“When we first started in 2008, we didn’t even know what kind of coffee we were drinking.”

Not so long ago, coffee producer Carlos Murcia and his family from El Salvador, La Palma, El Tunel couldn’t tell you what type of coffee they were growing. Much less what kind they were drinking. For as long as they’d been in the industry, coffee for them was just that – coffee. They grew it, they harvested, they sold it for whatever price they were offered, repeat. The idea of scoring was foreign to them – a knowledge only exporters had. Now, seven years into their participation in the PROTCAFES Project, they own their own specialty coffee brand and provide training and guidance to other producers in their community. PROTCAFES is a project in the Trifinio region of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala with the aim to improve the economic, environmental and community conditions of the coffee growing regions in the upper catchment area of the Rio Lempa. It is co-financed by International Coffee Partners and implemented by Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung (HRNS). “Now, we can assess coffee quality in any part of the area, in the mountains. We can see it in any coffee in the cooperative, as well,” Murica says proudly as he shows off his family’s own roasting room, “Now, we speak this language and we practice it.”

The transition from simplistic farmers producing coffee with a one-track mind to business producers with a holistic approach focused on quality doesn’t come overnight. “What we do is to train the coffee producers,” explains HRNS-PROTCAFES Project Coordinator, Fredy Menendez, “change their chip and give them a new way of thinking. We take the coffee producers basically from zero and make them see themselves as businessperson in coffee.” When the project first started, some of the process’s producers used were unknowingly deteriorating the quality of the coffee before it even left the field.

“Before, we just harvested the coffee,” explains Amalia Solis, a young producer in El Salvador, “and if it was possible to be able to save money, we would de-pulp the coffee after two days. But now we know that by doing that, you lose the quality. We learned that everything is a process, right from the time you fertilize it. The cutting process, the drying process, the roasting process. What we hope is to have a good coffee. And in order to have a good coffee, we must know how to fertilize it, and how to implement different processes.”

Solis and other producers in the area have realized that focusing on high quality not only improves the product, but also gives them important negotiating power in the markets that they’ve never had before. “Before the project, we always sold our coffee as parchment coffee, and we didn’t have much control over its quality,” she says. “Now we know that if we make a high quality coffee, we have better market opportunities with foreigners and within our own country. If I know about my coffee, someone from outside can’t come and tell me my coffee is bad. I will be able to say, ‘No, what you are saying isn’t true. I have a good coffee.”

Over the years he worked in the PROTCAFES Project, coordinator Menendez has noted a change in the producers’ mindsets. Their new mindfulness and efforts in their plots have paid off, winning the Chalet area in El Salvador multiple Cup of Excellence awards and increasing sale prices. “The techniques have really helped us,” says Efraín Landaverde, president of the COOPALMA Cooperative in La Palma, El Salvador, “Shade management, fertilization… Coffee doesn’t just come at the end of the process. It comes from the very beginning. From planting a lot to how you take care of it. The better you fertilize your coffee, that’s where your taste comes from.”

A fact that is not only a feeling for individual farmers. During an external evaluation in 2018, the Sustainable Markets Intelligence Center (CIMS) proofed this fact “85% of beneficiaries responded that they observed an improvement in coffee quality since entering the programs”, says HRNS M&E Manager Tobias Voigt.

As a result, farmers in project are making a margin and control farmers are making a loss. “92% of participants in the Trifinio region affirm that their livelihood has improved since beginning their participation in the program”, says Voigt.

Through trainings that introduce new knowledge, techniques and processes, producers in the Trifinio area are now understanding just how valuable a well-processed, quality bean can be. Angelino Landaverde, a producer from El Salvador, started growing specialty varieties about eight years ago. “The experience of knowing how to make good coffee is paying off in our wallets,” he says, “If I process my coffee well, I will have a good score and a good price, so that has helped coffee farmers to put in the extra effort to grow good coffee.”

Talking to the producers who have been involved in the PROTCAFES Project since the beginning, there is an echo of a one hundred and eighty degree transformation, not only as businessmen and women, but also as families and communities. “Before, we didn’t have the knowledge of how to achieve a specialty coffee. That didn’t exist. We just knew the conventional coffee, and we didn’t even know to call it conventional coffee.” Murcia explains.

“Now, we have knowledge, not just about our coffee, but in the region – which types of coffee and being grown, the varieties, the international prices. Thanks to the support we had when we learned about the chain of value in the area, of how to be able to generate the most income, my children went to college. So, this is an opportunity that has transformed the family, and not just the family, but also where we live.” For families like Murcia’s and their small businesses, the theory has been tested and proven: quality is everything.

 

Further Field Notes

Indonesia: Diversifying to be ready for a hotter and more variable coffee climate

Ibu Wonten and Pak Suripto are a smallholder coffee-farming couple that lives in Bendeng Tiga Village in the Gunung Raya highlands of OKU Selatan Regency, Indonesia. They managed to diversify and enhance the climate-resilience of their coffee farm. As a couple they...