Fair Trade Coffee: Fondo Paez, Cali, Santander de Quilichao, Colombia

I had reservations about visiting the people of Fondo Paez. Knowing that I couldn’t make my way to their remote community, I made arrangements to visit their office location in the small town of Santander de Quilichao. A one-hour bus ride from Colombia’s third city, Cali (the home of salsa, apparently), meant this was a realistic day trip. My hesitancy about visiting was two-fold. For one, I was pretty knackered and not in the mood for an early visit, but what put me off more was the story I read about the recent death of the Fondo Paez co-op President Luis Carlos Mestizo Conda. He’d been killed a few months earlier in Santander in what was presumed to be a robbery. I’d heard about the history of security problems, kidnappings and deaths and people did warn me about parts of this region.

However, having already made arrangements I dropped myself off the bus in Santander town centre and walked up the narrow residential streets towards the co-op office. I became slightly lost, not helped by encountering a group of swarthy labourers in the quiet back streets. I walked on, getting more nervous with each step, particularly when I realised I would have to retrace my steps of moments earlier. Usually, this is just a momentary embarrassment, a pretty obvious signal to the locals that this gringo doesn’t know where he’s going…but this time I wondered I’d get a little more than that. Retreating back down the street, I took a gamble to ask for directions and approached the men. As soon as I mentioned Fondo Paez they heartily pointed me to a nearby street. I’d misjudged the local people, not for the first, or last time.

The office was really a house, and effectively doubled-up as one. Due to the long distance of the communities within the co-op, members can stay at the office overnight with a couple of rooms used for sleeping. Adriana, the office co-ordinator, lives there most of the time. I was greeted at the door by Celio, a co-op Director. Celio was very welcoming and helpful during my visit, and even escorted me back to the town centre during lunchtime (if there’s one thing I learned on my travels it is that lunch is a serious business. No one is ever too busy to skip lunch). He had a humble manner, in common with all the members I met here.

The co-op is an indigenous organisation, speaking the Nasa Yuweh language, or ‘Nasa’ as it is commonly known here. It is one of more than 60 indigenous languages in Colombia. They call their coffee Nyaf Tewesh (coffee of the ancients).

The co-op has been active since 2000, but due to its size and lack of resources, it partners with Cafinorte (part of the National Colombian Coffee Federation) during harvest time from April to August. They have a good relationship. During this time, Cafinorte makes its warehouses, offices and administration available, as well as giving technical assistance from their agronomists. Of the co-op’s 460 Fair Trade producers around 200 are certified organic.

Celio has nine children, the eldest one works for Fondo Paez. Celio is not too comfortable with the modern world. He doesn’t like the town much; the countryside where he lives has always been home, which is reached on dirt roads after a 2 or 3-hour bus ride. He says it is hard to keep young people on the land. He farms like many generations have before him, growing corn, beans and bananas. Both he and Salvador grow organic coffee.

Despite being Fair Trade certified, the co-op still struggles. They have had this office for over two years (when I visited in February 2012) but it was like they had just moved in – sparse furnishings and plastic chairs. They are connected to the electronic world, with two computers, but the punctuating hum of their dot-matrix printer during my visit made me think back to when I last used them, more than twenty years earlier. However, they hope to buy this office in the future with assistance from the Fair Trade social premium.

Salvador said very little during my visit and he was probably the most shy of all the producers I met on my travels. I couldn’t tell if he’d become President reluctantly. The death of the previous President would have made anyone a little nervous.

Colombia clearly has a different approach to its coffee production compared to what I’d seen before. The relationship between Fondo Paez and Cafinorte (and by extension the Colombian Coffee Federation) allows small producers to access resources they wouldn’t otherwise have the means to do so. Cafinorte were proud of their association with Fondo Paez, even though many of their 80,000 members produced conventional coffee. I picked up a brochure at Cafinorte that highlighted this relationship.

Celio walked me back into town and I gratefully jumped on a bus heading north to Cali. I was still feeling tired, so despite the noise and thumping music accompanying me on the ride back, I slept.

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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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Jardin, Colombia: Jaime Marin, Fair Trade Coffee Farmer

An abrupt knock on my hotel room door as I was polishing off my makeshift dinner. “Senor,” says the receptionist, “there is someone waiting for you downstairs.” Jaime Marin had arrived early. He was keen to meet me, though I saw over the next day or two how he likes to meet and talk to just about anyone. Warm and friendly, red-eyed but with young-looking features, he’s also loud and lively.

And so began my adventures with Jaime. We ventured out into the beautiful cobbled square in the centre of Jardin, where he wanted me to meet an American couple whom he’d been guiding that day. I had no idea who they were, but Jaime was enthusiastic. Eventually, Floridians David and Marivel ambled over, and we shared an evening together with rum as I listened to their adventures of the day with Jaime in the local surrounding stunning countryside. I got a sense of what I was letting myself in for on the following day, as Jaime and I made arrangements to visit his finca.

Jardin (The Garden), is more than an apt name for this delightful town, located in the Andean foothills within a beautiful, lush and deeply green valley, south of Medellin. Almost immediately I sensed the languid and restful aura; this is a place worth spending time in. And if, like me, you seem too busy to ever sit, watch the world go by and ‘people watch’, spending a little time here will convert you without even knowing. The beautiful town square is made for lounging in, whether at 6am or 6pm. Many locals sit and drink coffee all day, and the ambience of the town compels visitors to do the same.

The backdrop was a bonus. I was here to visit coffee growers, and one man in particular: Jaime. Jaime Marin is a farmer here who supplies his hill-grown coffee for the Canadian company Level Ground (one of several in this and surrounding regions who do so). I’d met Hugo Ciro from Level Ground while I was at Fruandes in Bogota and he suggested I come here to visit Jaime. My three days here turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.

Next morning, I met Jaime early and we climbed into the back of the local pick-up ‘taxi’ that would pass close to Jaime’s finca, high up in the surrounding hills. It was a popular journey; the small truck was full as we headed up the dirt roads that criss-cross the area. After half an hour we jumped off and reached the finca a short walk away. Immediately I took in the stunning views. Lush green hills drop away from the finca. A deep valley stretches away and the hills rise higher on the far side of the valley. Jaime supplements his income with tours for visitors, and it was obvious what would bring them here.

I met some of his animals – horses, a donkey, goats, chickens. It’s a working farm, but small enough that Jaime needs only a little help, through a local labourer he hires. The finca itself is well kept and tidy. Jaime grew up here. I spotted an old photograph showing him at the finca in his youth and it looked almost identical today.

Jaime runs this small finca, around five hectares. He’s part of a large family (17 brothers and sisters!) but several have left the area. Only two of his brothers have coffee farms locally. He comes every morning to tend the coffee, animals and many other subsistence crops he grows here.

Jaime has a long-established family connection with Level Ground and Hugo. Through a partnership with the local beneficio (Cooperativa Andes), Jaime is able to store his washed coffee (processing it at the finca) in the village, ready for shipping. As well as coffee, Jaime grows tomatoes, bananas, corn, and ‘lulo’. It took me a long time to understand what people talked about when they mentioned this fruit, with its exotic, crazy name. It resembles a ‘little orange’ and most people make juice from it. Everything here except the tomatoes are organic. The animals provide fertiliser for the plants on the farm. He told me he was the only organic producer in this area. Jaime sells his coffee directly to Level Ground, so there is no middle-man commonly found in most coffee importing transactions. It means Level Ground can pay Jaime a higher price for his coffee and they have helped Jaime and his family in several other ways. Level Ground helped to bring one of his daughters to spend six months in Victoria, BC to learn English. Another of his daughters, Veronica, who comes back home every weekend from university in Medellin, had very kindly made us lunch when Jaime and I returned from our tour.

Many other farmers have started to replant their coffee due to devastation caused by the ‘roja’ disease of the previous year. Farmers can’t replant everything at once, but it was easy to spot all the new bushes that lined many hillsides. Jaime grows 5,000 coffee plants, including some recent planting. Despite the increased revenue from coffee with the Level Ground partnership, he still needs an income from other sources. He’s diversified into tourism through his horse tours, but he would like more opportunities, and tourists, to show people this magical area.

The local surroundings where Jaime’s finca is located is not ‘poor’, as was typical in many other places I visited in Central America. I wondered why that was so. Most people kept their homes in good condition and looked after their gardens. Jaime’s apartment was pleasant and modern.

I thought that was the last I’d see of Jaime, as I was due to leave early the next morning. But he was clearly intrigued by my cycling adventure. Later that evening, resting in my hotel room, I got an abrupt knock on the door. Not bothering to get the hotel staff to call my room, he showed up unannounced with his friend Carlos Carvajal. Typical Jaime. Carlos was a real adventure cyclist, having completed a 25,000 km bike ride around South America. Carlos and I chatted for a few minutes, but I wanted to spend a little time enjoying the evening in Jardin for myself. I walked out to the large hotel balcony that overlooks the village square. Families and friends sat outside the cafes, chatting and drinking. It was busy yet calm and serene. I sat, watched, listened, and allowed the magic of this little coffee town keep me warm as the evening slowly cooled into clear, crisp darkness.

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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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A sprint through Fair Trade – catching up on some visits

I thought I was blogging at a good pace, like my cycling (ok, almost). But it seems to have veered off a little and I’m trying to catch up. I can measure the difference between where my blog is at and where I am at, in countries…so having just taken care of Nicaragua, I realise I’m four countries behind now. Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador.

Not wishing to take until 2013 to get my blog all up to date, I’m going to give a quick rundown of some of my last visits, just to give an idea of where I’ve been recently. Later I’ll return to these places to provide a few more details.

  • Costa Rica: CoopeAgri & APPTA

I had two visits in Costa Rica. One was to a coffee co-operative (CoopeAgri) and the other a cacao co-op (APPTA). Both are certified Fair Trade. CoopeAgri is located about three hours’ south of San Jose, the capital. The co-op forms a major part of the town and surrounding communities and has existed for 50 years. They produce coffee and sugar, and operate many other ventures within the town, including local banking, a petrol station, hardware stores and a new cafe. Uniquely, the town, San Isidro de El General (also known as Perez Zeleton) is an official “Fair Trade Town”. I found it a successful co-op and is a great example of how a co-op can be a positive influence within a community.

At the CoopeAgri beneficio. This is outside the coffee lab. There is a huge coffee processing facility and offices here too
The new CoopeAgri coffee shop in San Isidro centre

APPTA is located in the remote northeast of Costa Rica, right by the Caribbean coast. It’s a cacao exporter, and the producers also grow bananas and other fruit and vegetables for local and national markets. I visited their hot and humid cacao processing facility & office, just outside the town of Bribri. They export Fair Trade cacao and also have a nursery for cultivating fruit and vegetables for local and national markets. Bananas are also a major part of their operation. The highlight, without doubt, was tasting some fresh cacao pulp right off the tree. It’s completely different to what we think about cacao – citrus flavour, sweet and so refreshing.

The APPTA nursery. Plants here are cultivated within the coop and also sold to members.
Fermenting cacao. To get from the sweet, lovely citrus to the sweet, lovely cacao smells, you have to put up with a few days of pretty unpleasant-smelling fermentation
At APPTA I got to chew on fresh cacao. Citrusy, sweet and delicious
  • Panama: COCABO (Cacao)

COCABO is a Fair Trade cacao co-operative that has existed for 60 years. It’s the oldest co-op in Panama. Located in Almirante, in the remote northwest corner of Panama, it’s a Fair Trade co-op that exports organic cacao and also cultivates bananas for sale within Panama. I met various people, including the indomitable Elma, who’s worked there for more than 25 years. She’s seen it all, and felt ambivalent about the benefits of Fair Trade. I was surprised at her philosophical attitude, and her humour outweighed her negativity over some aspects of Fair Trade, such as the minimum price and how much help the Fair Trade social premium provides.

COCABO have nice bags for their cacao
Elma at the COCABO office. Funny, open and caustic, she had a lot to say
A cacao grower takes a siesta. It's tiring work dealing with this heat..
  • Colombia: Fruandes (dried fruit), Jaime Marin (coffee), Factoria Quinoa (quinoa), Fondo Paez (coffee)

Fruandes (Frutos de los Andes) has a processing office in Bogota. Actually I couldn’t tell what it was originally, but I was told that it was probably a house. Hidden within, tardis-like, seemed like a secret hive of fruit, delicious aromas of mango and some very very busy people in white coats. The mango harvest was late this year so it was a mad scramble to get the mangos dried, packed and shipped out. I arrived on the day they were shipping a lorry-load to Vancouver. Chaotic was understating it, but it was all being done in good spirits.

Up to our ears in mangos, the aroma was heavenly. But it's not easy work, chopping and slicing
After the chopping comes the drying, sorting and packing. Et voila!
The improvised loading system. Ugly, but it worked
You don't have to like mangos to work here, but it definitely helps if you do

Also in Bogota, in a tiny office out of the centre is where Factoria Quinoa is located. Luis Avella is the man behind it. He was more than busy; I barely got to speak to him over a hurried lunch. He’s an entrepreneur who came out of academia to start up his company. He has written and lectured about Fair Trade for many years, but felt the best way to help people was to start up his own company. Factoria Quinoa sources quinoa from small growers in southern Colombia. The company focus is on quinoa as a health food, so they make quinoa ‘powder’ as well as quinoa grain.

One of the highlights of my trip was spending a couple of days in Jardin. It’s a very small town south of the city of Medellin. Tucked in amongst the surrounding Andes mountains, it is a refreshing, tranquil spot to relax in. The beautiful town square had me wanting to just sit there and drink coffee all day, much as some of the locals undoubtedly do.

Jaime at his finca, high above Jardin. We also had his labourer and an inspector from National Coffee Federation
Jaime at the casa of the finca, with a nice mural of his farm on one side of the building
Jaime with his daughter Veronica on the balcony of their home in Jardin

On my way south, a little distance from the city of Cali (home of salsa, apparently), is the coffee co-op Fondo Paez. I visited their newly-acquired office (a house, really) in the town of Santander de Quilichao. They are an indigenous co-operative of “Nasa” people with around 460 growers who live up in the surrounding highlands. It was basic stuff, almost no furniture, plastic chairs, a dot-matrix printer whirring in the background…Celio, one of the co-op directors chatted to me throughout. It was obvious to me that they have a tough life, but he said Fair Trade has helped give the co-op some better opportunities, such as the office where I met them.

At Fondo Paez I met Celio (left) and Salvador (President). It is an indigenous co-operative in the highlands of southern Colombia
Celio showed me some old photos from previous visitors to the co-op
The Fondo Paez staff at the office. They have their own coffee for within Colombia that uses an indigenous name
  • Ecuador: Nevado Roses (roses), CADO (alcohol!), COPROBICH (quinoa), Pachacuti (panama hats), FAPECAFES (coffee)

Ecuador is a rich treasure of many many things. I got lucky to have such a diverse experience with my Fair Trade visits. I got to learn about three completely new Fair Trade products, roses, alcohol and hats, and also got a closer look at Fair Trade quinoa. My visit to Ecuador was rounded off with a coffee visit.

The roses I saw were amazing, fantastic quality long-stem roses. John Nevado is a comitted Fair Trade producer, but he has many reservations about the process. Who wouldn’t like Fair Trade alcohol?? CADO is an alcohol producer, though at the moment the alcohol they produce is for cosmetics. They have plans to make alcoholic drinks, so let’s hope the BC Liquor Board gets its act together one day to allow us to bring more Fair Trade booze to sell in Vancouver. COPROBICH is a quinoa co-op in the heart of the country and I got a better idea of how it’s produced and even got to see my first quinoa plant! Further south, near Cuenca, is the co-op AMTA. They supply directly to the UK company Pachacuti, a Fair Trade hat company. It’s a group of less than a dozen women that make panama hats (and many other styles too). The region is a large producer of hats, and this was a unique chance to see Fair Trade here. I rounded off my Ecuador trip with a visit to a coffee co-op and I felt right at home again amongst the coffee bushes. Ecuador is not a major coffee producer but FAPECAFES is a large producer association (1700 growers) in the Loja region, close to the Peruvian border.

Nevado roses....amazing flowers here. Huge stems, beautiful colours
Hard at work cutting and packing the flowers
It's cold work too, the workers are all geared up to cope with the 5C temperatures in the packing area
Fair Trade roses: they look pretty good in a vase
In Riobamba I spent time at the quinoa co-op, COPROBICH. Avelino, the President, is in the middle
With COPROBICH I got to see my first ever quinoa plants. They're hardy buggers, growing at altitudes where almost nothing else will
Being a quinoa farmer is not easy, but great care is taken in the process. We met these producers by the roadside, sieving quinoa grains
Fair Trade hat-making. Maria sewing labels
Once the hats are made in a basic shape, the edges need to be trimmed. The ladies here tend to switch around in the different work activities
The women (and their children) eat lunch together every day, and I was lucky to be invited for lunch too
At the FEPECAFES office in Loja, southern Ecuador
I met Martin at FAPECAFES, who was a great help arranging my visit to see some producers
One of the producers at home; the whole operation is here, hand-done - depulping, washing and drying. The drying beds are in the background
Here's the coffee washing. The bloke on the left, our taxi driver, luckily didn't get involved
Then we visited another producer. This bare patch has newly-planted yucca. The coffee was growing all around us

 

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