How Bicafe’s Harvest Hope initiative is empowering Guatemalan producers to become better businesspeople, grow a better product, and build long-term sustainable roaster relationships.
Five years ago, when coffee prices were at extreme lows, green bean exporter Bicafe started to notice a worrying pattern. Farmers weren’t interested in producing coffee. They were haemorrhaging money.
A producer approached Bicafe Executive Director Rodrigo Cordon and asked: “Can you help me find out what my colleagues in the area are doing with fertiliser? I don’t have any money to fertilise, and I keep losing US$50 per 46-kilogram bag each year.” Coming from an estate that producers 2500 46-kilogram bags per harvest, that equates to more than US$100,000 of lost revenue for that year.
Cordon enquired with a like-sized coffee producer who said: “Actually, I’m about to rip out all the coffee plants on my farm. I don’t want anything more to do with coffee. I’m going to grow plantains instead.”
It was this farmer’s decision that shifted Bicafe’s focus. Fourth generation producers Alfredo Chinchilla and Mariano Ventura founded the Guatemalan coffee exporting firm Bicafe 30 years ago with the aim of exporting specialty coffee. In 2015, Bicafe started its own generational succession and repositioned its vision to include helping farmers secure change through education and awareness.
In 2019, the Bicafe team started a pilot project with Alvaro Llobet of Lloto del Café, working with just two small farms and two large estates to equip the farmers with knowledge to ensure they not only stayed in the producing industry, but ended up more financially secure.
“I’m not a producer but our partners are. They are fourth, fifth and sixth-generation farmers. The problem with that, is that nobody taught them [the skills to profitable farming], so what you find at origin, is a lot of farms that are going broke,” Cordon says.
To turn the situation around, over the past five years Bicafe has established the Harvest Hope program. Together with strategic partnerships, it aims to transform the Guatemalan coffee industry by promoting sustainable practices and long-term profitability to improve conditions for workers and producers.
It’s through this collaboration that Bicafe has worked with 15 large farms and about 150 small producers to completely transform the way they manage their farms.
The beauty of the program, Cordon says, is that it doesn’t cost producers any more to be involved. Rather, it works with farms that were broke and bankrupt and not producing the volume they should be. Within three years, the farms can be thriving and producing higher yields without a huge financial investment.
To do so, the Bicafe team, along with consultants and technicians, go out to farms and provide producers with education on correct plant management techniques. This includes evaluation on potential income generation from different coffee species, determining production costs, and ensuing profitability within available resources. Bicafe then focuses on implementing long-term financial stability that enhances productivity and profitability. The final stage prioritises continuous improvement and innovation by constantly evaluating and upgrading practices so that producers can stay competitive.
“Bad farming decisions have resulted in us teaching and re-teaching producers how to take better care of their farms. We need the producer to have well-implemented management systems to be able to have high and sustainable production,” says Mariano Ventura, Bicafe Commercial Manager.
Bicafe works with open doors. Producers can watch their coffee being milled, they can visit Bicafe’s quality lab to cup and test their coffee, and ask for advice on post-harvest techniques, management, and processing.
“We’ve helped producers open their eyes. In the past, being a coffee producer didn’t necessarily mean you were a businessperson. You were only a farmer. But being a farmer does not equate to being a good businessperson, and that’s what we’re trying to change,” Cordon says.
In 2012, the coffee leaf rust outbreak reduced the 2011/2012 harvest production by 20 to 25 per cent according to a United States Department of Agricultural report. As a result, Cordon says new hybrid varietals became popular with Guatemalan producers. Cordon says farmers who stick to planting traditional varieties – Bourbon, Catuai, and Caturra – and when well nourished with good nutrition and preventive disease controls, can better tolerate a leaf rust attack.
Due to coffee farming’s agricultural risk, however, there is still no financing options for coffee producers in Central America.
“Coffee has a long way to go in terms of sustainability. We need to do something about that, and we think right now, Harvest Hope is that solution,” Cordon says. “We are only trying to change the mentality of commodity coffee in Guatemala. It’s hard. People have been trying to change that mentality for 150 years.”
On average, Cordon says a coffee producer in Brazil produces between 40 to 45, 46-kilogram bags of coffee per hectare of green beans. In Guatemala, that yield is just eight, 46-kilogram bags per hectare, with an expected drop in production by a further 25 per cent over the next five years if labour issues continue to exacerbate, says Cordon.
“We want our producers to produce five-times what they’re producing, and when they do, their cost of production becomes very good. Guatemala has an average differential over the past five years of +50 over the C market,” he says.
“For the past 50 years, the New York C Market has an average of 140 –145. Add the differential, and you get a total price close to 190. We want all of our producers to have a cost of production below 190. We want them to be profitable.”
This is the critical work Bicafe has been working towards over the past five years. Cordon says Bicafe was positively surprised when Anacafé, Guatamala’s national coffee association, announced its Sustainable Profitability Program, and hired Bicafe’s consultants in 2021 to help recalibrate coffee production in Guatemala, and improve the living conditions of producers.
“Anacafé and Bicafe share the same idea. Profitability is of upmost importance in order to have coffee for the long-term. As such, we will be sharing our philosophy with the 150,000 producers we have in Guatemala right now,” Cordon says.
Bicafe is a growing company with more than 30 years’ experience exporting coffee from Guatemala and Honduras where they opened a mill and exporting facility in 2014. It exports Guatemalan and Honduran coffee around the world, with customers in Australia, Japan, Italy, the United States, China, New Zealand, Korea, Taiwan, Spain, Canada, Belgium, and Saudi Arabia, to name a few.
Cordon says Guatemalan coffee is often used to balance blends, and in its own right, is celebrated in for its subtle and elegant profile.
“Guatemalan regions are amazingly different between each other. Guatemalan coffees have a distinct, elegant, chocolatey profile that is easy to drink and silky smooth on the palate,” he says.
Speaking to Global Coffee Report direct from the Guatemalan Cup of Excellence awards, Cordon says of the 30 coffees up for auction in the 2023 event, Bicafe works with 12 of the producers to mill, finance and support them in helping produce the best coffees in Guatemala.
“These coffees are the best of the best. We mill those coffees at a micro-lot mill, which we built in 2018. In the past four years we’ve found amazing producers who think like us and deserve recognition for the quality of their coffees,” Cordon says.
Recognition is important, and so is taking the next steps to ensure Guatemalan coffee is celebrated for many years to come, and that producers and their families have access to improved living conditions. Cordon is aware of the many challenges facing Guatemalan producers, including labour and worker migration to the United States, but before that, he says sustainable farming must be addressed and maintained.
“Our first goal is to get producers to be profitable, and number two, is to find roasters or importers that can adopt farmers, respect them, collaborate for the long-term, and pay respectful prices,” he says. “We need to help producers produce more coffee, and coffee that is profitable and sustainable. Then, we need to understand their cost structures so that we can pay fair prices, prices that incentivise the next generation not to migrate. And prices that incentivise quality, that’s what we need.”