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.

 

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.

 

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!

 

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