Edith Gonzales and Rosi Quiñones from Royal wrote a grant proposal for the Canopy Bridge travel grant offered to help finance sourcing trips for businesses interested in visiting coffee producers. Edith and Rosi’s proposal won funding to pay for airfare for Mayra Orellana-Powell (Royal’s Marketing and Outreach Director) and Sam LaRobardiere (from Theory Collaborative) to travel to Colombia. Sam was kind enough to write about his experience for the Royal Blog.
Paradise! We drove the washed out mountain roads in a bumpy 4×4 for hours, each day with a different destination. The one guarantee was that we would be ending up in paradise. Lush green mountains covered in coffee plants. Beautiful flowers and fruits growing easily everywhere we looked. Banana trees, avocados, monkeys, colorful macaws, waterfalls and beautiful people! I was loving my first experience in Colombia.
My company, Theory Collaborative, received a scholarship through Canopy Bridge in partnership with Royal Coffee and InConexus to go and visit woman owned and operated farms near Manaure, and Palmor in the Sierra Nevada mountains. It was fun being the second coffee roaster to ever set foot on the first farm/cooperative we visited, especially since we had purchased coffee from this cooperative earlier in the year. We were greeted with warm smiles and a warm lunch. Lunch included a chicken that had obviously lived a long happy life on the mountain. Let me tell you, that chicken had some seriously muscular legs. Tough doesn’t begin to describe the chicken leg that was on my plate. Anyway, after lunch we began asking questions regarding coffee farming and farm life. Our new friends at the farm were clearly passionate and knowledgeable about coffee farming.
The conversational climate changed a bit when we started discussing quality of life with the farmers. Now this is an interesting environment for a quality of life conversation. On the front porch of this Colombian farm house nestled on the side of paradise, we have the majority of the supply chain represented. The farmers, the exporter, the importer, and the coffee roaster were all engaged in a great conversation. This may be a normal scenario for some, but it was a surreal moment for me. Of the four members of the supply chain that were represented, I could feel that there was a serious imbalance in the quality of life of the farmers. The majority of the problem seemed to stem from ultra tight or non-existent profit margins. Raise your hand if you like working for free … me neither!
This particular cooperative was in their second year of exporting coffee. They were finding it difficult to make ends meet as coffee farmers, which I can easily identify with as the demands of our new cafe do not yet match our salaries … if you know what I mean. Like any startup, it takes time to see the monetary reward for all of the hard work and sacrifice that you are sinking into your business. But I got the feeling that this was a different conversation. This was a conversation about a broken system. My ‘broken system radar’ is currently on high alert as I’m also having a lot of ‘broken system’ conversations at Theory these days.
Fixing systemic problems is never easy, and I’m still working on a comprehensive solution for how we’ll handle this imbalance at Theory. I do know that in order to see a long term systemic rebuild, it will take dedication from every member of the supply chain. I don’t believe that cutting out the middlemen will solve the problem. I think the middlemen are incredibly important to this solution. Who better than an exporter like InConexus to ensure that the extra premiums get properly distributed. And an importer like Royal that is happy to buy coffees at higher prices if the market will support that decision. So, as I see it, I am ‘The Market.’ The decision to change the imbalance starts in my roastery.
Here’s how Theory will move forward with responsible trade practices: We will purchase an increasing percentage of our coffees that we can verify that a premium price gets delivered directly to the farmer or cooperative. We will spend the time necessary to educate our customers as to why their coffee costs slightly more than they are used to. We will seek to have more transparency with the rest of the supply chain. Knowing how much a farmer received for their coffee should be a common practice in the way we source coffees. We will seek out relationships with farms and strive to purchase coffees from them on a continual basis. After all, this whole industry is built on relationships. So, my new goal is to picture happy farmers when I’m making sourcing decisions. I’m convinced it can be done. I’m also convinced that this is just the beginning of change for us.
A huge thank you to Royal and InConexus for the incredible adventure and eye-opening experience!
Owner and Roaster at Theory Collaborative.