Building an origin project is a frequent topic of discussion when traveling to coffee farms with roasters, green coffee buyers, baristas, and other coffee professionals. These projects often focus on sustainability, quality improvement at the farm level, higher prices, or aim towards offering a community benefit. However, transforming an idea into reality is not an easy task. It requires time, commitment, and resources, but it is possible when all parties share a level of dedication and work together to achieve common goals. Being an exporter and importer with an on-the-ground presence means we can be an ally for roasters who want to go further and have more profound impact at origin. In the following lines, I would like to share an incredible project and relationship that started through Los Chelazos colectivo blend.
It all starts with an idea
North Star Coffee Roasters, an award-winning coffee roastery founded by Alex Kragiopoulos and Holly Kragiopoulos located in Leeds, UK were sourcing from El Salvador ‘Los Chelazos’, a blend produced by an amazing group of small-scale farmers from the Chalatenango region. North Star fell in love with this coffee as it was one of the most versatile beans in their selection. It all started with an idea by Alex and Holly back in 2017 when visiting El Salvador. They wanted more engagement with smaller farmers while creating long-standing and impactful relationships. After many conversations, in 2018 the roastery team arranged to travel all the way from Leeds to La Palma to visit the farmers behind this colectivo. Back then, Wholesale Business Development and AST Trainer Ollie Sears and Production Manager James Fairweather set out to meet the producers and to learn firsthand from them. However, as a company they also had an ambitious plan in mind – an origin project to support one of the producers behind their Los Chelazos coffee. Like many in the coffee industry, North Star Coffee champions the virtues of connecting with farmers, learning all the ins and outs of growing coffee, and bridging the gap between producer and consumer; a task easier said than done. As a coffee company, it’s crucial to clarify your goals and motivation, and analyze how you can have an impact that is realistic and achievable. Thus, they were motivated to identify ways in which they could help improve for example worker’s lives, farm efficiencies, protect natural resources, and ultimately maintain or increase coffee quality from the producers they work with directly.
Information is Key
Prior to their visit, North Star requested our help to gain more insight about the farms and the producers, to focus everyone’s resources and time as efficiently as possible. We provided full disclosure and data based on key areas:
- What are the main production challenges each year?
- What does the QC team think could be improved to achieve superior cup quality?
- Do the farms need more resources and/or infrastructure?
- Can the farmers access good quality labor on their farms?
- Can they easily find enough pickers?
The results and information provided included a complete agronomic and technical evaluation from PECA, the QC team, and feedback from the producers as well. As a newcomer/outsider, in order to fully grasp farmers’ working culture and realities it’s important learn about the country’s culture, coffee dynamics, producers’ pain points and motivations, and understand the challenges faced by coffee communities that may not be strictly related to coffee. Collecting as much information as possible before visiting or even moving forward with an idea allows you to:
- Reconcile the information with the ‘vision’ – do they align with your plan? Are there unexpected obstacles or complications?
- Deep dive into the provided data – with these insights, is this a project you really want to pursue?
- Assign a project lead – running a roastery is a challenging job; who will devote time to follow up with the producer and your exporter/importer partner at origin?
This initial analysis will determine if it makes sense to continue evaluating the project objectives and the best course of action for your company, the producer, and your exporter/importer partner.
Finding a Coffee Producer Partner
In 2018, North Star’s lot composition was analyzed through our Transparency + Traceability reports, demonstrating the blend was comprised of deliveries from four producers. North Star had the opportunity to meet each of these producers and visit their farms, where they could see firsthand the work they were doing, their farm infrastructure and coffee plantations, and could hear from producers directly about their stories and challenges. After four days visiting and cupping in La Palma, North Star had a better sense of the context in which their Los Chelazos was produced, and were able to connect the quality of the coffee, the information provided, and their own insights, allowing them to make an important decision: they were able to select the producer who would benefit the most from an infrastructure improvement on their farm.
Maria Zoila, a small-scale coffee farmer from La Palma who contributes to Los Chelazos colectivo, was selected. Maria, in addition to being a coffee farmer, is a retired schoolteacher. She is also known in the town for the beautiful paintings she creates in her spare time. Maria owns Finca La Margarita which she, along with her late husband, has managed her entire life.
Maria does not work alone. She has been managing the farm along with Santos Humberto – her right hand. After meeting Maria and getting to know her story, North Start was able to connect with her and see where they could have the most significant impact. Her 2-hectare farm produces some of the most incredible coffees in La Palma, and North Start knew this as they had tried her coffees in the first blind cuppings at our buying station, even before knowing that Maria’s coffee was on the table!
Some of the challenges found on her farm were:
- A lack of proper drying infrastructure to process coffee on the farm, which increased costs due to outsourcing drying space in a nearby town.
- A limited de-pulping capacity. Maria relies on other farmers help to process all her coffee, another outsourced process.
- A lack of a treatment system for sewage water generated by washing the coffee
- Limited access to water with no nearby water springs, no tanks to store water for personal use, de-pulping, etc.
- A low-capacity, time-intensive manual pulper
A project in motion
After analyzing Maria’s challenges and doing a complete agronomic evaluation on the needs, production capacity, and her interest in being part of a project, we were able to present a budget adjusted to the producer’s and the roaster’s mutual goals.
We created a three-stage harvest improvement infrastructure project.
- Stage One: Improve drying spaces and decrease processing costs, providing more control over the product. This also involved training and on-site visits to guarantee a smooth and successful transition, as we were not only aiming to improve the infrastructure but also quality. This included a moisture meter and training on how to maintain records of drying times, humidity, and temperature.
- Stage Two: Install new fermentation tanks and a brand new high-capacity pulper machine. This will allow the team on the farm to optimize time and reduce the risk of cherry fermentation while it’s in coffee bags.
- Stage Three: Use bacteria to Improve the water treatment system, and adapt a specific site/space on the farm to process the pulp and use it to create fertilizers. This stage also includes installing tanks to store water
Just the beginning
After many catch-up meetings and zoom calls, we are happy to share that stage one has been completed, and the project continues to move forward. Over the next few months, a PECA team will be on the ground working with Maria and Humberto helping them monitor and adjust during the harvest to maintain quality. Also, we will be doing field schools and sharing best practices for dry-washed, natural, and honey coffees, while sharing as well with other producers from the area who have good process and quality. Additionally, Caravela has donated some GrainPro bags to Maria, to better protect and preserve her coffee while it’s in storage at the farm. All in all, going from an idea to a realized project takes time, patience, and dedication, as Maria, Holly, and Alex can attest. We, along with them, can’t wait to see (and taste!) the results.
If you are interested in becoming part of an origin project, or want to create one, read on about the steps we recommend considering beforehand. To learn more, click here.
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