One of our core values is the belief that by bringing together actors from an often- fragmented industry, we can create a more inclusive coffee economy. For too many coffee roasters and drinkers, coffee farmers remain people whose faces and stories seem far away and unconnected to the product. And many small producers themselves feel detached from what happens to their coffee once it leaves their hands and country. De la Gente is changing that by building a better coffee commerce that delivers quality coffee along with economic and social impact.
In January 2016, De la Gente hosted an event that brought together almost an entire segment of the DLG-based supply chain, thanks to our forward-thinking partners at Nossa Familia Coffee in Portland, OR. Nossa is a visionary company that, under the leadership of owner Augusto Carneiro and director of coffee and lead roaster Rob Hoos, has put coffee connectedness at the forefront of their identity.
Augusto bought 10 people, from the Nossa team and their retail accounts (Grand Central Bakery, Pine Street Bakery, and Belmont Coffee Service) to Guatemala. This was the first time we had producers, De la Gente, a coffee roaster, and retail businesses represented together in one place. Seeing everyone pick coffee side-by side, laughing and learning in a convivial atmosphere, was a special experience that won’t soon be forgotten.
The highlight of the visit was our encuentro (exchange) day, consisting of a round-table discussion and cupping (though technically the table was square). In the spirit of simplicity, our guests, along with board members of the San Miguel Escobar cooperative, each shared their own history and how they became involved in coffee, and then had the chance to ask each other questions.
As expected, everyone had a different story. From farmers who had been cultivating coffee for generations, to farmers who took to coffee more recently in order to support their families, to baristas for whom coffee has been a lifelong passion, to bakers who stumbled into the joys of this drink, everyone had a unique sense of what coffee meant to them. Everyone also had great questions, about the basic logistics of each others’ business operations as well as about larger questions of how people think about their business philosophy.
It was a really powerful experience to have all these people in one room together, and to be reminded that for every cup of coffee served or bag of coffee sold, everyone here has worked hard on their part of the process. In an industry that is often mysterious and opaque, we were reminded that we are all part of a team delivering a quality product. Farming, processing, importing, roasting, and retail are all integral to the cup of coffee that someone will enjoy in Portland, even if most of it happens behind the scenes and far apart.
This isn’t to say that closer collaboration and transparency is the solution to all of coffee’s inequities. Many of the factors that make life hard for small-scale coffee producers are outside the control of any individual person or company. In particular, the social inequities caused by lack of access to public services, along with a system of global trade that can set prices at or below the cost of production, combined with other factors like climate change, present a daunting situation. Goodwill and teamwork alone cannot solve those problems.
But we can get a good amount of the way there by changing mindsets and building new connections. Financial exclusion starts with social and cultural exclusion and imbalanced power dynamics. Aside from economic exploitation and inequality, some of the more objectionable parts of the global coffee trade are the denial of agency of small farmers who, without the necessary knowledge and connections, are left at the whim of market conditions and buyers’ decisions. The encuentro activity and subsequent cupping emphasized that everyone in fact has complementary skills, and that through education and communication it is possible to build a shared sense of ownership and a more level playing field.
Most small farmers in Guatemala haven’t had many advantages in life, in terms of formal schooling or economic opportunity. Many have worked arduous jobs on plantations or in the hospitality industry in order to provide the basic needs for their families. To have farmers and leaders from the San Miguel cooperative sit down with roasters and retailers as peers and business partners is validation for the hard work that they do and an affirmation of the viability of DLG’s vision for a more inclusive coffee industry.
This wouldn’t happen if we didn’t have great partners who share our values and are serious about the hard work necessary to make this vision happen. Thanks to Nossa, their customers, the San Miguel cooperative, and everyone else involved. You’re all coffee leaders, and through your commitment to doing things differently we’re building a better coffee industry together.