Natural disaster, political instability, and war have made Nicaragua one of the poorest countries in Latin America. As is true elsewhere, this becomes more obvious as you leave the large metropolitan areas. In the rural coffee growing regions to the North of Managua, roads deteriorate, infrastructure is lacking, and communities have to do more for themselves.
Rural Nicaragua is dominated by smallholder coffee farmers who work plots of five acres or less, each producing a couple thousand pounds of finished coffee annually. There is little in the way of a safety net or public services, and the revenue from coffee is one of the few sources of hard currency for these farmers.
We’re here with some of our industry and retail partners both to see the impact of their Fair Trade purchases, and to work together on how to sell more coffee more effectively. We visited La Esperanza cooperative, a group of roughly 90 farming families. La Esperanza is part of a larger cooperative called CECOCAFEN , one of the more sophisticated Fair Trade cooperatives. In an organizational chart for CECOCAFEN, I noticed the farmers were at the top. I don’t think you would see that on a plantation org chart!
For those of you who don’t speak Spanish, Esperanza means “hope”. Confidence and an eye toward the future are what drive these farmers, and what have allowed them, despite very limited incomes, to put aside money as a group to fund roads, schools, health care, and to both reinvest in their economic future and in the future of their families. At Esperanza, they are extremely proud of their investments in a beautiful school and library, shown above, with the daughter of a co-op member. Like in many American schools, the walls of the school are covered with posters encouraging the students that they will “tener éxito” (have success) through education, hard work, and persistence. They've also established student scholarships and a health clinic, which is available not just to the co-op members, but to their entire community.
They have also invested in trucks, wet mills, and other equipment which allow them to sell their coffee directly and deliver it at a higher quality. The Esperanza cooperative has two trucks, for example, which allow farmers to avoid transporting their coffee bag by bag on top of a public bus (exposing it to contamination), or selling it to a middle man for less than it is worth.
We later stopped at the Solcafé beneficio (coffee mill) owned by the farmers via the CECOCAFEN cooperative. The facility is highly mechanized and very sophisticated, with excellent working conditions. In my first visit here, I was struck by how modern and efficient the operation was, relative even to many food production facilities I have seen in the US. As Eddy Tenorio of CECOCAFEN commented to our group, “We are a social enterprise but we have a commercial form. By investing in quality coffee, we also invest in quality of life for our farmers.” The direct connection to the market facilitated by Fair Trade makes this connection much more visible and possible, even while competing against larger producers in the highly competitive coffee market.
Next week: Rick Peyser and Nell Newman on Campus