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Juan Valdez 2.0? Innovations In Colombia's Coffee Industry

Companies like Tres Montes in Santander are focusing on quality, not just quantity, and improving the lives of small-scale growers in the process.

A new way to look at coffee
A new way to look at coffee
Juan Miguel Hernández Bonilla

BOGOTA — What can be done with coffee shrubs once their productive cycle ends? Is there an alternative to just letting them rot away? Could this raw material instead instead be used to make innovative and attractive products for foreign markets?

These are some of the questions that gave rise to Londono's Coffee, a family firm in Santa Rosa de Cabal, east of Bogota, that uses the wood from coffee shrubs to make furniture and other export products. "We realized that after a coffee plant's seven-year productive lifespan, most farming families cut the shrubs and throw the wood away, or at best burn them for cooking," Mauricio Londoño, one of the firm's young partners, said at the recent Cafés de Colombia Expo 2017 in Bogota.

For the past 10 years, the company has worked with growers in the country's coffee production region to recover coffee wood and turn it into high-quality furniture. In 2014, they won the first Colombian Handicrafts design biennale, and this past June took home the top prize in a similar competition organized by the Chinese government. Londoño and his colleagues were subsequently invited to spend three months in China visiting factories that process guadua and bamboo wood. The idea was to learn new techniques that the Colombian firm could then try to replicate with coffee wood. Among other things, the trip made it clear that there is a growing market for furniture in world markets, and that coffee wood, given its natural color and finish, is a natural fit.

In the northern Santander department, another family-run business has also found success through innovation, albeit with coffee beans rather than wood. Café Tres Montes, run by Heriberto Romero, his son and his father, has been working for 20 years to create signature, world-class coffee beans. They also use a system called "Amigo Caficultor" to help small-scale growers improve their coffee.

"At first we sold standard commercial coffee, but slowly we began to improve, entering courses and training events. Then, four years ago, we decided to create the Amigo Caficultor Tres program," Romero explains.

The program involves visiting, advising and helping local growers throughout the coffee production process. It also requires farmers to improve sanitary conditions for their workers and reduce waste and pollution by using natural fertilizers that they produce themselves. "We began working with an agronomist," Romero says. "We took soil samples and measured the sweetness of the shrub, and were thus able to ensure exquisite, high-quality coffee."

In exchange for improving their practices, local growers are able to sell their coffee to Café Tres Montes at a premium price (30% higher than the industry standard). For small-scale producers — those with less than five hectares — the increased revenue has a major impact on people's lives.

In the department of Tolima, west of Bogota, a group called ASOPEP (Association of Ecological Producers of Planadas) is also working with small-scale growers to improve coffee quality, open up markets, and help communities.

The association came together four years ago and already includes 167 small-time growers, many of them in their 20s. ASOPEP's products are officially "fair trade" and, in key markets such as the US, Japan, South Korea and Europe, are certified as organic, a spokesperson explains.

In total, the group produces nearly 6,000 sacks of organic coffee a year and more than 24,000 sacks of standard coffee, remarkable figures considering that many of its producers work just two hectares. The cooperative also runs a program for single mothers and a school to train children in skills like coffee tasting and "mixology."

The firm Lohas Beans, which markets Colombian coffees abroad, qualifies ASOPEP as one of the most progressive groups working in the southern part of Tolima, not just for its output, but also for the quality and consistency of its product, and its organizational and management practices. You've got to like the smell of that.

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