Dona Marlena walked on ahead of me, her young daughter trailing behind us as if being pulled by a wayward piece of rope. She spoke rapidly and I tried to keep up and my mind focused. A member of a Fair Trade co-op, she was happy to take me on a wander around her small finca to show me what her farm looked like.
I wasn’t expecting this. Earlier in the day I managed to negotiate Nicaragua’s unique addressing system to find the co-op office and cafe, having had good practice when in Esteli. It’s quite bizarre. Buildings are addressed with reference to local landmarks, whether or not they still exist. In this case, the “landmark” was a large hardware store.
When I arrived I was most interested in the cafe. “Flor de Jinotega”, a cafe run by associates of the SOPPEXCCA co-op, is another great example of promoting Fair Trade coffee within the local community. Fatima, the manager of SOPPEXCCA was out when I arrived, so I comforted myself with a cup of coffee in the cafe, hoping to catch her in the afternoon. In the meantime I looked around in the cafe and smiled again that the community was able to make this cafe a reality. It promotes local coffee, the co-operative, helps generate better quality coffee production and gives the producers more opportunity to diversify and increase their income through different opportunities.
Luckily, just before I left I met Eric. He told me that Fatima would be there just after lunch and that there would be an opportunity to visit a finca in the afternoon. Result!
I met Eric after lunch and we headed off to meet some producers. The customary mode of local transport, apart from buses, is a motorbike. So I hopped on the back, without a helmet (yes, I know) and off we went. First stop was Dona Marlena, one of the co-op’s women producers. When we arrived we saw her husband and a couple of other guys finishing up some wood to help build a new ‘dwelling’ next to the main living area. It’s not a house, by any stretch. Marlena took Eric and I on a little tour of her finca. We saw her coffee plot and other crops she grows, such as corn, beans and bananas. She has 5 manzanas (about 3 hectares).
Marlena’s husband pointed out that although Fair Trade coffee prices are higher, he doesn’t feel any better off because the family has to pay more for other food they have to buy. They have their own ‘wet-mill’ processor at the farm, which makes it a little cheaper than using the one at the main beneficio.
She has been six years in Fair Trade though she still has conventional conventional production (not organic). It’s a family farm, as her parents produced coffee. At harvest time she hires up to 50 outside workers (which she would do whether even if not in Fair Trade). It’s expensive, but she needs to do it. Marlena is yet another producer who has noticed the effects of a changing climate and she says it’s not in a good way. harvests in a bad way. As we walked back to her home, she pointed out an area where she intends to plant more coffee this year – 3,000 plants!
When I asked Marlena about the benefits of Fair Trade, she told me there were several things. A good price, coordination and organisation within the co-operative, help (technical assistance) with production. One problem is that she gets paid once per year, in June, when all the coffee has been bought by Fair Trade importers.
After Dona Marlena, Eric took me to a new (last year) beneficio. It was small, but the guys were hard at work in the rain. Mauricio gave me the lowdown…when he wasn’t being interrupted by the constant ringing of his mobile phone. The new site helps the farmers in that area process their coffee more easily. Beforehand, they either processed by themselves or had to drive longer distances for processing. Unusually at this particular site, there was no drying patio because the area’s unique micro-climate made it susceptible to wet weather…as I saw for myself! The beneficio is able to minimise its water consumption by recycling. Typically ‘wet processing’ of coffee uses large amounts of water.
I eventually got some time to chat to Fatima, right at the end of the day. She looked busy and tired, yet made an effort to talk with me. She was very open and smiling, which I thought was genuine, even though it was clear that after our talk had finished she still had a lot to do. Our chat was quite business-like, and I felt a sense that I was imposing on her workday. But really I am grateful she gave me the time she did.
Nicaraguan coffee is highly rated, particularly coffee from La Estrella, which does well at the national Cup of Excellence competition. The cafe “Flor de Jinotega” opened five years ago and they have plans to open one in the capital, Managua, later this year. One difference about the coffee served at the cafe is that it is the same quality as the coffee they export. Typically in other co-ops they sell their lower quality coffee to local/national markets.
I saw parallels with Guatemala, in that outside charities and NGOs have a large prescence within the country. In SOPPEXCCA’s case, Christian Aid have a long-established relationship to assist the co-op.
Some SOPPEXCCA stats:
Nearly 30 years old, it’s an umbrella of 18 co-operatives, with 650 producers. They help 25 communities. It started with 68 producers. 20% is certified organic; 100% is Fair Trade. Export 16,000 quintals (100lb bags) annually.