My first few weeks at Cafexport have been a rewarding and exhilarating experience as I have been immersed in the lifespan of coffee, from the branches of coffee trees at the farms all the way to the bags ready for export at the mills.
My introduction began on Tuesday at the office as I learned all about Cafexport’s farms. There are roughly 4200 farms in total, spread across multiple regions. I learnt that the coffee’s journey begins as it travels from the farms to the cooperatives, where it is organised and cup tested for quality and flavour. It then is transported to the dry mills where it is cleaned, organised and packaged for export. Another organisation then test the coffee for quality again and arranges the logistics for export. Cafexport then takes over, arranging the logistics of export and selling of the coffee to clients. This is a very brief summary, but you get the general idea. I was amazed to find out that they cup test the coffee for quality upwards of 7 times throughout this whole process to ensure it is truly the best.
The integral component that ties all these farms (or fincas) together is a set of guidelines for sustainable practices. With these guidelines, Cafexport provides a network of agronomists the tools to train and assist farmers in coffee quality, farm productivity and sustainable agriculture. This is one of the two main stages where Cafexport comes into the coffee’s journey. Cafexport works with farmers and agronomists to help ensure they improve the sustainability of their farms, by helping with projects, training, and monitoring of farms’ progress. The second stage is, as I mentioned, helping organize the logistics of export and delivery of coffee around the world.
It was incredible to learn how such a complicated network, comprising of the cooperatives, exporters, the dry mills, non-profit coffee organisations, and Cafexport all work together effectively to ensure that Colombian coffee is great quality, sustainable, and gives back to the farmers who work so hard to grow it.
However, the real adventure began on Tuesday with my first visit to a coffee farm. We left early in the morning to drive from Manizales to visit 3 farms near the town of Riosucio. The roads were constantly winding, but with stunning views looking out over towering mountain ranges and lush green valleys. Our route to the first farm took us from a paved road, to a rocky dirt road, and finally on foot hiking 20 minutes up the mountain.
At this farm I got to see for the first time how a coffee farm operates, from the vats where the coffee beans are cleaned and fermented, to the big racks where they dry the beans in the sun. We had to take soil samples from 3 different plots of the farm, which took us further up the mountain through the groves of coffee plants. I found out the soil would be taken to a lab to be tested for quality, to determine if any fertilisation or soil treatments were necessary. We needed multiple soil samples from different sections of the farm to provide an accurate overall picture of soil quality. The climb to reach the spots for the soil samples was steep, but the view from the top was incredible. You could see for miles, Manizales a glittering white blot in the distance.
After lunch, we visited two more farms to conduct a sustainability and quality inspections. It was interesting to see the similarities and differences in the layout of the first farm and the second two. For example, one of the farms had an organic water treatment system which is more environmentally friendly and cost effective. Once we had looked around the farms, we talked to the farmers about any thoughts or concerns they had and provided recommendations on areas they could improve.
On Thursday we drove to visit two farms in Salamina that have Ecomills. The Ecomill is a new coffee washing technology that automates the de-pulping, washing and fermenting of the coffee, all in one mechanism. Ecomills are incredibly beneficial to coffee farmers because they eliminate wastewater contamination during the de-pulping and processing stages and need one tenth of the amount of water used in the traditional manual process. Currently, only 4 farms in the whole group have Ecomills, because they are quite expensive, but over time the goal is for many coffee farmers to have access to the machines.
A mechanic came with us to Salamina, whose job was to examine and fix the two Ecomills, as the farmers were having problems with them.
The farm’s Ecomill was about as tall as me and took up a room in one of the outbuildings. They had both traditional drying racks and an electric drying machine for the beans. As the mechanic fixed the Ecomill we talked to the farmer, and I learnt how the machine worked and its various advantages. The second farm we visited had the biggest of the 4 Ecomills, situated inside a tall two storey building. Originally we had brought the mechanic to replace the grinder that de-pulps the coffee, but it turned out that it only needed a few adjustments. The mechanic added a new belt to one part of the mechanism and examined the functionality of the Ecomill as a whole. While the mechanic tended to the Ecomill we took a closer look at the machine and conducted an evaluation on the farm as a whole. There was another section connected to the mill which I hadn’t seen before, a series of tanks and waterways that I learnt are part of a sophisticated hydraulic system connected to the Ecomill. In this system, the coffee is poured into a big tank outside of the building which feeds through a tube into a water stream. The stream carries the beans through a channel and into a tube that pulls them up to the top of the Ecomill, feeding them into the de-pulping mechanism. It was fascinating to see the efficiency of the machine on such a big scale.
On Thursday, we travelled to Supia to evaluate two farms. At both farms we looked over their paperwork for the year to make sure their expenses were accurate and up to date, and that they were paying their workers sufficiently. We then discussed what they had done to improve since the last check in, before examining the farms.
The cleaning and processing areas of the farms were in good condition, but both had a problem with the drying racks because the pets had access to the racks could potentially walk on the beans. We also looked at the storage of agrochemicals. Both farms stored the chemicals in the correct metal containment box, however, some of the chemicals were in old plastic bottles and not all of the protective gear and clothing was stored correctly. We ended our visits by discussing with them the improvements they needed to make and the importance of these improvements in order to succeed.
At the end of the day, we went to Anserma to visit a dry mill. The dry mill is where the coffee from multiple coops is brought to be cleaned, sorted, and organised for exports. There is a total of 2 mills in the group. The dry mill is a huge connected series of machines that take up 3 big warehouses. The machines first remove any dirt and foreign objects from the beans. The outer shell on the beans is then removed and they are cleaned thoroughly. Afterwards, the beans travel through a series of vats which sort the beans by size and remove the malformed beans. All of this is done through air and vibrations. The most sophisticated machine in the whole process scans the beans as they are carried down a chute. With precision accuracy, it selects specific beans that are off-colour or in some way deficient and with a directed jet of air expels the bean from the stream. Finally, the beans are sorted by size and quality and put into bags for export. At each stage, a certain percentage of beans are expelled, refining and organising the quality further. The biggest and highest-quality beans go to companies, the smaller beans stay in Colombia. It was fascinating to see the machine in action and the intuitive intelligence and accuracy of the mechanics, working so precisely at such a large scale to organise beans that will be shipped all over the world.
Since it was a 4-day week, I’m including my trip on the following Monday
Once again I was on the road on Monday as I went to Quinchia to help out with and observe a training course on the safe handling of agrochemicals. We began with team building exercises, followed by a variety of activities to explain and educate the coffee growers on the negative effects of agrochemicals on the body and environment. We then ran a number of demonstrations to show them the risks of unsafe handling, how to wear the protective gear correctly, and how to safely clean up afterwards.
It was an incredibly informative experience for me as I not only learned a lot about the training courses but about agrochemicals as well. Some of the information was intuitive and obvious, but other details, such as which parts of your body are most susceptible to contamination, I wouldn’t have known unless someone told me. It really impressed upon me how valuable these training sessions are and how much it helps the coffee growing communities. This rang even truer as, on our drive back to Manizales, we passed a number of men with agrochemical dispersers wearing tank tops with no protective gear or masks).
My first weeks at Cafexport have been incredibly rewarding, I learnt so much and have an even more profound appreciation for coffee growers and everyone who dedicates their work to the processing and export of Colombian coffee. I am already excited to see what new knowledge and adventures the following weeks will hold!