A Mutual Evolution: Caravela Nicaragua’s William Ortiz, on helping people grow coffee, and how coffee helps people grow.
A Mutual Evolution: Caravela Nicaragua’s William Ortiz, on helping people grow coffee, and how coffee helps people grow
6 Minutes Read
By William Ortiz
Nicaragua Country Manager
When I began working in the coffee industry, I never gave much thought to where – or how far – my job would take me. The story of my career in coffee is definitely not a typical one; when you consider the son of a Colombian coffee grower, you wouldn’t immediately imagine that he would someday end up as the Country Manager of a coffee exporter in Nicaragua. Well, here I am, but before telling my story, I want you to know that this wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for my persistence, daring, ambition, and willingness to grow personally and professionally.
I come from a traditional Colombian coffee-growing family, and grew up on our farm Finca El Vergel in Oporapa, Huila. While I was always diligent about taking advantage of school vacations to assist my father on the farm, I never truly considered a life participating in the family business, as I knew my three siblings were there to help my father run things. In 2004, I left Oporapa for Bogota, to study Marketing and Sales. However, after six months I had to return to Oporapa due to an unfortunate family situation. While I was there, my father discussed coffee, implying that he wanted me to start working on the farm with him. My father wasn’t in a very good place at that moment, so I decided to give up on college, and stay on the farm to help.
Around that time I heard that Virmax (now Caravela) was hosting a three-day cupping training session in Pitalito, and they had invited the San Roque Association, an organization in Oporapa co-founded by my father along with other coffee producers in the region. My father wanted me to attend, but I wasn’t part of the association, and I had no point of contact with Virmax. My father went to speak with the association, who said I could attend along with their cuppers. I was aware that there would be people from Bogota at this event, but I didn’t know that in addition the training component, Virmax were looking for cuppers to work with them. Following three days of calibration, Alejandro Cadena asked me if I wanted to go to Bogota with them and continue training. Honestly, I felt like I didn’t have a clue about cupping; the only thing I could think at that moment was that any “skill” I demonstrated was just pure luck, and that I was not a good cupper. I shared with Alejandro my concern about their decision to invite me to Bogota, and my belief that I simply wasn’t good enough and would ultimately disappoint them. But I still remember his words, “I trust you William, I see your potential.”
I spent two intensive months in Bogota and Popayan training with Fernando Gómez, learning about the entire QC process, and how to really cup coffee. Then one day, at age 18, I signed my first ever labor contract with a company, and I headed to Pitalito to work for Caravela. Back then, Caravela only purchased four containers of coffee annually from Pitalito, Oporapa, and Timaná. I traveled throughout Huila, meeting producers, starting new relationships, and opening cupping labs and warehouses in the small towns of Gigante, Tarqui, San Adolfo, Palestina, and San Agustin, among others. Initially, I solely cupped coffees, but eventually my role broadened, and I started taking on additional responsibilities. After a few years, my remit included training the new staff that joined our QC team, and choosing which quality analysts would travel to Bogota to receive training from Fernando. Then, I was no longer the coffee buyer, but instead the Regional Coordinator for the South of Huila.
As our purchasing volumes increased, I continued to grow as a person and as a professional, while becoming more familiar with the customers from around the world who came to visit. I had the opportunities to participate as a national and international jurist in various Cup of Excellence competitions in Colombia. Over time, I developed a reputation among roasters; in some cases, I had direct relationships with these customers, and they started trusting me to find the best Colombian coffees for them. As I got to know and understand these customers, I began creating long-term relationships between roasters and farmers, relationships that still exist today.
One day, I realized it made no sense that staff from the Bogota office had to travel down to Huila to translate for our customers, and I made a commitment to start learning English. After beginning lessons on my own, Alejandro and Giancarlo recognized my initiative and offered me the opportunity to travel to our office in North Carolina, and spend a few months strengthening my language skills and familiarizing myself with our import operations.
In 2015, after a decade of working in Pitalito, I decided to apply for a job opening as Quality Coordinator in Nicaragua. Earlier that year, I’d had the opportunity to spend a month there, sharing knowledge and helping our team while learning about Nicaragua’s coffee industry. Caravela Nicaragua was a fledgling operation, and I thought it was a good opportunity for me to continue growing and develop my career. It was a massive change to move from Colombia to Nicaragua, but precisely because of this, I knew that I could create a bigger impact there. I could transfer all of the knowledge that I learned in Colombia to farmers in Nicaragua. I was selected for the position and left for Nicaragua in November 24th, 2015. Upon arriving, I had to start from scratch, as we were just getting off the ground (quite literally, in the case of our raised drying beds!) I had to build a team and infrastructure, all while getting acquainted with farmers, and of course the qualities and profiles that Nicaragua has to offer the specialty world.
After just a over a year in Nicaragua, Alejandro Cadena informed me that our Country Manager in Nicaragua was leaving the company, and asked me if I wanted to take responsibility and become the new Country Manager. Honestly, I didn’t feel capable of doing so; it seemed too big a challenge for me. Still, I kept returning to that similar moment back in Pitalito, when Alejandro told me that he trusted me and believed in me. I said yes to the offer, but made it clear couldn’t do it by myself; I would need their support. Alejandro assured me there would be help and guidance. With that, I accepted the challenge.
My first year in Nicaragua wasn’t easy, the cultural transition being particularly difficult. I come from a country where coffee growers laugh, joke, and are very happy and extremely hospitable. During my years in Colombia, I didn’t just build commercial partnerships with farmers; we became friends, and I was close to their families. In Nicaragua, farmers are often more reserved, self-conscious, and serious. Nicaragua is a country that has lived with war for many years, a country characterized by political differences. Since the war in 1980, the Nicaraguan people have lived with grief and resentment. Adding to these issues, salaries in Nicaragua are quite low, which can lead to insecurities and lack of trust. Since the start of my time in Nicaragua, I understood that I had a real challenge.
However, I also possessed a genuine advantage, something that not everyone had and something which made my life in Nicaragua easier than I’d imagined: I had Caravela’s DNA, and Caravela’s values were ever present. My life with Caravela has been my university. Back in Colombia, I didn’t simply form a team and train it, I learned everything required to produce specialty coffee, and I understood what it took to build a fruitful and sustainable relationship with a farmer. I can say everything that I learned in Colombia formed the foundation from which I was able to move forward in Nicaragua. I always make my decisions based on Caravela’s values and principles.
I knew the best way to build trust with these coffee growers: being present, listening, giving advice, letting them know that their extra work was worth it, recognizing their improvement, and having faith in their success. Some producers would come up with tough and challenging questions, but when they realized that we’re dedicated and experienced, we started to gain that trust. But overall, the one thing that you must have with coffee growers to build trust and consolidate a relationship, is empathy. One needs to be open, talk with the farmer, break the ice, understand coffee growers’ concerns, and share with them possible strategies or solutions. This trust is not something that you achieve in one conversation; it requires time, and coffee growers must see results.
What makes me proudest of what I’ve achieved in Nicaragua as a Country Manager is the team that I have built. We have an outstanding group. Everything that Alejandro and Giancarlo practiced with me, I practiced with my team: I empowered them, I made them feel they were part of this growth and this process, I encouraged them to suggest new ideas. They valued this approach, and now they feel confident and they trust me and the company.
There is a very special case of a young man who used to receive the coffee and carry the coffee bags to the drying patios. He seemed really responsive and attentive, so I offered him the job of drying station manager. One day, I realized that without being asked to, he was keeping perfect track of all the wet coffee delivered into our drying station with their respective initial weight, lot number, producer, etc. Today, this man is one of our QC analysts in La Concordia, Jinotega. Recently he traveled to Guatemala to calibrate with our team there, and I received really positive feedback from our QC Coordinator there. This is but one example of a trajectory I’ve been fortunate to witness many times. I really like being able to change someone’s life, because Caravela changed mine, and it’s deeply rewarding and gratifying to facilitate the same process with other people who embody the same willingness, ambition, daring, and persistence that characterized me. I have always believed that I must share what I know, and that we should not be selfish. If we all share what we know within a team, we will work more easily and efficiently.
The most beautiful part of working at Caravela for so long, is that it has been a mutual growth. I saw Caravela grow from 4 containers per year to over 200 containers, while they saw me evolve from an 18-year-old kid who had no idea about cupping, to being the Country Manager of Nicaragua. As I mentioned before, my university was Caravela, where I didn’t just learn about coffee; I learned about the values that guide one’s life, such as transparency and empathy.
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