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Coffee stories


Coffee Stories


Lima/Duraznillo| Peru


Isabel wakes up, rubbing her sleepy eyes. She looks around - mom and dad are already up, though the sun hasn’t risen yet. The 5-year-old sister rolls over to the other side. She gets up, she knows that anyway her father will come for her soon to help with laying out coffee. As every morning, there are 50 kg coffee bags waiting for drying. With good sunlight they need 2-3 days, but recently the sun doesn’t show up that much. Yesterday they packed up the coffee in a hurry, so the rain wouldn’t waste a few days’ work.

The intensive smell comes to Isabel’s nostrils, mom has already set the soup on the fire. Today it’s their turn to cook, they will collect coffee on their land, together with uncle, aunt, grandmother and cousins. She doesn’t usually work on the plantation, she goes to school, but now there are vacation, not by chance in the harvest season. Before she even liked to go with adults, but nine hours working in the field started to be a bit boring. Maybe she'll convince her mother that she will stay, help her with preparing lunch, and join the pickers in the afternoon.

- Isabel, come! I need help - Orlando enters the room.

Isabel runs after him, spreads the large sheets for drying. The horse and the mule are already set, the family is slowly gathering for breakfast. It doesn’t matter, the kitchen is anyway too small for everybody to eat at the same time. They eat in shifts and who is ready heads toward the plantation. It will be a long day.

Miriam rises from the big pot, she has to bring more wood, the fire will go out soon. She would ask the daughter, but she is still busy picking corn for chickens. She insisted on staying at home. Well, maybe even better, she will help in cooking, and Miriam won’t have to carry all the food. Water for the rice is almost ready, what else I should cook – Miriam thinks. Fried bananas were yesterday, beans are over, maybe banana pancakes.

- Start peeling the bananas – Miriam says to Isabel who has just entered the kitchen while she herself starts to prepare coffee. The orange season is almost over, so it's the only thing they drink. She gets a handful of dried coffee beans, threw them on a pan to fry, stirring for a few minutes. Then she starts to ground them until powder. Hot water, three large spoons of sugar and the coffee is ready. She pours the coffee into some bottles and puts the lunch into plastic boxes. Then, she wraps everything in the huge scarf and loads it on her back, leaving 2-3 portions for the daughter to carry. They are good to go.

- Today we are working on a softer slope, we should be able to collect four bags - thinks Orlando, throwing the next coffee berries into the wicker basket hanging from his neck. They need money for a new school uniform, teachers said also that the girls miss vitamins. The only question is what will be the price of coffee this season... They have no possibility to take coffee to the city so they depend on the prices imposed by middlemen, and these vary from season to season. If they were able to process coffee a bit more ... at least roast it... they would be paid twice as much. But beside stripping the flesh and drying, they cannot do much. Without constant access to electricity and proper machines they cannot roast the coffee, which means they are paid pennies for a several-hour working day in the season. Off-season they work less, but they also hardly earn anything. His father in law got a bit richer on coffee, he was able to buy some land that Orlando and his wife are taking care of. But Orlando doesn’t see perspective for further development. Although his situation is still better than his brother’s, who works on someone's land and gives back half of the earnings to the owner.


- A large part of coffee farmers in Peru share a similar fate to the family in Duraznillo - says Pepe Uechi, co-founder of the social business Compadre. – For example Kristobal, with whom we have been cooperating for several months. He is 65 and has been producing coffee for 40 years. Like Orlando, he couldn’t roast coffee, which significantly reduced its gain. His farm is also very isolated and to sell coffee he had to walk 6 hours through the jungle to the nearest village, with a 70 kg sack on his back. In Compadre we are looking for solutions for small farmers, we want to make their lives easier and create the opportunity to earn decent money, which will translate not only into a better standard of living, but also into more nutritious and diverse food and better education for their children.

Compadre began with Juan Pablo. As part of his master thesis in Lima, he prepared a machine that roasts coffee using solar energy. A simple concept, a roasting oven mounted on a solar cooker. After defending the thesis, together with two of his friends, he decided to check if this machine can really change the lives of farmers in Peru. They were invited to collaborate on small, isolated farms with which they had already had contact as part of their social activities, they installed the machine there and waited for the results. It soon turned out that even though the farmers could get more money for roasted coffee, they were unable to sell it themselves and they needed help in distributing and reaching customers ready to pay a bit more for good quality organic coffee. Compadre decided to tackle this challenge.


They're probably waiting already, it’s almost one o’clock – thinks Miriam. A 40 minute walk in the mountains with eight servings of lunch on her back is quite tough. But thanks to that the whole picking team doesn’t need to come back to the village. Isabel stays with them, so Miriam have more time to prepare dinner (she managed to get a piece of pork rind, the soup will be a bit more nutritious today), finish washing clothes (everything has been in the bowls for several days now, at least since they live at the cousin place there is always enough water), clean the house (chickens are entering the house making incredible mess).

Isabel joins the pickers after eating her lunch. Quickly and efficiently she pulls coffee berries from branches. She puts her hand on the fork of a twig and scrolls it through, letting fall the seeds into her basket. If all are ripe it goes faster. Otherwise she has to be more careful so that the green ones stay on the branch. Sometimes she eats one or two coffee berries, they are sweet, refreshing.

We already have three full sacks - thinks Orlando, climbing the tree. In the morning they started in the easy terrain, but now only the tall trees have been left, and they are on a steep hill. They have a system that works quite well – they bend flexible, tall branches and anchor them to the ground or another tree, so both hands are free for picking. Still keeping the balance remains a challenge.


- We have managed to develop a quite efficient system - says Pepe from Compadre. - When we have a large order of coffee we call Kristobal, and he posts the bags on the bus to Lima. After 20h or so we pick it up from the bus station. Sometimes we go to the farm by car, it takes just 12h - we've already got a four-wheel drive, without it we wouldn’t be able to get there.

- In Lima, we sell coffee to organic food stores, sometimes to companies, restaurants and individual customers. Some of the coffee is roasted on site, with the use of electricity, unfortunately one machine in the village is not enough to handle everything. The development of the technology is one of our challenges.

Not the only one. Also selling coffee and finding customers is not always easy. Coffee consumption in Peru is quite low, recent research has shown that it doesn’t exceed 600 g per person per year. For comparison, in Colombia it is 2 kg, in Italy or Brazil 6, and in Finland 12 kg. But the market is growing, and it gives them hope.


Finally - thinks Isabel when Orlando starts carrying the 50 kg sacks toward the horses, grazing on a more even terrain. He bends under the weight - without horses they wouldn’t be able to transport so much coffee to their home. Together with his brother, Orlando puts two large sacks on the back of the horse, one on each side, for balance. Meanwhile the women are preparing for the way back - they collect firewood, grass for guinea pigs, they look for ripe bananas or yuccas. Then, they wrap everything in the scarves and cast it on their backs. Who is ready slowly walks back to the village. Shortly after sunset, they will gather again for the meal in the home of the family who has collected today. As tradition has it, several families join effort during the harvest season, exchanging labor in each other’s patch.

Orlando put off the harness from the horse and got lost in his thoughts for a moment. They gathered a lot today, but will he be able to clean up all the coffee before night? It depends on whether there is enough electricity for the machine that strips the berry and removes the pulp. Recently something is blocking, several seeds don’t get cleaned properly, so they have to select them manually. A month or two more, and calmer evenings will come back, but now there is no time to waste, no one knows when the buyer will come, they have to prepare as much coffee for sale as possible. Orlando sees Lisa climbing a tree. She is looking for the last oranges. So there will be juice for dinner, who knows, maybe even jam… If they were able to plant something more, other fruits, vegetables, at least tomatoes. But they live too high in the mountains. Apart from oranges, cherimoya, yucca, bananas, and coffee nothing really grows here. The horse whinnied, bringing Orlando back to reality – he should make the work done.

I have to put back the coffee into the sacks and then it’s over for today – thinks Isabel. It’s almost dry, today the sun was really strong. It is a pity they don’t have more space under the roof, their neighbor made an arbor and he doesn’t have to scatter coffee every morning and collect it in the evening to keep it safe from rain and dew. Maybe in the future. Isabel takes a huge rake and begins to collect the coffee in one place. Lisa, come to help! - she screams to her younger sister.

Miriam observes the girls from the window - they are still so dependent. She, at their age, was already working on the farm, she cooked for the whole family… She has to put more effort to prepare the older daughter to run the house. She's 13, it's high time already. The younger one still has time, she is so full of energy and joy. Last week she brought home canned food from school, apparently politicians invest in feeding children. They say children lack iron or something like that and they cannot eat only rice, eggs, beans, bananas and yucca. But how to get anything else?


- Already in college, I was wondering what I really want to invest my 8h of work per day – says Pepe -. It was important for me that what I do makes sense, not only economically. I started to get involved, meet coffee farmers, they are amazing people, you can learn so much from them. They are my motivation and inspiration. Do you know what Compadre means? It’s godfather in Spanish. That’s what Kristobal and other farmers are for me - my parents, my family of choice.

Although it's not always easy to work with them. Kristobal is the exception - he does his duties on time. Most of the farmers are not used to work on an imposed schedule, their pace is set by nature. They don’t understand the term deadline, they don’t see any problem when they are asked to send 100 kg of coffee and they send only 50, if they didn’t have more. There is a huge difference between farmers and people from the city, built over the years. Slowly, however, they are finding a common language, understanding each other. Compadre on the one hand gives farmers hope for survival, on the other hand it shows customers what organic coffee is and why it is worth investing in it. It also meets both sides together. A person at the other end of the supply chain, a jungle coffee picker, starts to have a face, stops being anonymous.

Many of us live in a bubble, not knowing how the world works - says Pepe. - I believe that we have to go out of this bubble. Take risks. We finished one of the best universities, we could find a well-paid job in an international company, but we decided to try something different. It wasn’t easy, we had a lot of doubts. After all, I had no idea about coffee! We learned everything on the way. Today I know that it was worth it. For farmers, for customers. And for ourselves.


In the evening, they gather in front of a small TV - family, neighbors. Miriam is still in the kitchen, securing the left-over for tomorrow's breakfast. Orlando collects the last sacks of coffee, covers the stripping machine so that it doesn’t get wet. Lisa takes notebooks and repeats the alphabet, longing for the school. Isabel can’t wait too, she will meet her friends, some of them live in villages two hours away on foot, so they don’t see each other outside of school. She would like to become a hairdresser. Or a beautician. Go to Chachapoyas, see the city. She could even live there, like uncle Wilder. But will she be able to stay away from her parents, sister, cousins, and grandparents? She is not that sure and quite scared at that thought. She has never left Duraznillo for long. But she looks at the future with hope. She would like to change something, get to know the world, invest in herself. And above all - support the family.


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