We’ve talked about  what a coffee bean is – so now we take a look at whats happening in the field?  We may undertake around twelve ‘origin’ trips a year on average, to visit the farmer partners and producers we source our coffee from and to learn more about changes during the season on the farms. Pascale, a development economist reseacher who’s been working with us, has also been visiting producers’ co-operatives in Guatemala. She had the opportunity to observe more about planting coffee and also what other crops are important to the farmers to diversify their income.

How is coffee grown?

Young coffee plants are grown in nurseries, shown here which is in Guatemala. 

Here coffee producers grow new young coffee plants in a special format so they can be transplanted into the land parcels within the first year. The plants are either grown in plastic plant pot-bags as in the picture or directly into the ground. The plants are placed neatly in rows because one needs to have room around the plants to fertilize and to weed the surrounding area (to avoid disease transmission).

Why is crop diversity important?

The farmers often grow other crops too, for a variety of reasons; to give shade to coffee plants, to provide for their own food needs, and to have other sources of cash crops to contribute to their  income outside of the coffee season. Here’s a great project in Huica that Pascale visited:

The women of Huica have a mushroom project, which not only provides an alternative income source but also diversifies their diet. They grow the mushrooms in an old barn that has the correct moisture and light levels.

There are different ways to cultivate mushrooms. These women use maize stalks as the growth medium, which are abundant because tortillas which are made of maize dough feature in every meal here. Mushroom growing does not require a great investment, only the seeds and plastic bags need to be bought every time.

After approximately 45 – 60 days the mushrooms are ready to harvest. The crop can be susceptible to disease, but if taken care of properly a substantial harvest can be managed in relatively little space. The harvest takes place every two months and the sales at local markets and to friends and neighbours provides regular cash flow. During the coffee season, women often stop mushroom cultivation, as coffee requires all of their time.  And they need to use the barn to dry and store their parchment coffee.

Coffee ready to be picked:

Still green and immature coffee beans are shown here together with new coffee flowers not yet opened. The flowering of the coffee plant is dependent on several factors, most importantly rainfall. 

With the first rains during the wet season the coffee plant starts to flower with coffee blossom.  This is not only a magnificent sight, like these plants in Tuiboch, Todos Santos, but also brings with it a delicious aroma of jasmine.

One can often find banana or plantain trees in the coffee fields, planting both cash and food crops in the same area is an optimal way of using space.

Next time I want to discuss some of the problems and issues that can affect coffee plants during the growing season – and how farmers overcome them.


Series about Union Direct Trade

In previous post about Union Direct Trade we’ve talked about how we’re gathering information from smallscale coffee farmers in Huehuetenango in Guatemala. This work has been undertaken by Pascale, a masters graduate in Development Economics from Wageningen University as a research project to define how Union can have a positive impact on the lives of coffee farmers.

Pascale has been in Huehuetenango for five months and now reflects on her experiences as she completes her first period of work there and prepares to move on to Costa Rica.

Emigration was one of the coping mechanisms to deal with the coffee crisis in the late 90s. It has become the major reality of rural economies Central America.

Of the 87 households I’ve interviewed here in Huehuetenango. I discovered that 72% have or had migrant family members. The majority immigrated to the United States
(89%) and 11% to Mexico. In 40% of the cases it was the farmer (head of family) who went to the United States. The reasons for migration are: earn money to pay off debts, buy land to cultivate coffee, buying a car, or construct a house.

Although migration and the money earned from this have positive effects, such as lower poverty rates there are many social costs; broken families, a reduction in labour supply, the risk of death, injury or imprisonment from illegal border crossing, and a reduction in knowledge and skill transfer since producers are not there to teach their children how to cultivate coffee. (Steven has previously talked about the impact on the women who are left behind – Abandoned in Guatemala)

Listening to the women farmers at Todos Santos

Fair and reasonable coffee prices and long-term commitment is therefore very important for coffee producers. As the groups I interviewed indicated, knowing that they have a committed buyer such as Union Hand-Roasted Coffee gives them just and spirit to keep on working to produce high quality coffee. The previous unstable markets impeded producers from investing in their coffee fields because prices hardly covered the cost of production, it also does not make any sense investing in high quality coffee if there was no premium for quality coffee. Quality coffee requires extra labour and money investments. Only ripe cherries must be picked and traditionally pickers get paid by piece (per
quintal (46Kg) of coffee harvested). A disadvantage of paying by quintal is that workers will pick as much as possible, to earn more. To incentivise pickers to only select the ripe coffee cherries, farmers pay day labourers a higher price per day.

Although these producers in Huehuetenango are on the right track, it is important that low interest credits to fund paying for the harvest becomes available to producers.  This will reduce their cost of production increasing the profits.

Guatemala is a beautiful country, colourful, rich in culture and tradition and inhabited by a population which is generous, hospitable and hard-working. Yet, Guatemala faces many difficulties. The country is very unsafe and Huehuetenango bordering Mexico is a collection of drug traffickers. Bad road conditions, landslides and (violent) demonstrations on the roads make it difficult or sometimes impossible to travel from one place to another. Especially during the harvest this is a serious problem for those preparing their coffee for export. Hence, I have the highest respect for those working under these conditions. The farmers of La Libertad and Todos Santos have faced many barriers, but they never gave up. “For every problem there is a solution” is their motto. I believe that the fair and transparent relationship that Union Hand-Roasted Coffee has with the organizations that form these co-operatives will contribute to the development of towns in La Libertad, Chanjon and Tuiboch (Todos Santos).

boarding the bus to agronomy classes

boarding the bus to agronomy classes


Transparency and traceability are two important aspect of a company’s business model. Only by being transparent in the whole coffee chain, can both buyer and producer be sure that the benefits really reach the producers.

Almost Integrated into Guatemala Culture !

Almost Integrated into Guatemala Culture !


My next stop is going to be Costa Rica; there I anticipate the situation with farmers will be completely different. Besides the fact that the country is much more stable and is classified as a middle–development country, Costa Rica has embraced a micro-mill revolution which Union has talked about before and I will describe more in my next post.



In my last post about visiting farmers in Rwanda during the current season, I discussed how high market prices can bring difficulties to the farmers. In this post we’ll look at how prices can affect quality.

Quality is not an Accident

The second negative effect of high coffee market prices shows its hand in the overall quality of coffee reaching consumers.  In years of low market price, farmers  producing high quality specialty coffee know they have to maximise that quality to attract best prices. They achieve this by careful and selective picking which is more labour intensive, and careful post-harvest processing of the cherries.  This year, not only in Rwanda but as we have seen in many countries, farmers understandably take the view that they will be receiving more than last year without the extra effort – so why bother!  Again we have taken a great deal of time – including Steven visiting them earlier this year – to encourage them to work carefully and reinforcing to farmers that our agreement to buy, at a premium to market value, is linked to producing high scoring speciality grades.

If all of this market turbulence was not enough to cope with, the weather also added its own challenge.  Usually, the cherries ripen and are harvested over a period of around twelve weeks.  This year however, due to lots of rain and warm sunshine, the full crop came in over just six weeks and the Coffee Washing Stations, where the cherries are processed, were inundated by huge volumes of coffee cherries which need to be pulped really quickly. The beans must be separated from the pulp in a timely manner. If this is not done, fermentation in the bean can occur, or insects are attracted and damage the cherries, both of which can cause unpleasant taste effects in the finished coffee.  As we are in regular contact with producers that UNION buy from, we were aware of the problem and knew that there would be issues in the harvest quality so careful selection was needed more than ever.

Each individual lot has to be sampled

It’s this last matter that really drove me to spend a chunk of July in the cupping Lab in Kigali, working with Leatitia, a cupper I had helped to train some five years ago and who helped select our lots last year.  Together we cupped and scored hundreds of individual production lots from three Cooperatives and to get the coffee Union requires this year, we discounted just over 50% of the lots as not being up to our standard, and that was after Leatitia had pre-screened the lots to offer me a choice of those she considered the best.

To make the selections, a sample of green coffee is taken from each lot passing through the stations on any given day and labelled with the district and control reference number and is sent to the cupping lab in Kigali.

First the lots are sample roasted

300g of the coffee is prepared and roasted the day before we cup the lot; first we assess the roasted fragrance of the dry grounds and then pour the water, steep before evaluating the wet aroma, and then tasting the coffee brewed simply in a glass. We evaluate for a range of characteristics to produce a final score and description for that coffee that enables me to make a selection and construct the overall quantity, quality and flavour profile when the lots are put together.

Water is poured into the grounds

In each cooperative there are districts that each have their own terroir and hence character.  My job was to select the best lots and bring them together (blend them) to achieve an overall standard for the cooperative that reflects the style of the district.  Maraba for example produces a rich full bodied and smooth coffee with an
elegant orange/citrus acidity to balance the cup; we offer this as our Single Estate coffee, Rwanda Maraba Bourbon.  COCAGI cooperative in Gashonga yields a coffee that is sweet, fuller bodied and has more red fruit flavour notes which we’ve also selected as a core component for our Revelation espresso.  Karaba Co-operative was new to us this year and being out in the cupping lab to taste tens of lots from the district was fascinating and wholly informative.  I’m looking forward to UNION being able to offer this coffee, which is distinct from the others having a lighter body with clean fresh apricot and white fruit, almost floral notes and a silky milk chocolate mouthfeel.

Occasionally during the cupping process, a lot comes up on the table that has a really outstanding flavour, with clarity and balance coupled with unique flavour notes and which also receives a high score.  In these cases, I have requested that these small lots are segregated all the way through and are delivered to us as our micro-lot selections.  We will release information on these as and when we get closer to them arriving in London and have checked and approved the arrival samples ensuring nothing untoward has happened during shipping.

Samples cooling before cupped

It’s only by getting out to the farms that we can know what has occurred during the harvest each year and I have no doubt that there may, sadly be a lot of very variable quality Rwanda coffee reaching the international market.  But it’s through our Union Direct Trade relationships and putting the miles
and work in, also personally a very enjoyable process that UNION Hand-Roasted Coffee will again be able to represent the very best of Rwanda’s speciality coffee
harvest for 2011-2012.

Working out the final scores


This weekend I returned back from 3 weeks in Africa, which included visiting coffee producers in Rwanda. Over the years, Steven and I have come to understand how essential these face-to-face meetings are. They give us an accurate picture of the complexities small-scale farmers are faced with, and ensure we continue to select and secure the best quality coffee for Union.

Two issues that are always important are; the local impact on small scale farmers of the volatile coffee market and secondly, how we select the specific lots of coffee that we want to buy from the new season harvest.

Coffee Markets and Small Scale Farmers

Over the last nine years we’ve been worked initially with one Co-operative, Abahuzamugami  ba Kawa, (Maraba), who  we proudly launched onto the speciality coffee market  in 2003. In more recent years our relationships expanded to a second group, COCAGI (Gashonga) and this year, now we are also excited to introduce Karaba Co-operative.

Offices at Abahuzamugabi ba Kawa Maraba

The nature of our relationship with these coffee producers involved many aspects aside from just being a commercial partner (buyer). Our participation has helped transform aspirations into a sustainable reality and we have increasingly and fascinatingly immersed ourselves in issues of community development, health and welfare, capacity building (business and management skills) and Co-operative development, as well as helping to train the first professional speciality coffee cuppers, all in the pursuit of bringing our Rwandan coffee up to the very best international standards of production and cup quality.

This year, due to the volatile coffee market and a number of weather and seasonal problems that coffee farmers faced, I decided to spend a period out here in Kigali at Rwashoscco, the Co-operative owned export organisation. I went to “cup the harvest” to select exactly which parcels and lots we’d be buying, and also to have our regular review meeting with the General Managers of Abahuzamugambi and COCAGI Cooperatives to find out how they have fared in this difficult season. Steven met with the Co-operatives before the season, in February-11, to plan the strategy, and now we meet to review how the season played out, and to plan for the next year.

Preparation of fully washed parchment Maraba

Preparation of fully washed parchment Maraba

Many people will no doubt wonder why this year (climate aside) could be seen as challenging, surely the high market prices must be a goldmine for the farmers, and the coffee must be great, right?  Well, from what I’ve seen and experienced here and our work in Guatemala plus my recent visit to Costa Rica in May, high markets can bring as many problems as benefits to many coffee communities around the globe.

Many of the communities that we source from are not single farm businesses but Co-operatives: They function by buying coffee cherries from their members who are small-scale farmer families (Maraba have around 1300 families) as the ripe coffee cherries are picked, usually over a harvest period of around twelve weeks.  At the beginning of the harvest, the Co-operative must have enough funds to pay all the farmers for their picking.  At the end of the season, when the coffee is finally sold, the Co-operative receives their money from the buyers and a second ‘top up’ payment is made to the farmers; the community decide how to portion out any remaining profits.  They may vote to retain some capital for next year, possibly to invest in washing station equipment or for community projects such as a school or hardship fund for older members.

The key difference about how co-operatives operate and compete for the benefit of their community members against potentially better funded private businesses is in this first and second payment system. Private companies buy cherries by making a one-off payment to farmers, but in co-operatives where farmers initially accept a lower price, the co-operative can reduce the level of loans required from local banks to fund the coffee cherry harvest, and therefore reduce their interest costs which can be a significant part of annual expenditure.  The ‘difference’ is made up to the farmers at the end of the season. In well managed co-operatives, with good buyer relations such as we enjoy, they can provide the farmer with a higher income as the profits are shared in the community as opposed to being retained for the owners of private companies.

The challenge I mention is that this year, the market price of coffee has nearly doubled in the period since last harvest and the amount of cash the cooperatives need to fund cherry purchase has therefore similarly increased.  Such rapid increases in cost really puts these communities under stress as the amount of retained profit may not be enough to cover the increase and thus higher loans and interest payments are experienced.  Additionally, although cooperatives operate for the benefit of their members, they still experience competition locally as other coffee cherry buyers working as agents for the private exporters compete to buy this coffee.  There is no obligation for co-operative members to give their co-operative first refusal on their crop. But if the Co-operative is not offering the highest price, other benefits are available to members throughout the year.

With such young cooperatives where the full understanding of their concept is under-developed, the farmer, understandably wants money now, rather than a promise of (more) money later. This issue often will take a long time to become fully recognised and supported by farmers but it is important as spreading out of payments helps families who haven’t been educated about budgeting to manage their cash over a full year cycle.

Hand sorting washed parchment Maraba

Hand sorting washed parchment Maraba

Over recent years, Union Hand Roasted Coffee assisted communities like Maraba and Gashonga by paying a percentage of our purchases in advance of the season; a mechanism known as pre-financing.  This year again we provided pre-financing but due to the high prices that we agreed for the finished exportable coffee, we also faced similar cash constraints and could not assist pre-financing to the same degree as we would have liked.  To continue providing the best upkeep, we support the co-operatives in working with additional NGO’s and pre-finance trade organisations that provide credit to developing communities at a preferential interest rate.  As market conditions stabilise we hope to return to the level of pre-financing the co-operatives desire and help them to develop their community.

In my next post I’ll discuss how quality control influences small scale farmers.


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