By Tracy Ging
with Julie Barrett O’Brien
In the 1970’s,
El Salvador was the third largest coffee importer in the world and the first in productivity. Unfortunately, it fell off the radar screen during a period of internal strife. Today, however, El Salvador is working diligently to rebuild its economy and regain its position in the coffee industry. With decades now between a past that includes civil war and a devastating earthquake, the most fitting idiom of the country’s description is, “El Salvador is back.” Why? Because the Salvadoran government and coffee industry are proud, motivated, and prepared to spread the word. During a recent visit to the country, I witnessed numerous examples of this commitment.
As part of a delegation coordinated and led by Chemonics International, Inc., with the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), I traveled to El Salvador with executive-level marketers of leading roasters and retailers from the U.S. and Canada. During our tour, we met with high-ranking officials, representatives from the coffee associations, and most importantly, the farmers, the workers, and the people in the communities whose lives rely so heavily on coffee production. We were fortunate to experience elements of El Salvador that many never see. Julie Barrett O’Brien, of North Bridge Strategies, was retained by Chemonics as a strategic marketing consultant to lead the group in dissecting and uncovering the secrets to building a bridge between origin and coffee consumers.
Even the vice president of El Salvador, Ana Vilma de Escobar, joined the group to talk about the government’s input in the industry. She set the tone, as her message was reinforced throughout our stay -- El Salvador is committed to the coffee industry at all levels in both the public and private sectors. Prior to this post, the vice president spent ten years working with USAID, managing over $50 million in projects to develop exports for the country and secure foreign investments. She continues to lead the foreign investment agency, and since 1994, this has doubled to nearly $700 million. These investments are important stabilizers for the economy and have led El Salvador to be ranked by the World Economics Forum as having the most growth potential in Central America, and the third most in Latin America.
As much of an honor it was to meet the vice president, we were anxious to move onto the coffee farms. The next day, we began a week of rising at six a.m., followed by hours on a bus to see a variety of farms. We also toured all of the major producing regions. While visiting producers, we were impressed with their advancements in wet milling, the increase in the number of certifications, and overall, how well managed the cooperatives were. But most striking was the connection between the co-ops and the communities. They were investing into community development projects, not because they wanted to be able to command a higher price, but because they are genuinely concerned about social and environmental issues. As one producer said, “For us, at the Cooperative San José de La Majada, ecology is a key factor when cultivating and processing our coffee. We make a permanent effort to protect natural forests, replant our plantations and conserve water sources in the area, which helps to promote biodiversity. We feel proud that our coffee growing area is part of the regional biological corridor which facilitates the migration of different species of fauna.”
Our first stop was to Coop Ciudad Barrios. Founded in 1972, the co-op has 985 members. This includes some Rainforest Alliance certified farms, as well as a tree nursery and disease control laboratory. Ciudad Barrios has received awards for its ecological conservation and social practices and exports some 65,000 quintals of coffee. Led by Guillermo Belloso, of SalvaNATURA, a member of the Sustainable Agriculture Network, we joined multiple producers in the back of eight small pickup trucks. We then climbed narrow dirt roads to inspect the cooperative’s certified coffee farms in the Cacahuatique mountain range. The view was spectacular and demonstrated the clear difference between Rainforest Certification and traditionally grown farms.
The next day we visited PROEXCAFE, a cooperative association, and met with eight small grower co-op members, who shared with us their managing experiences through the years of low coffee prices. We were fortunate to spend time with a producer that has been growing coffee his entire life. He said his children, like others who were educated in the United States during El Salvador’s civil war, are unlikely to work in the family coffee business once he retires. Struggling with this thought, he shrugged and smiled in a way that revealed his disappointment, yet also acknowledged their difficult decision. Although the coffee crisis has reduced the attractiveness of coffee farming for younger generations, is has also presented an opportunity for farmers to combine their efforts and develop new systems of management. These farmers are evidently resilient, and working together has helped the co-op members to collectively raise the quality of their production, while focusing on building a sustainable system of production. In addition to milling and exporting assistance, PROEXCAFE provides its members with technical assistance, training, market information, and other marketing support. The group exports 7,000 quintals of coffee annually.
We got our first taste of Salvadoran coffee at Cooperativa La Majada, which was founded in 1966 by a group of visionaries interested in obtaining better results in growing, processing and merchandising their coffee. The majority of its 400 members are small farmers, and together they export over 74,000 quintals of coffee each year. Traditional Bourbon and Pacas’ varieties comprise 97% of the coffee production. We were impressed with its good acidity, mild and clean flavors, excellent sweetness and rich aromas. Also, we had the chance to talk with several farmers and leaders of the co-op, including a fiery woman whose strength and passion was inspiring. I asked her about the issues facing women and how they were addressing them, and she proudly listed the programs she personally spearheaded to provide women training and education, as well as opportunities to diversify their base of income. She then walked us through a medical clinic that had been recently built. The waiting room was full of mothers and children, none of whom were too sick to giggle and marvel at the digital photos we were taking of them. Such routine care was something previously unavailable. The most touching part of the story, however, was that the clinic is due to a roaster in our industry that believes that quality deserves a premium, and has purchased La Majada coffee at prices above the C market.
After La Majada, we traveled the Amatepec coffee route through beautiful villages on our way to Finca Siciniapa. If there was ever a time to fully grasp and celebrate the importance of our visit to El Salvador, this was it. Hosted by Exportadora El Volcan, we were welcomed to the farm with a first hand coffee picking competition, followed by a folklore performance about the coffee industry’s influence on El Salvador’s culture and communities. The competition was eye opening. Not only because of how difficult it is to hand pick only the best and ripest cherries, but also because we got a chance to learn about our native competition partners, their families and plight. Julie Barrett O’Brien’s partner, Doña Carolina, was no taller than 5 feet, had a huge smile, and a twinkle in her eye. When the starting bell rang, they set off, not picking…but talking. Carolina was so particular about quality, that she proceeded to throw out all the green and partially ripened beans from her basket, even though this was a fun “weight” competition. Other competitors weren’t so diligent, but Doña Carolina wouldn’t have it any other way. She prioritized quality over winning. In the end, even though they only picked six pounds in five minutes (the winning team picked 20 pounds!), they learned so much about each other. Julie asked Carolina if she liked her job, to which she responded, “Si, si.” When asked why, she said it allows her to feed her four children. It’s that simple.
The last stop was at Los Ausoles, a cooperative located in the North, near the Guatemalan border. Los Ausoles has developed an impressive water reclamation system, which is a multi-staged, natural filtration system and part of their conservation management efforts. The quality control manager proudly showed me his log book, where he recorded pH and other vitals to ensure everything was at the desired levels. This serves ad yet another reminder of how much care these farmers put into their land, not because they are required to do so, but because of their own sense of pride and the desire to preserve the beautiful surroundings in which their coffee is grown. Los Ausoles also provides hectares out behind the drying patios, exclusively for the use of their workers. They have significantly reduced their fuel usage by using power from burning the parchment/dried pergamino. And they too had an on-site medical clinic, which costs $15,000 per year to operate ($20,000 if you added a dentist).
Again we had the opportunity to cup coffees, and the cupping experts in our group were quite impressed with the Pacamara varetials. We met a farmer who claimed to be the first to grow this hybrid of Pacas and Red Maragogipe (also known as the Elephant Bean). He told us stories of how people would look at the impressively large beans and tell him he was nuts. As we know, sometimes it takes a while for a trend to catch on.
While its been a challenge to move past the negative perceptions created by ten years of civil war, it appeared to us that El Salvador has overcome that obstacle. Although there was some damage to the coffee farms during the war, the bright side is that this prevented them from planting high-yielding hybrids, and allowed them to keep most of their Bourbons and ecology intact. In redeveloping its coffee industry, El Salvador has kept its focus forward, aggressively pursuing quality improvements to meet the needs of the specialty coffee industry. Exports to this sector were up 40% last year, and have grown 266% since 2001. They have sought technical assistance from organizations, such as the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI). Through the Coffee Corps program developed by CQI, technical experts from the industry have been sent to assist with issues ranging from proper roasting techniques and organic production, to the best practices in processing. Eight assignments have been completed in the past two years, including the building of a research station available to all Salvadoran producers. So now, the main challenge becomes the same one facing the industry as a whole, creating a sustainable coffee supply. We saw first hand what can happen when a farmer earns a premium for quality, but those direct relationships can take time to build and not everyone -- nor the farmer or the buyer -- has the time and resources to devote to them.
On the drying patio at Los Ausoles, a farmer was beaming as he showed us the quality of his beans (yes, the beans can be traced back to the farm) and when asked where he was selling them, he rattled off a few big names and said the rest would probably just go for somewhere around the market price. After picking our jaws up from the patio, it became even more apparent how important it is to have an alternative to the C market. As programs such as the Q Auction, the first Internet auction dealing in commercial-sized quantities of specialty coffee, gain in popularity, an alternative market for specialty coffee is in sight. Therein lies the challenge for our side of the industry. If we want a sustainable supply of quality coffee, then we must be willing to assign a premium to that and commit to trading practices that benefit everyone.
As marketers, we couldn’t resist digging in a bit deeper and evaluating the opportunities for El Salvador. Julie used our bus time to facilitate a process of analyzing and discussing what we had seen and learned (admittedly, we wanted to take naps but we are glad we powered through to complete the exercise). She applied her expertise in marketing and corporate responsibility to help us to uncover what coffee buyers and consumers might find interesting about El Salvador. We found hard workers, well run co-ops (with a holistic view of their business, their people and their land), distinctive coffees, a national spirit of teamwork, flexibility and a willingness to respond to the needs of the market. All of which led us to the conclusion that El Salvador is back.
Indicatores Economicos, 1999-2003, Banco Central De Reserva De El Salvador
Additional information provided by the Salvadoran Coffee Council
This article was written by Tracy Ging with a significant contribution from Julie Barrett O’Brien. Tracy has more than 10 years of experience in marketing and brand development in the food and beverage industries. She is currently the director of marketing and communications for the Coffee Quality Institute. Julie Barrett O’Brien is a partner at North Bridge Strategies, a strategic communications firm that applies market-based solutions to global issues in the food, agriculture and political arenas. She has more than 15 years experience in the coffee and beverage industries and currently works with clients in the private, public and non-profit sectors.
Tea & Coffee - April/May, 2005
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