Checking Your Cultural Bias at the Door

Will help you build stronger relationships at origin

   4 Minutes Read

By Salomé Puentes
Relationship Builder
  • Engaging with communities is always tricky. Not only is it about wanting to get involved, wanting to create change or to help, but making an impact is also about really understanding and engaging with the culture. This means empathizing with different ways of living and the perspectives of the people you want to interact with. How your support or help is given must be done in a way that won’t damage their culture or affect their development. Understanding what is really going on behind the scenes is hard and requires consciousness of your own cultural bias as well as being humble and open to ways of life that may be very different from your own. It is also of huge significance when building working relationships, not only to make sure that both parties are content but also establishing limits on what is acceptable for both.

    An example of how understanding cultural differences was put into practice is shown by this experience with indigenous communities in San Marcos, Guatemala.

    It all began by tasting the raw material which we work with. After carrying out a lot of cupping sessions in our labs on the ground, some “stars” started showing up. These were intriguing coffees, different from the rest: floral and bright, fruity and complex. Finding possible stars is always exciting and challenging, but this is only the first of many steps. After selecting these "stars" from San Marcos, we needed to get to know the producers, to try and find out as much as we could about them, to understand them and their motivations, to analyze their farming techniques and start a long-term relationship with them. We needed to understand all this to create a plan with our PECA team to improve farm management in order to achieve consistency and better quality.


    However, penetrating these communities is not easy. San Marcos is very far from any major city in Guatemala and the entry barriers associated with working with indigenous communities are not insignificant, but we made it! To achieve this, we had to go through a local contact to introduce us to the communities. Once contact was made we had to earn their trust. We did this with the help of our team of Agronomists who started working with the producers, listening to their concerns and stories, and then planning several improvements at the farm level. This being something relatively challenging as Guatemala is a country, like many in Central America, with only one harvest a year, meaning any significant improvements would not be seen until the following harvest.

    After the first encounter with these coffees we realized that these were coffees with high potential. At Caravela we are always looking out for quality-minded coffee growers who produce high quality coffees with specific profiles to match what we know our customers are looking for. With San Marcos coffees, we were confident that we had found a possible match.

    We had to make sure that along with the good coffees we would be also working with producers that showed great potential and would be committed to making necessary improvements. However, we knew that we had to show these families that these improvements were worth making and would lead to higher incomes and better quality of life for them. We met many producers in San Marcos and even after our PECA team had individually connected and worked with each of these families, there was still some distrust. It is not hard to understand why after centuries of mistreatment and foul play from coffee middlemen that used to buy their coffees. Understanding what is truly important for these individuals means understanding their past and how it affected their culture and way of living. After spending time with the majority of the people living in these communities we began to understand certain aspects that were important for making a real connection. As small as they may seem, a good sense of humor, respect for all family members and an open invitation (that they took up) to see how we evaluated their coffees, from parchment to cup, resulted in us working with them.


    After successfully finding these coffees, building a relationship with the producers, and having the honor to be welcomed into their families, we were finally ready to contact our possible match. Olympia Coffee Roasters has a history of working with individual producers and was open to expanding their Guatemala sourcing program. They were very excited to hear about San Marcos: “San Marcos has a network of small scale producers. Our success with other producers of a similar size and in similar locations, while working with Caravela [...] gives us hope that we can reach our goals. We value Caravela's network of PECA support for producers, we value Caravela's transparency, we value Caravela's development of direct meaningful relationship with the producers."

    This type of understanding from the roaster is not always easy to find, someone who is willing to invest in farms with potential being realized in the future. Being clear about the long-term results and time goals is key. As Oliver says, “We hope to see great coffees by year three.” Practice makes perfect, these producers will gain confidence in knowing that someone has already recognized their potential and is ready to support them year after year. “Long term relationships are mutually beneficial for roaster and producer. It adds meaning to the work we do in coffee, it's not simply a commodity, we can truly have a positive impact on the world,” said Oliver.


    Right now, we are in our first year of this relationship and will keep you updated with any future developments. When we first started this project, we were fully aware of cultural differences that might have had the potential to complicate the development of a fruitful relationship. However, leaving our own cultural biases at the door, meant we, as facilitators, were able to merge two different worlds together, creating a relationship that will bring prosperity to both roaster and producer. Now, we can feel their gratitude for being present, for visiting, and for investing in their communities. The best feeling is being able to be part of their journey and see them improve over time. We just want to be their business partners, develop long-term relationships with these beautiful families and get closer to sourcing great coffee. This win-win-win situation, will sure generate a positive impact in this community.

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