What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word sustainability? Likely, it’s our effort to eliminate single use plastics, or maybe it’s our increasing awareness of the importance of supporting locally owned businesses. How does coffee fit into that picture? With many barriers and obstacles that the coffee industry has been faced with, sustainability has become a high priority topic. It is a word that calls us to action, and this is exactly what Agricafe is doing in the coffee community in Bolivia. As they watched coffee production in Bolivia decline, they thought of a solution to equip other farming families in the Caranavi region with the resources that they need to make coffee farming a sustainable way of life. Their Sol de la Mañana project was developed to support the coffee community by sharing the knowledge they have in order to help increase productivity, quality and sustainability. Now, more than 100 small coffee producers are benefiting from this program, improving their own quality of life, and improving the coffee industry in Bolivia. And in 2019, the Specialty Coffee Association awarded Sol de la Mañana winner of the Sustainable Business Model. Their passion, kindness, innovation and knowledge has propelled Bolivian coffee production forward, giving hope to the future of coffee in their community.
Like the rest of us, the unexpected interruption known as COVID-19, has completely changed the trajectory of the year. COVID-19 has absolutely affected the globe in many ways both known and unknown, and did not show mercy on the coffee industry. Its effects have been deep and widespread, far beyond the temporary modification of service, or closures of cafes. The effect that this pandemic has had on our friends in producing countries has been life changing, and we had the opportunity to chat with Daniela Rodriguez of Agricafe about the effects that COVID-19 has had (and will continue to have) on them.
Allow me to introduce you to Daniela, she was born in Bolivia and is the second generation in her family business, Agricafe. She is in charge of all the quality control, sales and exports of their coffees.
(Left: Daniela Rodriguez)
Daniela graciously agreed to chat with me and here is what she had to say:
How is Bolivia different from other coffee nations?
Bolivian coffee is different from other coffee nations in many aspects.
In terms of environment, Bolivia has a unique terroir and amazing climatic conditions to grow coffee and land/space to grow more coffee. These conditions make Bolivian coffees very unique in terms of flavor, the coffees are very elegant, yet fruity, exotic, & very sweet. The coffee plantations are located in the amazon surrender by wild forest and inhabitant land. We are so lucky for the rich soil and the altitudes that we have that we only have to polish the coffee diamonds that Bolivia soil produce.
Nevertheless, Bolivia faces many obstacles. First of all, coffee is not being produced in big quantities as in other coffee origins such as Brazil. Everything is done by hand – picking, pruning, hand selection of cherry etc. Additionally, pickers and workers on the farms are only Bolivians which sometimes makes it hard to find enough people to help during harvest season.
Also, Bolivia is a coffee origin with no port. This makes exports a bit more challenging, because coffees have to be transported to Chile first, before being able to ship them. The roads in Bolivia are complicated even though the distance between places is not far, due to the bad roads it takes a lot of time to move and transport things. It is super difficult to find products or equipment for the coffee industry like fertilizers, pulpers, dryers, coffee bags we have to import direct from suppliers worldwide. The coffee industry is so small and does not exist a strong coffee federation that support the coffee producers. The most difficult part for us is the political and social instability that Bolivia has.
How has Bolivia reacted and done through COVID-19? What have been the challenges?
Bolivia started pretty late. The first case was detected in March and the reaction has been an immediate lockdown of the country, when there were only 15 people infected. This reaction is directly linked to the medical system in Bolivia, because it is well known, that not enough ICU or even hospital beds would be available to face a very critical medical situation.
Unfortunately, Bolivia is also very fragile economically, which is why many people were not able to go by the rules of the strict lock down, and the virus continued to spread. Until now, Bolivia has reached around 100,000 infected people, a critical situation of collapsing hospitals. Some of the main challenges are:
Educations and beliefs: Many people don’t believe the virus is a real thing and hence, they don’t take the necessary precautions but of course, continue spreading the virus.
Economic situation: In Bolivia, many many people live by the day. This means, that they will only be able to eat and sustain a family if they go out and work. As this is the case for the biggest part of the population, the lockdown has not been followed as it should’ve ideally been to stop the virus from spreading.
Political Issues: As Bolivia is currently being run by an interim president, many people, especially those who still follow the former presidents party, are showing big discomfort. They are demanding an official date for new elections and in order to put pressure on the government, they have already been blocking the streets throughout the country for over a week now. This does not only make it impossible for trucks to transport food from one city to another, but also to bring medical supply and oxygen to hospitals. This is making the situation even more critical. Many people/ babies have died due to the lack of oxygen in the hospitals available. Hospitals are closing because the oxygen that they have will not be enough and they do not have enough medicine. Doctors can not got to the hospitals because the streets are blocked and public transportation is not working. It is crazy.
With the state of the market, can coffee pickers, etc. make a sustainable living? If not, why not...in your opinion?
The coffee market in Bolivia is complicated. Due to a traditional farm management (with no prevention or else) farmers started to abandon their lands, as the rust took over many coffee plants and the production was not enough (in terms of quantity) to make a sustainable living. People started working other Jobs as truck drivers or started planting other crops like coca. This all ended up in a serious drop of coffee production in Bolivia in the last decade. In order to keep coffee production up, Agricafe founded the program Sol De La Mañana, which is a mentoring program for producers in the region. They learn everything from seedling, starting a nursery, pruning and manage their finances. This program has helped many farmers to reach a sustainable level of living. As these farmers usually work on their land as a family, they are also in charge of picking, so yes! These producers specifically are making a sustainable living now, with our program. That is based on quality and volume.
Who makes up coffee farmers & workers in Bolivia? Uniquely Bolivians? Are there people from neighbouring countries?
In Bolivia, farmers and workers are mainly Bolivians. Due to the fact that Bolivia has a quite small population (11 million) for the big land, this makes it a challenge during harvest season to find enough workers to help picking!! The coffee farms are small from 2-4 hec due to small population exist just a few people that produce coffee.
(Choqueuanca family, Sol de la mañana)
With so many specialty coffee companies and roasters closing and reducing their capacities all over the world, how has this impacted you?
The economy is very fragile now and I think we are all being affected.
What I say: We ALL are in the same storm, but everybody is in a different boat (dealing with different things). In Develop countries the government is supporting business, unemployed people and will help to reactivate the economy. But we leave in developing countries where those measures are impossible. The Health system is terrible Bolivia only has 200 Units for 11 Million people. The bonus that the government gave to help families was $70 monthly for 4-5 members. In Bolivia does not exist a bonus for unemployment.
How would you describe the atmosphere where you are? How are people adapting to this new way of life?
Now, I am in Caranavi. Here the reality is very different. Some people do not believe that the virus is truth, so they do not use masks.
We are still under quarantine on the weekends. The only hospital is already collapsed, and doctors are not attending other emergencies. It is super scary because you know that you are alone that going to the hospital is not an option.
What sort of practical measures have you had to implement on the farms for COVID risk prevention?
During harvest time we work with 500 pickers. In Caranavi and Samaipata we built in two weeks a camp for 80 people in the farms. In order to at least have 80 people picking every day. We had to implement all the biosecurity measures in all our facilities, and it has required a lot of investment that was not budget. We had to buy private insurances to all our employees due to the public health that we as a company also pay was collapsed. We had to rent a private car to drive the workers to the mill. And we had donate equipment to the hospital in Caranavi and in Samaipata.
During the pandemic we have all had to adjust to this new normal. Many companies have taken this opportunity to focus on different aspects of their company and have become quite creative in order to survive.
Has there been any new initiatives or ideas that have been born during this time for you? If so, are you able to share that with us?
Yes, it is the first time in all my coffee time that I had the time to stay in just one place and work in many things (mill/ lab) that I did not have the time because usually from July to October is nonstop with clients / visitors. My brother Pedro Pablo and I are doing a lot of new process this harvest we had the time” to play” more with the coffee.
What are you excited about right now? What can we look forward to from you?
Process and varieties.
Last year we did a lot of trials, and this year we are applying the experience to process bigger lots. We are getting very interesting results.
Has the international coffee community helped Bolivia at all? Are they doing enough?
Yes, we have many roasters with whom we are working more than 8 years and they have been supporting us and the Sol de La Mañana program. Thanks to them we have been able to survive in the worst time in the Bolivia coffee industry when the production every year was going down and down.
This year that is a super hard year for Bolivia, Monogram has organized a donation to buy masks for all the producers of Sol De La Mañana.
What is something amazing about Bolivia and Bolivians people should know?
We like to call Bolivia, the heart of South America. Bolivia is an unique and amazing country full of warm hearted people! Bolivian people are happy and friendly people. It is super diverse in terms of people, culture, flora, fauna, climate, food and much more.
Bolivia is a very virgin country, where you get to live nature at its fullest and the landscapes are truly breathtaking, wherever you go. It is huge for the small population that exist, many inhabit land that you can be driving hours and you will not see houses, people just wild land. It is the southwest latitude 18 degrees S country that produce specialty coffee. To go to the farms we start at 5,000 meters (Andes mountains ) down to 1,500 masl.
The biggest salt flats in the world are in Bolivia, and that is just something to start with ☺
How can western coffee companies/roasters/enthusiasts help make your end of the business better?
We believe that western coffee companies, roasters or enthusiasts can help make our end of the business better by learning about the story behind each coffee. When people know the story, the effort and all the work that lies behind one cup of coffee, they will engage more with the origin, the people and their work.
When they know a story, they will enjoy the cup of coffee even more, and they will be willing to spend the money the coffee costs without hesitating. Because they will know it’s worth it.
Also, they might start building a long term relationship with a producer, and that is what makes the difference in the end. Because in a long term relationship, the support will be given in good times, but also in times of struggle which is when it is most needed.
(Luis Choqueuanca, Sol de la Mañana)
Thank you, Daniela, for sharing your story with us, we are huge fans of both the outstanding coffee and the work that Agricafe is doing in Bolivia.
Keep your eyes open for the beautiful coffees that we have the pleasure of serving in our cafes and as whole bean offerings. Ask your barista for their favourites, or even better, try them all!