Colombia growers believe the future of coffee production can only be assured by training the coming generation.
A great espresso or cappuccino made with specialty coffee beans from Colombia’s high mountains is a ray of hope for social, economic and political change.
This is possible thanks to a partnership between the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC) and the government of Antioquia, a 25,000 square mile region (64,000 km2) where violence and corruption was once widespread. At its height, the Medellin Cartel in Antioquia’s capital smuggled $60 million of cocaine a day. Violence in this northwestern portion of the country has been curbed due to strong leadership and a community educational program strategically conceived to restore order.
How does it work? The FNC’s technical expertise in growing coffee allied with the government’s political determination to change Antioquia’s coffee industry in a positive way. Together they instituted programs like Quality Coffee Contests; an emphasis on growing more lucrative specialty coffee and introduced the Educational Parks (Parques Educativos) program where lectures and demonstrations on the cultivation and production of specialty coffee has given momentum to growers who wish to produce quality coffee.
There are 85,271 coffee producing families in Antioquia. The educational program offers hands-on training with courses in horticulture, processing, and lectures on the science of coffee. Participants are encouraged to exchange information.
“Coffee is our culture, our essence, our personality and it has been crucial for the state development,” said Sergio Fajardo, Antioquia’s governor and the former mayor of Medellin, a city with a metro population of 3.7 million, the second largest in Colombia. According to Fajardo the Specialty Coffee program in Antioquia is one of the main strategies for the development of the state.
The coffee numbers in Antioquia are impressive. There are 125 municipalities in the department of which 94 dedicate their economic activities to coffee production. There are 132,812 hectares under coffee and 113,911 coffee farms.
As a first step, Fajardo instructed his team to map every inch of the department to better understand its potential. An intensive collaboration with three different universities – Nacional, Eatfit and Pontificia Bolivariana – concluded that coffee is the common denominator among Antioquian families.
“Coffee is the expression of our people,” explains José Fernando Montoya a member of the FNC’s directive committee.
Once the Antioquia’s potential became apparent the FNC, Antioquia’s Coffee Producers Departmental Committee (Comité Departamental de Cafeteros de Antioquia), and the federal government’s Office of Productivity and Competitiveness (Secretaría de Productividadad y Competitividad) established the “Antioquia: Specialty Coffee Origins” program. Armed with $COP21 billion Colombian pesos (approximately $US8 million), the project offers professional education and training for the coffee growers and their families. The intent is to increase their income, produce quality coffee and in doing so bring better living conditions to the area.
The government adopted the slogan “Antioquia the most educated” (Antioquia la más-educada) and formally recognized coffee production as a great tool in helping the department to reach its main goal: change society through education. Immediate targets include improvements to the school system, a better understanding of agricultural science, increased entrepreneurship and a reverberant culture. The government is taking advantage of the people’s interest in coffee to accomplish these goals.
The new coffee generation
The program recognizes the long-term commitment essential to success depends as much on training the young as those who are growing coffee today. Tomorrow’s great coffee depends on today’s planning. Colombians already understood that coffee grower’s children are the key. Stimulating the youth and making the countryside an interesting theater of commerce will guarantee the future of the coffee market and slow the rural exodus of young people.
But how do they reach these youngsters? Education! Using a focus on coffee sales in mathematics lessons, business management, agricultural techniques, roasting and cupping classes; education prepares the youngsters and attracts interest from local people. In addition to reaching adults, they are also thinking about the next generation of coffee growers and introducing them to a new business perspective.
“So we have this program called the New Generation of Coffee Growers or La Nueva Generación Cafetera,” says Fajardo.
Yenny Velasquez Alzate, right, one of the leaders of the Specialty Coffee Program in Antioquia, helped organize and teaches at the coffee camps.
According to Yenny Velasquez Alzate, the economist who leads the Specialty Coffee Program in Antioquia, the goal is to reach young people from the farms. The program is not just training or giving coffee lessons, it is a project for life. It can teach coffee production in a different way than how it was taught to their parents.
As land owners their duty is to act like businessmen and women – not coffee bag carriers. Students studying marketing, for example, learn to promote their family’s very own coffee brand. It is important to show the new generation that they can be what they want to be in their own land.
“This is not just carrying a bag of coffee to the cooperative. They can market their items of specialty coffee, they can be tasters, have their own coffee brand, be baristas, and have their own coffee shops,” explains Yenny.
The will to prepare and inspire a new generation is imbedded in two big projects. The Coffee Camping is the first step to stimulate young people’s interests and show that there are other opportunities for young Colombians. These opportunities are in the fields.
The entire coffee production chain is explained in 36 groups comprised of 28 students, a total of 1,000 people between the ages of 14 and 18 years of age. Each teacher receives four groups per day and the whole camping takes one weekend.
“I am very happy because I’ve never had an experience like this,” said young Alejandro Zapata Granados, who is 15 but looks much younger. “After this experience, I learned how to like the countryside better. Now, I have a lot of expectations in my finca (farm).”
After intensive days studying everything from plant diseases to management, and coffee cupping, he found his passion: roasting.
“I love roasting. I like smelling the aroma changing with the heating process. Actually, I love anything related to coffee,” he said. When asked about the danger of working near hot equipment while still young, he answers with a confident smile “I am not afraid. It is not dangerous.”
The training inspired his dream to become a great coffee grower and export his production. Young Granados now wants to start as soon as possible. “I want to improve what papa is doing,” he said.
The course work is conducted in tents spread all over the camp. Classes are attended by quiet and attentive students. Most of the teachers are professionals from the FNC. The Government provides infrastructure but the FNC has educated growers for eight decades. All the knowledge, classes, research, tips and technical advice exchanged at camp are then shared with the community. This combination of strengths will change Colombian coffee history.
In addition to its ongoing work with producers across the country, FNC is concentrating its energy in these exciting coffee opportunities in Antioquia.
“The FNC is constantly helping through cooperatives and regional committees,” says barista Daniel Brandão, son of a coffee producer from Jardín city who is working as an instructor at the camp. After winning first place in a barismo championship when he was 18 years old, Brandão found a whole new world of opportunities and saw hope in coffee to change his life.
“When I started I didn’t know what a barismo was,” he says. Now, he is a professional barista working in the government’s coffee training programs. “The camp is great and has a good energy. I can see myself in the eyes of these young people. They remind me of who I was two years ago!” he exclaims.
While camp lasts only a few weeks, the Parques Educativos (Educational Parks) is an ongoing program conducted in community spaces for locals to enhance their social, cultural and economic skills through classes and training.
One part of their agenda is established by the state and the other part is organized and decided by the citizens of the region where the park is located. Approximately 41 community centers are currently in operation and another 39 are planned. Most of them focus on academic and technical subjects associated with coffee.
If there was any doubt that coffee can be an engine for social transformation, Colombia is proving that this is possible.
The world’s largest coffee producing countries such as Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia, Mexico, Ethiopia, India, Guatemala have much to learn from the experiences drawn in Colombia.
STiR Tea & Coffee International South American correspondent Kelly Stein traveled to Antioquia in September as a guest of the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC) and the government of Antioquia.