in order to combat the growing coca trade. Because the UN isn’t a coffee organization, they brought Bourbon instead of the hybrids that became so ubiquitous throughout Latin America, a decision that was key to the coffee landscape as it currently exists. Most of the farmers there are smallholders, growing on an average 2.5 hectares of land.

The reason there’s so little coffee coming out of Puno each year is that despite the UN’s efforts, the coca trade has since reclaimed most of the Sandia Valley. The farmers we work with are some of the last coffee growers in the area. While some farmers are coerced into growing coca, others are understandably attracted to the faster, multiple growing seasons and higher prices coca promises. We’re excited to see Tibed organizing to make sure fair coffee profits get back to the farmers remaining in Puno and we see many good things on the horizon for this unique subregion this year and into the future.

In addition to Putina Punco, we buy coffee from Massiapo, Quiquira, and Yanahuaya, all within a relatively close vicinity within the Sandia Valley. Sandia Valley flavors are extremely dynamic, more so than any other region in Peru. The Caturra coffees in the area have a prolific combination of sweetness and acidity, with dark fruit character like both red and black currants and a crisp, apple character with both weight, sweetness, and a refreshing malic acidity like both apple and pear. When you roast them, they’re complete and balanced as well as nuanced and dynamic. That’s what the Caturra is like, but when you hit pockets of Bourbon you find coffees that come with flavors you associate strongly with East Africa: floral, complex, and intensely sweet, like honeysuckle and hard candy. They may not have the level of complexity to the acidity as Ethiopian coffees, but the dynamic of sweetness is unmatched.

 

Interested in sourcing coffee with us? Reach out at info@redfoxcoffeemerchants.comTo learn more about our work, check out our journal and follow us on Instagram @redfoxcoffeemerchants, Twitter @redfoxcoffeeSpotify, and YouTube.

FUDAM’s Raquel Lasso Talks Differentiation, Ecoforestry, & Covid-19

After over 12 years working with FUDAM leader Raquel Lasso to source coffee from Nariño, Colombia, we wanted to open the floor for Raquel to speak directly to the specialty coffee market. Some background on Raquel: she’s an innovative leader who inspires the best work from her community and gives it in return. In conjunction with her work in FUDAM, she formed a group called Manos de Mujeres that focuses on the empowerment of women growers within her community. Coffee growing can be a macho, male-dominated field, and a group that’s women-led and hyperinclusive adds a huge amount of value to the larger community. Their projects include getting the group FTO certified to increase income (especially for producers on the lower end of the quality spectrum) and opening an organic fertilizer facility so that organic production doesn’t come at the expense of productivity or conservation. To read more about the smallholder communities of FUDAM and Manos de Mujeres, click here.  

What follows is an interview with Raquel, first aired via the Foxhole on August 14th, 2020, edited for length and clarity, and translated from Spanish to English by Red Fox’s Ali Newcomb. Raquel has a lot to say to the specialty market, and we’re happy to help her build the space for producers to talk directly to consumers.  

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

Raquel: I was born into a coffee producing family. As long as I can remember, I remember waking up to the sound of the coffee depulper. The most beautiful memories of my childhood are of being alongside the harvest, the wet milling, the selling of coffee, and enjoying the result of that sale. Coffee production has been the engine of development in our area. Because of coffee, many families have been able to get ahead. 

My family was big, and of the nine only two of us were able to study to become professionals. For me, and later for my brother Jeremias, my father’s vision was that we could acquire more knowledge, so that we could lead a happier, more beautiful life, a life where things were done with clarity. When I entered university, my father said to me, “I’m not sending you to university so that later you can look after me. I need you to go to university so that you do something for people like us: humble, without knowledge, and many have taken advantage of that lack of information to harm us, to not give us what is fair, to ignore us.” At that moment I understood his logic: I need you to work so that people don’t treat other people the way they treated me. And that has been our endeavor in life. 

We have to make it so that others live better, so that others have better prospects in life, and that’s what we’re doing. Jeremias and I, and I say this not with pride, but with truth, we have spent our lives trying to make it so that the history of our people, of our neighbors and our friends is written beautifully, and that all of us can have an abundant life. They raised my father under the logic that you had to be poor to go to heaven. Our logic is the opposite, it’s to live well, to have an abundant life, to have what you need. And do what we can so that others have a beautiful and abundant life. I think we came here to build heaven together with everyone else.

Aleco: To go deeper with that, what led you to start FUDAM?

Raquel: When we started FUDAM in 2000, we were clear on several ideas and one of those is that we, the producers, have a lot to do with degrading the environment because of poor agricultural practices, not just in coffee but in all crops. FUDAM was born with the idea of starting, among the producers, to improve and change those agricultural practices to minimize negative influence on the environment.

We realized we needed to continue with that ancestral tradition of helping our neighbors, of helping those who live close to you, of making those regular visits that families make. I remember when I was young lots of people dropped by my house. Nowadays those visits are more limited, and with the pandemic even more. We knew that as an organization we had to continue with those traditions of social interconnectivity among families. 

On the economic front, we were aware that the problem for coffee producers is that they are the ones who work hardest, assume the greatest risk, but earn the least. On the other hand, the trader assumes the least risk, works the least, and earns the most. If I send a load of coffee, and something happens to that coffee along the way, the one who loses is the producer. The trader isn’t going to say, “listen, there was a problem and I’ll pay for it.” No. 

We experimented with trading beans, trading vegetables, trading fruit, but it was very complicated, because of unfair competition, lack of working capital, and also logistical challenges, especially transport because transporting fruit is very complicated. We realized that coffee, unlike fruits and vegetables, had greater potential because it has a guaranteed market. We could have a more effective impact on coffee producing families, not only from an environmental perspective, but also from an economic perspective and familial perspective. In that endeavor we realized that coffee was a product with the potential to develop a commercial process using the logic that everything should be shared. You share the profits, you share the workload, and you have to share some of the risks. 

Aleco, I remember that you came many years ago with a man named George. You were really young. We realized that there was a good market for quality coffee, that it was possible to produce quality coffee, coffee that could be differentiated, and that it was possible to have a traceability system in coffee. Those are all of the things we at FUDAM had always wished for. We discovered that for us, as smallholder producers, producing high-quality coffee was the viable option. For the large scale producer, because they have a lot of coffee, the little they earn per kilo adds up. For us smallholder producers, if we don’t earn much on our small quantities, we are left with nothing. 

We started to do that work of quality, of differentiation, of traceability. Now there are other groups that work similarly, but back then we were the only ones who worked that way.

Aleco: How has the power disparity between traders and producers informed the way FUDAM operates?

Raquel: When I receive the coffee from our members, sell that coffee, and receive premiums for the better quality of that coffee, the majority of that additional payment has to go to the producer because the producer is the one who does the majority of the work, that puts in the majority of the effort and who takes on the majority of the risk. 

For us, that focus on ethics was easy. Why? Because we are coffee producers, we know what it is to wake up early, we know the whole coffee production process. So, if we know the production process, what is our philosophy? I treat my fellow coffee producers the same way I would like to be treated, with honesty and with transparency. I like things to be transparent, to be just, and to be clear and that’s how we work at FUDAM. We take that price premium and we transfer it to the producers. We only take what is necessary to cover the costs for the process of commercializing that coffee, the logistical costs. 

Aleco: Can you talk about some of the biggest challenges FUDAM faces in general? 

Raquel: As an organization of smallholder producers, our biggest bottleneck is working capital. Because of producing families’ economic circumstances, they need to bring their coffee to the FUDAM warehouse and be paid immediately. For the moment to get this capital, we not only take out bank loans, we also take out personal loans, and personal loans are very expensive and very complicated. Now, in these times with the pandemic, I started to think about a lot of things. I have a personal loan, and if something happens to me, what happens to my family? What happens to my daughter? My children? But if I have a bank loan it’s much easier, because with a bank loan there’s insurance, there are possibilities for the person who takes out the loan. 

This year, fortunately, we did have credit from the bank, even though we also had to take out personal loans. But FUDAM’s endeavor is that, to reach the point where we don’t need to, and hopefully there is time in this life and this virus doesn’t knock on our doors. 

Aleco: Can you tell me a little about how you’ve diversified production at FUDAM and what you’re currently working on with respect to ecology?

Raquel: We need to reconvert our coffee production into what we call agroforestry. I produce coffee, but I also have other products on my farm that not only increase my income, that not only feed me, but that also contribute to improving the environment. It’s a beautiful process, and the farms here are very different than the monocrop farms of 20 years ago. These farms have avocado, lemons, bananas, yucca, beans, other products that help to improve the quality of life of the family. We’re in the midst of turning our coffee plots into diversified gardens. I connect vegetable plots to food security, but I think of a garden as something whole, something varied, where you have absolutely everything. Thanks to the support of our buyers and roasters we’re achieving it. It hasn’t been easy, but we’re doing the work, and I know that with everyone’s support we’re going to go far. 

Aleco: You’ve talked a little about power dynamics between traders and producers. Can you say more about how FUDAM fits into that and where roasters fit as well?

Raquel: We all have to do our part. The producer does their part. We as an association and as producers do our part, the buyer does their part, the roaster does their part and the consumer does their part. I think it’s very cool that a roaster, in the US or anywhere, can know about us and we can have them visit and they know that if they drink a cup of coffee and pay a good price for that coffee, part of that good price is to reach the producing family here so that things don’t get stuck along the way. We are a private organization, and as a private company we should show ourselves and everyone that you can work honorably and transparently.

At the public level we have seen, if you do an analysis of the coffee sector in Nariño, it’s received more than 60 billion pesos but if you ask a coffee producing family how much of that they received, they won’t have an answer. If you go to that producer and ask, how much did you receive from FUDAM in premiums? They’ll be able to tell you without a problem, 500 thousand, one million, two million. Last year one producer received 7 million pesos for his coffee. If you ask a group of coffee producers: how has the government modified your quality of life, they’ll be left thinking, and likely won’t have an answer. But if you ask them: how has FUDAM contributed to changes in your quality of life? Without a problem someone will raise their hand and say, for me my life changed in this, in this and in this. And they are real, concrete things. So we do see, in coffee production, very good potential to contribute so that all of us as coffee producers modify and improve our quality of life.

Aleco: Could you tell us how the harvest is going?

Raquel: The harvest is coming to the end, the only coffee left is from the highest areas. This year was really hard, there was very little coffee because there was a lot of renovation. I didn’t think it would have such an impact on the harvest, but it was very hard. The pandemic also didn’t allow for harvest and wet milling to happen at the opportune time. The quality of the coffee declined. 

Aleco: I know that the prices on the local market have also been unusually high due to the pandemic. How did that affect FUDAM? 

Raquel: For the producer it’s excellent. The producer wants to seize the moment and sell their coffee at a higher price. But it has made things difficult for us. For one, because for us as organizations collecting coffee it is difficult because of the lack of working capital. Higher priced coffees mean a lot of upfront investment for us. But for the producers it’s great. 

I also feel bad because there was very little coffee in our area. It would have been a great opportunity for our producers, but unfortunately last year the prices were low and people renovated their farms. Hopefully next year there is more production, and hopefully the prices stay high. 

Aleco: How else has the pandemic affected the producing areas and farmers?

Raquel: For us as farmers, as residents of the countryside, the truth is the pandemic has provided an opportunity for us to spend more time on our farms and be in closer contact with our plants, to be in closer contact with our surroundings. We have been blessed, blessed because to be confined to a house in the countryside where there is coffee, where there are animals, where there is a vegetable plot, where there are things that aren’t confinement, that’s pleasure. 

But it’s worrisome to see the people who live in very small quarters, 50 square meters or 60 square meters must be disastrous. 

Also for us coffee producers, this pandemic has been a moment to look within ourselves and say what have I done and what do I still have left to do? This pandemic taught me that when the time comes of being faced with the end it makes you think, what am I taking away from this, and what I take away is what I did for the rest, and what I leave is the memory people have of me, so one way of not dying is to stay in the hearts of those you leave behind, to do something to remain in the hearts of everyone else. 

Aleco: How else has it affected you economically?

Raquel: From an economic perspective the pandemic has hit us hard. For example, we had to go out to the “corregimientos,” which are a nucleus of producers or of several communities, because a lot of our producers are older. So we loaded up the roaster and lab equipment and went up there to cup and receive the coffees to avoid producer risk.

I would tell my producers, it makes me nervous that the next time we have a meeting we have to ask which of our members are missing. That would be very painful. The idea is that we protect each other, and if you think that by not coming here your odds are better we’ll go to you. It increases our costs and complexity, but we’ve done it and we’re satisfied because our producers are more relaxed. In the warehouse we say “come, leave your coffee, I’ll weigh it, and go. And I’ll call you on the phone to let you know what happened with your coffee so that there aren’t any problems.”

Aleco: Has the pandemic affected your community’s health at this time? 

Raquel: The farms at FUDAM didn’t have too many complications because the farms are integrated: we have bananas, yucca, sugar cane, there isn’t a lack of fruit or vegetables, so it was easier to feed the family. To date none of our members have had any health problems related to COVID, but it has been an effort for everyone to try to come out ahead and try to overcome this. 

This is something where you tell yourself, I have to live and protect myself and do what it takes to get through this moment. I think we’re close to the end of the tunnel.

Aleco: How do you see this affecting the future of coffee production in your community? What types of support do you think are needed to create a viable future?

Raquel: One of the challenges that I see is that we need to start implementing strategies to get our youth to stay in coffee production with us. Sometimes we sit down at the top of our land and we look out and think, who is going to look after this when I am gone? At FUDAM we’ve realized that one of the ways that our youth will stay in the countryside and continue to produce coffee is by making coffee production an activity that is highly profitable. How do I make it so that coffee production is highly profitable? 

By producing coffee that is differentiated, good coffee that meets the needs of the consumer. I told my producers they have to focus on this. If some day a roaster from the US tells you that they want you to send them coffee with square beans we’ll have to find a way to make them square. And that’s where communication is important: for buyers to communicate what they desire so that we can satisfy the needs of consumers and establish long-term relationships. 

I see coffee production as having a future, but we have to be more precise. We have to standardize the processes because there are producers who produce good coffee this year, and next year, nothing. We don’t have standardized processes—sometimes we don’t have records of our processes. There are very few producers who can tell you this is how many hours I fermented my coffee this year, this is how it turned out. The complication is that our producers are older and sometimes when the years catch up to you and your expectations are not as high, it’s the same to you to produce coffee well or not. That’s why we need our youth to be the coffee producers of the future and make sure that they learn from us, that the way we learned from our parents, our children and grandchildren learn from us. 

If you come to my house and I want to make you a good cup of coffee, I  will put everything into making that good cup of coffee. I put all my effort into my empanadas so that they turn out as well as possible but if I make coffee carelessly, how is it going to come out well? We, as coffee producers, need to put love, care, to put our hearts into it, and that will be reflected in the product. I am very metaphysical and I do believe that love, that hope that one puts into producing coffee remains immersed in that coffee and that’s the good flavor that we all taste.

Aleco: Gracias Raquel, drinking coffee at your house is the best, but we could never talk to you without talking about the empanadas. They’re the best empanadas in the whole world, I’ve never had better. Thank you, Raquel.

 

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

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.

Covid At The Farm Level: Inzá & Nariño, Colombia

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

Background: Covid-19 in Colombia 

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

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

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

 

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

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

Remote Rural Communities Afford Some Protections

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

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

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

Effects on Community Health

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

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

Lasso has seen similar upsides. “For us as farmers, as residents of the countryside, the truth is the pandemic has provided an opportunity for us to spend more time on our farms and be in closer contact with our plants, to be in closer contact with our surroundings,” she says. “We have been blessed, blessed because to be confined to a house in the countryside where there is coffee, where there are animals, where there is a vegetable plot, where there are things that aren’t confinement, that’s pleasure.” 

For Lasso, it’s also been a cause for introspection. “This pandemic has been a moment to look within ourselves and say what have I done and what do I still have left to do?” she tells us. “This pandemic taught me that when the time comes of being faced with the end it makes you think, what am I taking away from this, and what I take away is what I did for the rest, and what I leave is the memory people have of me, so one way of not dying is to stay in the hearts of those you leave behind, to do something to remain in the hearts of everyone else.”

She also adds that the community health ramifications of Covid-19 have so far been less severe because the farms of FUDAM are diversified rather than monocropped, a priority of FUDAM’s. “We have bananas, yucca, sugar cane, there isn’t a lack of fruit or vegetables, so it was easier to feed the family. To date none of our members have had any health problems related to COVID, but it has been an effort for everyone to try to come out ahead and try to overcome this.” 

But, she says, “It makes me nervous that the next time we have a meeting we have to ask which of our members are missing. That would be very painful.” 

Effects on Business and Finance

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

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

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

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

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

The pandemic has also created logistical difficulty for these small, remote groups. “From an economic perspective the pandemic has hit us hard,” says Lasso. The complexity of collecting parchment from neighborhoods and at-risk individuals increases cost and complexity for FUDAM. “We protect each other, and if you think that by not coming here your odds are better, we’ll go to you. It increases our costs and complexity, but we’ve done it and our producers are more relaxed.” 

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

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

Rural Smallholders Know How To Face Uncertainty 

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

 

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