Colombian Coffee? It Must Be Juan Valdez Cafe

Even though coffee originated in Ethiopia, its spiritual home is Colombia, or that’s what Colombians would have you believe. In Bogotá I got the opportunity to glimpse the corporate side of coffee production and marketing. On the 8th floor of a downtown high-rise in the heart of Bogotá’s financial district is the office of the National Coffee Federation (Federacion Nacional de Cafe [FNC]). To most people that doesn’t mean a lot, but the FNC came up with a clever marketing strategy several years ago. So if you want a cup of coffee in Bogotá (and beyond), you can’t miss it: the Starbucks of Colombia, Juan Valdez Cafe.

Juan Valdez coffee shops are everywhere. I was curious to see whether or not there was any ethical substance behind the brand, or was it really just a way to make money from the emerging middle classes and tourists that are increasingly visiting the country.

I had to get a sample of course. On my first day in Bogotá I found a picturesque location opposite one of Bogotá’s museums in the famous Candelaria district and sat back with an americano (the irony of ordering an ‘American’ coffee made with Colombian beans, in Colombia, was not lost on me). But if Colombia likes to provide the coffee, Starbucks provides the inspiration.

Juan Valdez, the face of Colombian coffee
Juan Valdez, the face of Colombian coffee

This was a massive change compared to anywhere I’d been in Central America. This was the first place that I saw evidence of the coffee culture that is so prevalent in the US and Canada. Despite its many other problems, Colombia has made an effort to help its coffee growers and Juan Valdez is the most visible part of incorporating this into Colombia’s culture, both at home and abroad.

As for the coffee experience itself…well it was slightly underwhelming. I enjoyed being able to sit out and enjoy a decent cup of coffee, but it wasn’t spectacular. All coffee is served in paper cups, which means the coffee gets cold too quickly (for me anyway) and produces mounds of waste. But it was very familiar otherwise, and it wasn’t hard to see why it was so busy. Like most places I visited throughout my travels, the hold of the USA, whether still because of the mis-sold ‘American Dream’ or a feeling of aspiring to such a notion dominates Latin American culture. A cup of coffee can bring that ideal a little closer, even if it’s just for a few minutes.

A few days later, I arranged a visit with Maria Fernandez of the FNC to learn more about coffee in Colombia, not just about Senor Juan. I knew I’d be getting the PR talk, but it was a unique insight into a relatively successful program established over many years that has given hundreds of thousands of coffee farmers a better standard of living than they might otherwise have had.

Most of Colombia’s coffee producers with small farms (under five hectares) are FNC members. FNC was established nearly 75 years ago in order to better promote Colombian coffee and protect it against production from other countries. FNC represents groups of growers that have a democratic process of organisation. This comprises local and regional committees who elect national representatives every four years to decide on strategy and direction.

For many years Colombian coffee was promoted internationally as superior than that from many other countries, and this was frequently the case. Growers cultivated the arabica bean and it obtained higher prices in the market because of its superior quality (compared to the cheaper robusta bean). The FNC has been able to help its member growers adopt technological improvements and social benefits to protect them from the swings of market prices.

There are some parallels with Fair Trade. For example, 6 cents of every 1lb of coffee exported goes to the “National Coffee Account”, which is then, theoretically, spent on projects that will benefit all of Colombia’s growers. FNC also has a “purchase guarantee” which means they can sell their coffee to the FNC at any time (so for example if the grower feels the price is too low at harvest time, he/she can wait to see if prices improve and sell the beans later). If the market price is low, the FNC has the power to mitigate the effects of this. However, there are no strict guidelines as to what the farmer might receive, as there is within Fair Trade.

The Juan Valdez brand and chain of coffee shops was set up because the producers wanted more participation and higher income from the coffee they produced. The money from the cafes goes back to FNC, with some to the farmers. Farmers can invest in ownership of Juan Valdez, with some 18,500 owning stocks.

Although Colombian coffee does obtain a premium on world markets because of it being predominantly higher quality arabica coffee, the philosophy adopted by FNC is still very much market-oriented and as a result the farmers are still at the mercy of the prices of the market. Technological innovation is at the forefront of FNC’s philosophy, which may require farmers to invest in planting new coffee bushes or increasing the amount of fertiliser they need. I didn’t hear anything about how organic methods are encouraged, for example using shade-grown techniques. Coffee monoculture is increasingly common.

My short time at FNC gave me a somewhat positive impression. It’s possible that it is a purely Colombian model that couldn’t be replicated in other countries, and its relative success has come despite years of volatile political situations in the country. It has many flaws but it has given many farmers a better position than they might otherwise have. Fair Trade can at least give farmers a guaranteed minimum price, higher investment in social projects, and more likely a better ‘local focussed’ approach to investing in improvements.

The happy, smiling face of Juan Valdez gives the impression of contentment within the Colombian coffee industry. Clearly this is not the case, but there is something in it that can help the farmers. It is one strategy of several, including Fair Trade, that can give the farmers at least some kind of sustainable, dignified way of life.

A few weeks later, on my way home to Vancouver, I passed through Bogotá airport. The Juan Valdez souvenier shop in the terminal had many items for sale. I looked with curiosity, a Starbucks-tainted smile, and walked away.

Some FNC Statistics:

  • Established in 1927, now supports 550,000 coffee growers
  • Colombia has 900,000 hectares of coffee; FNC is helping to replace 300,000 hectares with new, young coffee trees
  • 95% of members are small producers with less than 5 hectares
  • 35,000 growers within FNC are also Fair Trade certified
  • 25% of growers are women, but <10% participate in democratic processes

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Fruandes: Fair Trade Mangoes, Bogota, Colombia

Remember Hansel and Gretel and their gingerbread house? When I walked in the door at Fruandes (Frutos de los Andes), I thought I’d wandered into my own mango version. Mmmmm, mangoes. Homer Simpson eat your (doughnut) heart out.

“It’s common for people to convert their houses into businesses here”, says Hugo Ciro, one of the founders and CEO of Level Ground, the Canadian company that imports the products from Fruandes. And from the outside, you’d never know. But once the door was opened, it was an Aladdin’s cave of mango heaven.

It was a stroke of luck that my visit to Bogota coincided with Hugo’s. He lives near Victoria, BC, Canada and was in Colombia to visit some of the producers that Level Ground works with. My visit that day also coincided with a mad scramble by the staff to get the dried mangoes loaded and shipped out to Canada due to a late harvest this season. It was chaotic but a general air of good humour prevailed.

Hugo was born in Colombia but has lived in Canada for many years. This mango facility I visited was established in Bogota in order to help a group of local women. Displaced women who had come to Cazuca (with their children), a local refugee camp in the suburbs of Bogota, were employed to work in the factory. Through a connection with a local NGO, Level Ground provides minimum wages, access to healthcare, transport subsidies, school tuition, scholarships and materials for children. More recently they’ve set up a way to let them access credit, acting like a bank, for workers who wish to purchase their own housing. Applying to the government for a downpayment, Fruandes helps with a loan if that application is successful.

Level Ground work with producers in several countries. Since 2001 they helped producers through diversification into dried fruit (due to the “coffee  crisis”). As well as mango, they source coconut, banana, pineapple and physallis. Also panela (sugar cane). All the fruit is sourced from Colombia, though due to high demand for mango they are looking for alternative supplies in another country.

The white coats of the workers contrasted sharply with the orange-yellow hue of the mangoes they worked with. It was messy but in a good way! All the cutting and chopping is done by hand, the mango is then loaded on to drying racks and placed in the humidifiers to dry. On my visit, there were two shifts of workers due to the need to get the mangoes done as quickly as possible.

Level Ground, the importer of Fruandes fruit, does not have designated Fair Trade certification (through Fairtrade International [FLO], recognised by the FLO symbol). The company is also changing its membership from the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) to the Fair Trade Federation (FTF). Being a member of one (or both) of these groups indicates the company is committed to working on Fair Trade principles. Typical members are companies who deal with crafts where certification standards are harder to establish due to the nature of these products. Hugo said that Level Ground supports the ideals of Fair Trade but they prefer to support it in their own way. Although it’s harder to recognise a “fairly traded” product this way, what I saw at Level Ground and Fruandes is a business working to Fair Trade principles. From their customers’ point of view, it is important to have organic certification. Also, Level Ground are very open about how they do their business and welcome transparency and people finding out more about their farmers and their produce.

Amid all the hullaballoo trying to load up the boxed mangoes on the container lorry, the staff were in good spirits. An improvised loading slide, sending boxes to the lorry from the second-floor window, worked a treat, but it was slow going. It was Hugo’s last day and he was due to fly back to Canada later that evening. I’d been in flagging spirits at this point in my trip and part of me wished I was going back with him.

One of the important aspects of Fruandes is how the fruit production process enables more money to stay with the Colombian workers and thus in the local economy. The growers benefit from Fair Trade and by processing, drying and packing the fruit in Bogota, it benefits local people here too.

Before I left I was invited to the daily staff mango party. Or at least it felt like that. Freshly-cut mango was handed around on a tray to several of the staff who were taking a quick break. It was hard to resist, so I didn’t. I can eat a lot of mango… My skin didn’t turn mango colour, but as I stepped out into the cool Bogota sunshine I had a satisfying glow, and not just from the delicious fruit.

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