Rural coffee farmers and urban international coffee buyers speak very different languages. Farmers know the land, and buyers know the markets. Many times, they don’t speak each other’s language, and potential business opportunities get lost in translation.
In El Salvador, with coffee rust taking hold in 2013 and dropping production on some farms by 95-100 percent, putting thousands of coffee families’ livelihoods at risk, establishing these business relationships has become more important than ever.
In response to the national crisis affecting the country, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched the El Salvador Coffee Rehabilitation and Agricultural Diversification Project in 2014. Managed by NCBA CLUSA, this sustainable coffee program works to introduce cost-effective technologies and techniques, create access to new investment mechanisms and provide marketing and sales support to rebuild the industry.
One of the primary components of this program is the international buyer outreach that the marketing team carries out. Beatriz Alegria, the program’s marketing specialist, takes on the role of coffee trade interpreter. She is bilingual, so to speak. Alegria knows the farmers and their farms personally; she knows their goals and their struggles. She also understands the coffee trade and what buyers look for in terms of quality, market pricing and the idiosyncrasies of cupping, a quality test that brings out the various tastes of the cuppers. This unique knowledge allows her to both work closely with the international coffee community to attract buyers to El Salvador and also support the farmers on how to negotiate fair prices for their coffee.
In 2016, Alegria and her team began reaching out to their network in the specialty coffee world with the goal of increasing exposure for unique Salvadoran coffees and inviting international buyers to visit El Salvador. Scandinavian coffee roaster, La Cabra Coffee, got wind of the opportunity and soon the NCBA CLUSA team was setting up an extensive trip for the company, carrying out private cupping sessions and farm visits across the country.
La Cabra was impressed with the high scoring coffees that El Salvador had to offer, many scoring in the 80s and 90s. After sampling 54 coffees, La Cabra purchased two micro lots, one of Bourbon coffee from Jose Edilberto Guevera from Morazán with a score of 84.5, and another of washed Pacamara with 89 points, grown by Manuel Antonio Carranza in the highlands of northern Chalatenango. As a result of Alegria’s ongoing negotiation support, both micro lots were purchased at $420 per quintal, $281 higher than the commodity prices on the day the contracts were signed, representing a significant increase in profit margins for the farmers and a testament to the quality of the micro lot.
"One of the key roles that our marketing and sales team plays is working closely with both the Salvadoran farmer and the national and international buyers. Our expert knowledge and insight about the farms and the coffee they are producing serves to facilitate negotiations for the farmers and also introduce the best coffees to buyers, according to their unique selection criteria," Alegria said. The team also carries out comprehensive workshops that cover an array of topics including packaging design, ecommerce, publicity, tradeshows and certifications, among others.
Benjamin Evar, partner at the Denmark-based La Cabra Coffee commented, “We are always looking for partners who can help us in our core mission to find amazing green coffee qualities from smallholder farmers, which enables us to present our clients with clean roasted coffees bursting with bright flavors. Having established contact with Beatriz Alegria through a mutual friend in the specialty coffee world, we decided to include El Salvador as part of our coffee sourcing trip this year.”
This was their first ever visit to El Salvador. Alegria and her team helped La Cabra connect with smallholders that they would have never otherwise had a chance to find, some of whom had produced raw material that showed great promise.
“One of these lots took us completely by surprise as it revealed flavor notes and an acidity akin to some of the more interesting Kenyan coffees that we regularly source. All in all, our time in El Salvador proved to be a worthwhile learning experience that showed us the range of qualities available from smallholder farmers there. We look forward to returning on future sourcing trips to Latin America,” Evar said.
While El Salvador’s coffee industry has experienced periods of instability over the decades, coffee leaf rust, climate change and market volatility have devastated the national coffee economy in recent years. The El Salvador Coffee Rehabilitation and Agricultural Diversification Project will work with 7,500 producers and 50 producer organizations to transition farmland to rust-resistant varieties, introduce low-cost, sustainable agriculture techniques and improve business management practices, in an integrated approach to increase competitiveness, reduce environmental impact and improve worker health across the industry.
Learn more about the El Salvador Coffee Rehabilitation and Agricultural Diversification Project.