A Fair Trade Coffee Shop: Cafe Honor, Santa Rosa, Honduras

Santa Rosa is a hotbed for Honduran coffee. Most of the country’s coffee is produced in the surrounding areas and the quality is generally quite high. However, there are not many quality cafes in which to drink Honduran coffee, because most of it gets exported to other countries. I successfully avoided “Nespresso” when I visited a cafe in Ocotepeque, preferring herbal tea instead. It’s common that cafes have press-button machines for coffee that have “Nespresso” written the front. I don’t think it’s actually instant Nescafe coffee (though it’s all Nestle owned), but it’s probably close in quality terms.

So I couldn’t wait to try some coffee at Cafe Honor when I got to Santa Rosa. I’d heard it was a very special cafe, and not just because of the coffee.

Cafe Honor is a new initiative developed with the help of the Fair Trade labelling organisation (FLO) affiliate for Central America. The cafe, open for less than a year, was established after several Fair Trade Honduran coffee co-ops jointly invested in the project. Along with becoming a profitable cafe chain, its aim is to raise the profile of Fair Trade coffee within Honduras and to enable the producers to diversify and increase their income through the cafe investment. There are just under 30 Fair Trade coffee co-operatives in Honduras and Cafe Honor was set up with the collaboration of five of them. Unfortunately for some co-ops the investment required or perceived risk was too high.

The first two locations opened last year in Santa Rosa. I made sure to visit both of them. One is in the heart of the old town in the central plaza, a lovely ‘kiosk’ location, where I sat overlooking the tree-filled plaza. The main location is on the main road through town and where I went on my first visit. I sat with Nelson (a different Nelson) who manages the cafe. It’s contemporary, bright, open and would fit perfectly well in North America. It feels clean and uncluttered. The menu is simple with a few snacks but several coffee options.

One of the difficulties that producers and co-operatives have (whether or not in Fair Trade) is lack of opportunity. Even within a co-operative, a producer typically only earns the price of the exported coffee. They are dependent on the coffee buyers from other countries and the price they are willing to pay. If not in Fair Trade, they sell at the market price. Being able to diversify via a project like Cafe Honor gives the co-operatives and their producers a way to obtain additional income. They now have opportunities to earn more, to educate the producers, improve the quality of their coffee, and promote their coffee within Honduras. There are plans to expand the number of cafes to other cities within the country.

While I was at Cafe Honor I had another appointment I was excited about. I met Xiomara Paredes, who works for…wait for it…the Coordination of Latinamerican and Caribbean Fair Trade Small Producers (Coordinadora Latinoamericana y del Caribe de Pequeños Productores de Comercio Justo), or CLAC. This is a non-profit organisation whose mission is focused on helping small producers throughout Latin America. In its 20-year existence, it has given producers in developing countries a unified voice, particularly when it comes to dealing with many northern Fair Trade groups. CLAC has long argued (with many others) that the balance of power in Fair Trade is tilted too much towards decision-makers in northern developed countries. In recent years CLAC has developed its own ‘stamp’ for fair trade, “productores pequenos” (small producers). This stamp is becoming more common for Fair Trade products sold within Latin America, but can also be found on some products in developed countries. It helps promote Fair Trade within Latin America. Xiomara said that CLAC are very supportive of initiatives like Cafe Honor. She gave me a good insight into a more ‘southern’ perspective of Fair Trade.

The following day I made a visit to the kiosk location of Cafe Honor, a lovely location overlooking the central plaza in the town. The sun shone warmly, the coffee was good, and I lingered to savour and reflect on my “Fair Trade” days around Santa Rosa.

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Colombia. For the latest in hair fashion

I’m in Colombia now and getting used to travelling around without Edna. Backpack and bus. It has meant long and often uncomfortable hours on the road. The scenery is spectacular as I criss-cross the northern Andes, from sun-baked valleys to cool, cloud-covered mountain passes.

I’m only getting started in South America and Colombia, but I am glad about one thing. Hair fashion seems to have caught up with the 21st century.

When I was younger, my memories of Colombia only came courtesy of the football team, and these two characters in particular. They certainly brightened up the world then and surely led to a huge increase in sales of exotic hair products.

The main man for Colombia, Carlos Valderrama. His skills were as silky as his hair
Not to be outdone, Rene Higuita gets the most out of his 'soul glow' hair care
It's a cliche that you have to be a bit eccentric to be a goalkeeper, but Rene Higuita does a mean scorpion impression

A new meaning to riding ‘shotgun’: COPROCAEL, La Encarnacion, Honduras

The COPROCAEL co-op was another one I’d mis-located, thinking it was in the town of Ocotepeque. It was actually miles away, but I did get the province right… I’d already contacted Nelson Guererra to say I was on the co-op’s doorstep, and had to backtrack when I found out. We exchanged several emails, and the frustration I felt at his stuttered, mis-spelt replies left me wondering if it was worth the hassle. But this was all part of Nelson’s character, and this backtracking on my part led to an interesting few days……

Firstly, when I told him where I was staying in Ocotopeque, he turned up at my hotel, though I was out. Telling him I was moving on to Santa Rosa and would miss the chance for a visit, he said no problem – he lives in Santa Rosa!

More back and forth later, and in Santa Rosa we made vague plans to meet up. Vague because I could hardly follow his email threads. But I didn’t expect him to turn up at my hotel again unannounced, waiting for me to go with him to the co-op. It was a 2-hour drive away (for a normal person; Nelson does it in 90 minutes). Luckily I had planned to spend time with Nelson that day, whatever he had in store.

A few minutes later we were away. Nelson lives in Santa Rosa and commutes to the co-op every day. Which means he doesn’t take his time on the road. 30 km of the drive is on dirt roads, but that doesn’t bother Nelson. Accompanying us in the back of the pick-up was Tony, a fairly unassuming, straightforward guy. We chatted briefly. He said he works with Nelson. During the day whilst at the co-op, Tony didn’t seem to do much, so I wondered just what kind of work he did. It wasn’t until we were leaving when Tony was fiddling around with his handgun in the back of his jeans that I realised what his job probably was. Guessing that he is some kind of bodyguard for Nelson, he didn’t look the part, but maybe that’s why he does what he does. I never did learn from Nelson whether he’d had any trouble in the past.

Nelson continued to surprise me. He had three phones with him and was rarely off any one of them, even when driving. He was always busy talking to someone or other during the visit, and has a quick smile and remarkable energy. Only slightly older than me, he’s the founder of the co-op, and all the various trials and tribulations that the co-op has been through don’t seem to have shown their mark on his personality. He comes across as a happy, giving and enthusiastic bloke. He went out of his way to make sure I could see the co-op and was generous with his time and in getting others to show me around. I even got a souvenier hat to go along with my experience of the day. Nelson used to live near the co-op, but his extended family lives in Santa Rosa, so he moved there four years ago. He was philosophical about having to commute every day.

As for the co-op itself, it’s a great example of Fair Trade in action, and this is in large part due to the efforts of Nelson himself. Nelson started the co-op around 11 years ago, at the height of the coffee ‘crisis’. They have had certifications only for the last three years (Fair Trade, UTZ and organic). The co-op now has 200 producers, generating around 6m lb of green coffee for export. They sell to roasters in the US (including Green Mountain Coffee and Cooperative Coffees), Europe and South Korea.

Nelson told me that it’s been hard for the producers to see the benefits of Fair Trade up to now, but he is a firm believer in it. Coffee prices recently have been relatively high, and it is in times like this when it is more difficult to see the benefits of Fair Trade. For a typical small farmer, a high price means they are more tempted to ‘cash in’ right at harvest time, because they can get paid straightaway. This is not the norm in Fair Trade, when payments to producers are typically given at specific times of the year, so the farmer can struggle financially for a period of time. This co-op is unique because it does pay its producers at harvest time. Nelson realised they must do this to stop farmers selling outside of the co-op, but it’s very difficult to do. It leaves the co-op itself at a financial risk, particularly if market prices change, because the co-op has to wait several more months to receive its own payment.

Because of this constant juggle of finances for the co-op, Nelson would really like the ‘Northern’ buyers to pay up-front, alleviating the risk for the co-op. He would also prefer to have longer than single-year contracts with buyers, but he said a number of them come back year after year. He would also like the co-op to be 100% organic but realises how difficult this is for some producers.

Some of the benefits Nelson has seen for the co-op have been investments in a commercial coffee dryer (completed the previous year), medical help for producers, access to credit, and giving education and technical training for the producers. The co-op is growing each year.

While at the co-op I met several people. I had a great time with Dany, the catador (cupper), roasting and tasting the local coffee; Eduardo, the co-op president, who is a farmer himself and keeps a gun very close to his side except when was showing it off to Nelson; Mixael, the quiet bookkeeper (I’m not stereotyping…honest); and Oscar, a farmer, who went to school with Nelson and recently came back from spending nine years working low-paid jobs in the US. His farm is conventional as he says organic is too much work.

Nelson has put in a huge effort to get the co-op where it is today, and it looked impressive to me. The COPROCAEL co-op is also an investor in Cafe Honor, a new cafe I had been to the previous day in Santa Rosa. But this posting is long enough! More about that in my next blog…

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COCAFELOL, Honduras: random Fair Trade stop on the road

Breezing into Honduras from El Salvador I fell into the trap, yet again, of confusing provinces and towns. My stay in Nuevo Ocotepeque, my Fair Trade ‘base’, just across the Honduran border, did not turn out as I hoped. I was in the right province, but my intended Fair Trade visits were too far out of reach from the town. Plan B then…Nuevo Ocotepeque had nothing to distract me, despite trying hard – the circus was in town – so I decided to head to Santa Rosa the following day. It turned out to be one of my toughest rides of the trip.

I started with a long climb – a good three hours uphill. I was a wee bit nervous about cycling in Honduras having heard the odd story or two, and knowing the capital, Tegucigalpa, to be a little dodgy. So when a bloke stopped halfway up the hill and offered to give me a lift I wondered whether I’d found a very generous soul or a dodgy geezer. I wasn’t tempted, even though the climb was hard, I wanted to get up that hill all by my own effort. Declining as nicely as I could, I don’t think he understood my motivation. Eventually he moved on but stopped a little further up the road, putting me on edge. I passed him and waved. A few minutes later he did the same, to my huge relief. Looking back, I wasn’t sure whether he was more concerned about my safety or the fact I was crazy for cycling up this long mountain pass.

Weather conditions changed significantly at the top as I was greeted with strong winds, fog and the coldest temperatures I’d experienced in a while, but my long descent gave way to more sun and heat. It was near the bottom of this, in La Labor, whizzing past a sight to my left that made me brake in earnest. I couldn’t pass up this opportunity!

The co-operative has well-adorned walls, showing their Fair Trade credentials

It was the colourful wall display of COCAFELOL, a Fair Trade coffee co-operative. It was too good to miss, so I parked up with Edna, chatted to the security guard, and got myself a chance to look around the facility. I figured an hour here would still give me enough time to complete the ride in good order…

Sipping a welcome cup of coffee, I waited in reception for Renan, a young lad who works on the co-op’s certifications. They have quite a collection – Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and “UTZ”, and organic. The different certifications cater for the different growers in the co-op and the different buyers of the coffee. Producers have one of the three social/environmental certifications (Fair Trade has the highest number) but organic certification is only with a few producers. Although the co-op encourages organic production, the standards are strict to obtain and many producers are put off by the investment needed.

The co-op has over 300 producers and in total produces more than 2.5m lbs of green coffee. All the ‘premium’ quality is exported to foreign markets; the ‘second’ quality is used for domestic markets. AMPROCAL, a women’s co-operative, is a separate co-op affiliated with COCAFELOL who create the roasted and ground coffee products for the Honduran market.

COCAFELOL is an ambitious co-op, as I could tell just from their wall graphics out front. As well as quite modern processing equipment they have instituted a bio-ethanol operation for powering the equipment and it was the first time I saw the drying ‘greenhouses’. These help produce ‘micro-lot’ coffee that is typically produced in small quantities and can fetch higher prices when sold. In common with many other co-ops, they produce organic compost, including worms, that they sell back to the producers. The producers have access to credit via the co-op.

I got a quick tour and would have liked a little longer. Not only was it lunchtime, but I had a lot of riding still to do that day. I figured I was behind schedule but thought I’d still be ok for time. I trusted my map, I trusted Google Maps…

It all worked out in the end, though I rolled into Santa Rosa at the latest time of day I’d ever arrived, right around dusk. The climbing was particularly tough getting into the town, and the state of the roads and traffic didn’t help. I should have learned some Spanish swear words for that climb…

But there’s a great feeling to finish a day like that and my bonus Fair Trade visit really made my day. Unpredictable in so many ways, it encapsulated the good and bad of bike touring in strange places, and the bizarre things that can happen along the way.

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A Fair Trade Bus Ride…

How about this for a “Fair” trade…a Bus for a Bike?

It would have to be a very special bus for me to part company with Edna, my very trusty Surly Long Haul Trucker. But as I’ve learned so often along the way, things happen unexpectedly and plans change as a matter of course. Edna has done me very well. We made a good team, we got through the hard and bad times together and came out rosy, eventually, in Panama City. Some 9,200 km after leaving Vancouver eight months ago.

But Edna and I decided it’s time to take a break from each other. I’ve had my ladies along the way (Gemini, Agnes) though there’s only one lady now so it’s best for Edna to get back to Vancouver and have some rest. She’s in good hands.

Amazingly, time is running short for me and I’ve got plenty I’d like to see in South America. Santiago, Chile, was my original destination (though I chose it somewhat arbitrarily), but that looked unrealistic a couple of months ago. Getting from Panama to Colombia is incredibly foolhardy to attempt by bicycle (if it’s even possible). For me, my trip has been much more about the Fair Trade than the cycling, so it wasn’t a hard decision to take in deciding to fly to Bogota and make the rest of my trip by bus.

It’ll certainly be different. I have one very heavy bag now instead of four or five, I can’t nip around a town quickly and easily any more, or stop in random interesting places by the roadside. But I’m looking forward to a change and seeing how easily I can find some more Fair Trade visits.

A Fair Trade Bike Bus Ride…four wheels, not two.

Cooperativa La Palma, La Palma, El Salvador

A 100km ride with 1000m of climbing; there was no way I could fit in a visit to a Fair Trade co-operative, could I? As I set out at 7.45am on a sunny and warm Saturday morning from Santa Ana, a Fair Trade coffee visit was the last thing on my mind. Cycling through the northwest of El Salvador was enough to occupy my mind (and body) for the hours ahead.

I was philosophical about it. I’d had several days in Santa Ana and visited a number of places, and although I’d been given this contact in the north, I wasn’t going to make a special effort to visit there.

Up in the far north is the town of La Palma where I was heading for the night. The La Palma co-operative was somewhere in the area and I knew I’d be close, or might even ride right past it. My directions were pretty loose and I thought I’d missed it when I stopped a few km outside of La Palma at a tiny little drying patio full of coffee. It was on a hill so I was happy to get a few minutes rest.

As I waited there, Beto came over to say hello. His friend Aldo (from J Hill) had called to say I might stop by there, but he also told me he’d had a dream about being visited by a gringo on a bicycle…so how could I refuse?!

Beto was excited about my visit and took me around the small site. He’s spent 15 years with the co-op, and persevered through the “crisis” (around 10 years ago when prices dropped to their lowest ever level) when many producers abandoned their land. This was common in many countries in Latin America, and also led to a large increase in the number of people trying to sneak into the US.

Beto also works at the Salvadoran annual “Cup of Excellence” where he is one of the roasters. That’s quite an achievement, so I knew then I was talking to a man steeped in coffee knowledge.

The area I was in – northwest El Salvador – is a small coffee-producing area. It was quite different from the areas around Santa Ana; there are no volcanoes and the climate is a little different too. He mentioned that the harvest was relatively normal this year, unlike for those in Santa Ana who had seen the deluge of rainfall the previous October. The producers here are all small-scale farmers, scattered about at various distances from the La Palma co-op. There is only one road through La Palma and it is just a few kilometres from the Honduran border. Getting their coffee to the mill is a process in itself for many of the producers.

Fair Trade has helped the co-op survive and Beto has made only a few small investments in improving the mill. They recently built a cupping lab, which was really just a basic room with the necessary equipment. He doesn’t have grand plans for expansion, and I got the impression it was often a struggle to keep things going. They work hard, particularly at harvest time and the rewards seem few and far between. But he had a calm air about him, and having persevered through several years of hard struggle, he hoped that Fair Trade (despite its costs, for example) would continue to give the co-op, its producers and their families just that little bit extra.

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Cooperativa Cuzcachapa, Chalchuapa, El Salvador

Hugo has aspirations of moving back to the USA. For many in Central America, the “American Dream” is very much alive and well. He’s another Salvadoran that had spent several years in the US, and he was keen to go back. In the meantime, he is a self-described “second cupper” at the Cooperativa Cuzcachapa. Located a few kilometres west of Santa Ana in the town of Chalchuapa, the co-operative is one of the largest I’d seen. I wondered if it was really a Fair Trade co-op; their website hinted that it was something they would do, but that information was three years old. Had they followed through and stuck with it?

I waited in reception once I’d got through the armed security. The offices are large and well-organised, and all the staff wore co-ordinated uniforms or company-embroidered t-shirts. It was all very smart.

Hugo himself has spent the last five years training as a catador (cupper). It takes many years of practice and he is sampling coffee almost every day. That’s a lot of tasting! His time in the USA meant his English was very good, and combined with his Salvadoran upbringing he was laid-back, informative and friendly.

The co-op does not have have Fair Trade certified coffee, and I got the impression they had never pursued the certification. However, their coffee does carry “Rainforest Alliance”, “UTZ” and another certification that seemed common only in El Salvador, “4C”. A lot of their coffee also carries organic certication and they have a number of producers whose coffee gains “micro-lot” status (if you ever buy a ‘single-origin’ coffee, typically it’s at a higher price, small volumes are produced, and it’s a very carefully created coffee of high quality). The Cuzcachapa co-operative is the host for the annual Cup of Excellence that is held every year. It’s a national competition to promote coffee quality and frequently the winning coffees fetch high prices from buyers in Europe and North America.

They produce 15m lbs of green coffee annually, from more than 1,400 producers and their families. The best (green coffee) is exported. Second quality coffee is roasted and sold for the Salvadoran market. Fair Trade certification gives guarantees for the producer (prices, social premium being two main benefits), but I couldn’t tell how this co-op helps its producers with something similar, as there is no Fair Trade certification. However, for producers and employees here, there are several benefits. These include a health clinic on-site (plus medecine is available when required), access to credit, assisting the elderly, donation for low-income school students and a ‘food bank’. Organic composting is also done at the site, which is available to producers.

Being a large coffee processor means they can invest in modern techniques and technology. They have numerous electronic gizmos to help process the coffee. I counted more than 20 depulpers (most other places I’d seen had no more than 2 or 3!); they have electronic size sorters; large drying machines (for when they can’t dry on the patio due to high volume or weather) and electronic colour sorters. Like the Siglo XXI co-op I saw the same week, some of this equipment replaces a lot of manual labour, particularly what used to be done by women at harvest time, who hand-sort the coffee on converyor belts. The offices are modern and it was the first co-op I’d visited where the coffee market prices are shown live on a computer in the reception area.

It definitely looked impressive, and for a large-scale producer they certainly do a number of good things. Having existed for more than 40 years they run their operation successfully. Their certifications can certainly help the producers, but it was hard for me to get a real sense of how the producers fare with this co-op. I believe their philosophy is good and a number of initiatives are designed to assist them. I was made very welcome, met a number of the staff, and really enjoyed seeing the cupping lab, in particular. It’s a fun thing to try. I left, wishing Hugo good luck with his plans to move back to the USA and headed out for the bus back to Santa Ana.