Colombia, Sourcing with Semilla and the Monkaaba Project
Resources to learn more about the protests against Tax Reform in Colombia (updates are taking place daily):
Resources from Semilla Coffee on the history and current status of the Colombian coffee industry:
Typically, my blog posts focus heavily on the specific coffee we are releasing; what it tastes like and what makes it so special. I am still going to do for our new release, Colombia Yominson Trullijo, because it deserves all of the usual fanfare. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t first address the current political crisis in Colombia, home to many of our production partners and impact initiatives. We aren’t authorities on the situation by any means, but wanted to share some links (above) that have helped us understand the crisis and navigate what to do as an organization that is deeply concerned with the country’s well-being.
Corruption, violence, and exploitation are endemic to most coffee producing countries and as coffee consumers, we have a responsibility to engage. I know figuring out where/how to engage something this massive can feel totally paralyzing. But here’s where I think we can start: Ask about where your coffee comes from. Ask about how your roasting company uses their profits (if they have any). Make sure they are building the business they purport to be building and follow up.
Monkaaba – Breaking Down the Barriers
Colombia is filled with pockets of coffee-producing areas spread out amongst 15 larger growing areas. Some of these you may be familiar with are Cauca, Huila, and Nariño. Within each of these areas are numerous communities of coffee producers, each with particular features which make them completely unique. When viewed this way, Colombia truly becomes the land of limitless coffee possibility…at least that’s what you’d think, right?
Despite the plethora of coffee producers throughout the country, most of these coffee producers still sell their coffee into the local market or to the FNC. To learn more about these practices, please read Semilla’s blogs On Coffee Pricing in Colombia. Their blogs go into some great detail about these practices and how they affect producers. The key point to take away is most coffee producers in Colombia are selling their coffee for less than what it costs to actually produce it. As you can imagine, no business can sustain losses year after year, but somehow this is still the case for many coffee producers. Without adequate information, opportunities, or knowledge, most producers are left to continue selling to the local market, or give up coffee production entirely—and who can blame them?
Now, you must be thinking: If the coffee being grown in Colombia is so good, why can’t producers just break away from the system? What holds them back? Unfortunately, a number of critical factors hold them back, one of the more nefarious being the strong push by the Colombian government to focus purely on the volume of coffee produced instead of the quality of coffee. Far too often coffee producers are discouraged from focusing on quality factors, and instead are pushed to see coffee purely as a cash-crop. Pair this with the fact most coffee producers do not have access to stable, consistent specialty markets that educate and encourage them, and what you have is a system that sets most farmers up for failure and reliance instead of any sort of autonomy.
To combat these unfair practices, first-level organizations have begun to work outside of the traditional systems of selling coffee. This past winter we introduced Toldopamba, one of these first-level organizations we plan to continue working with into the upcoming harvest. Another organization we’ve been introduced to is Monkaaba. Simply put, Monkaaba is a group of coffee producers located in the San Agustin area of Huila who’re breaking free from the old systems of selling coffee in order to gain more autonomy and agency over their product. These efforts are the direct result of one man in particular: Esnaider Ortega.
Esnaider comes from a long-time coffee producing family who live just outside of San Agustin. A well-versed coffee producer and cupper, Esnaider has sold his coffee directly into the specialty market multiple times to some of the highest recognized roasters in the world and truly understands what it takes to create the kind of quality needed to enter the specialty marketplace. Despite his own success, Esnaider dreamed of a way to help coffee farmers around him achieve the same success and enter into the specialty coffee marketplace. He saw the issues plaguing farmers around him, and wanted to come up with a consistent way to help them out.
Most of the farmers around Esnaider fall into one of two groups, the first being those who’ve already producing some amazing coffees, but essentially lacked access to sell their coffees into the specialty market, or at the least have more control over the prices they receive for their coffees. These farmers may have already sold their coffee into the specialty market, but it may have proven inconsistent from year to year, and their hopes were to gain greater autonomy of the prices they receive for their coffees. The second group of producers are those who’ve generally only sold their coffees into the commodity market, but who want to begin producing specialty.
To help both, Esnaider began offering free roasting and cupping (tasting) sessions with the farmers, and invited them to learn more about how their coffees actually taste to buyers, and how to consistently create the kind of quality needed to excel into the specialty market. But increasing quality did not help many farmers with the key issue of finding sustainable and secure purchasing relationships. This is where Semilla Coffee comes in…
Semilla Coffee works, at least in some capacities, as a coffee importing service. Traditionally, coffee importing services buy large quantities of coffee and sell them to roasters. There’s this kind of blueprint, or outline of how coffee importers work, and a lot of it has to do with following international market trends and not connecting directly with the farmers themselves. This enables the exploitation of coffee producers by intermediaries. Since no one is directly connecting with buyers, there’s no responsibility for who is actually receiving the bulk of the value for coffees, with farmers usually receiving very little of the value.
While importing or trading companies as they’re sometimes called can still function in this way, a lot of trading companies are becoming more responsible and transparent about their actions and how they source coffees. We’re lucky enough to be working with a couple really awesome companies that are breaking away from traditional systems of trading coffee, kind of like how Monkaaba is breaking away from traditional systems of selling coffee into markets. Whereas in the past importing companies mainly just worked to sell coffees to roasters, most of the importers we work with today function as a resource for getting us—Utopian Coffee—closer to the farm level than we could ever get by ourselves during this crazy season of life.
Semilla is one of those companies that are approaching everything differently. Instead of shooting to purchase coffees at low differentials from many different countries and producing-groups, Semilla focuses on creating long-term partnerships with individuals who, truly, they’d call friends. Brendan Adams, the founder of Semilla, can tell you that he has a personal friendship with Esnaider and that they’ve discussed how to genuinely help farmers out in the long run. To Semilla it isn’t about the money to be made by trading coffee, it’s about connecting like-minded people together and creating a network of mutual support and advocacy. Instead of purchasing just the top lots, or the best coffees available, Semilla creates partnerships that revolve around trust and friendship, not a “quality score.”
We’ve been connected to the Monkaaba Project by Brendan at Semilla, and we are truly excited to share with you a coffee that encapsulates what we believe makes Colombian coffee truly special.
Check back soon for Part 2 of this Blog where we’ll be sharing about the coffee we’ve purchased from Monkaaba.