Meet the FNC’s newest CEO Roberto Vélez

In May this year during the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC) regular board meeting, its serving Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Luis G. Muñoz announced his immediate resignation. By the time the FNC Board of Directors walked out of that meeting in Bogota, Colombia’s capital, the process of electing a new CEO had begun. With the FNC crediting Muñoz’s five-year tenure as having seen Colombia’s coffee production increase by 50 per cent, filling his shoes would be no easy feat. As designated alternative CEO, Luis F. Acero was responsible for stepping up to the interim role while the FNC initiated its election process. On 2 July, the Coffee Growers Steering Committee published its agreed upon position description, officially opening the floor to applicants. Two weeks later, eight candidates were selected from the 19 who responded to the open call. The National Coffee Growers Committee, whose members are government officials and representatives of Colombia’s 15 coffee growing departments, were able to narrow the candidates down to three. In the running were Adriana Mejia Cuartas, the European Director of the FNC, Luis Guillermo Vélez, an economics professor at EAFIT University, and Roberto Vélez. On 21 July, the National Congress of Coffee Growers, the FNC’s highest decision-making body, unanimously appointed Roberto Vélez as its new CEO. “As a democratic institution, the FNC’s CEO election is one that employs transparent and participatory processes,” says Vélez. “The process is based on pillars of openness, competence, transparency, democracy and impartiality.” In its 88-year history, the not-for-profit has built a reputation in the coffee sector for its dedication to these principles, which Vélez says makes his new position all the more humbling. While Vélez may sing the praises of the institution rather than crediting his own hard work for the boost to top spot, the new CEO’s list of professional achievements speak for themselves. An economist from Del Rosario University, Vélez has studied as a postgraduate in both the United States and the United Kingdom. In his 20 years with the FNC, Vélez served as the Director in Asia and the Chief Commercial Officer. Prior to the appointment of Vélez, the National Coffee Congress, made up of the delegates representing different growing regions, met to decide the direction the FNC would take over the next five years. Vélez says what came out of that assembly of representatives, the 2015 – 2020 Strategic Plan, has set the foundation that will guide his leadership. “This plan seeks to achieve a sustainable coffee industry through four strategic areas: economic, social, environmental and institutional,” says Vélez. “Of course, I will add my own emphasis on some of these initiatives, but we clearly have an institutional road map.” An important economic target for the FNC is to increase the return for farmers by supporting them to produce bigger yields; a goal Vélez admits could be hampered this year due to reduced rainfall caused by El Niño. “We estimate that nearly 18 per cent of the expected harvest for the second semester of 2015 will be compromised in one way or another by the lack of rain,” says Vélez. “Of course we are worried.” To counter the effects of the drought, the country is currently considering lifting a restriction that prevents coffee containing more than five per cent pasilla, considered a second-grade bean, from being exported. As the only nation with such restrictions in place, it could be a change that ensures Vélez continues the legacy of innovation set out by his predecessor. Like the departing Muñoz, Vélez says those economic goals are important, so that the FNC can fulfil its social development targets in rural communities. “The FNC’s strategic plan focuses on a few key social objectives, including supporting the expansion of the rural education models, increasing producers’ access to social security, and maintaining social investment by strengthening public and private partnerships, in order to enhance the quality of life in coffee growing areas,” he says. The FNC has established a number of important partnerships with the likes of Costa Coffee, Nestlé and Nespresso to help fund the projects, which are making a huge impact in Colombia. “Coffee has undoubtedly been a socially and economically stabilising factor that has significantly contributed to the pacification of a number of Colombia’s rural areas,” says Vélez. “The FNC has played a key role in the execution of development programs to improve the standards of living and the social stability of many coffee growing regions, which today are the most prosperous and least violent areas of rural Colombia.” In the last week of September, Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, met with FARCguerrillas to negotiate the final stages of a peace deal, which could end a civil war that has lead to the displacement of thousands of Colombians since it broke out in 1964. “The FNC’s efforts to promote peace in the coffee regions can serve as a model for other institutions in the current peace process, and in the eventual post-conflict scenario,” says Vélez. Vélez says that while the 2015 – 2020 Strategic Plan may be new, the FNC has been committed to sustainability for the past 88 years. He says that the next step is to create an unprecedented sustainability model for the industry. Vélez says the FNC is in the process of developing a Sustainability Manifesto that will solidify Colombia as the first coffee producing country with a sustainability policy in place. “FNC places emphasis on sustainability,” says Vélez. “We recognise that there are many vulnerabilities that could potentially affect the coffee industry and coffee growers. We need to work diligently to be prepared for unforeseen risks, ensuring that the Colombian coffee industry will continue to thrive for future generations.” Vélez offers a refreshing perspective from leaders shying away from the issue of climate change. “Climate change is an impending threat to all coffee growing regions,” says Vélez. “From an environmental standpoint we aim to fully implement the FNC’s climate smart coffee growing strategy and manage sustainability resources efficiently in order to achieve a coffee industry that adapts and combats climate change.” For the past five years, the FNC’s efforts have been focused on an ambitious plant renovation program replacing coffee trees with more productive and rust-resistant varieties all over the country. As far as this initiative is concerned, there doesn’t appear to be any foreseeable end to this important work. The FNC has made planting climate-resilient crops a key part of its Strategic Plan. “These efforts, which have resulted in renovating over three billion coffee trees, have improved the productive capacity of nearly 550,000 small coffee growers in Colombia,” says Vélez. “In fact, the FNC renovation programs have become an international reference for fellow coffee producers and other agricultural producers of perennial crops around the world.” In Chinchiná, known as Colombia’s coffee heart, the FNC’s research and development facility, Cenicafé, developed the Agro-climatic Platform. The platform provides data, which allows producers to know, in almost real time, the temperature fluctuations within their region and any warnings for pest control. “We are more prepared than most to face the climatic challenges head on due to the developments of Cenicafé,” Vélez says. “Looking forward we will continue to innovate and work closely with Cenicafé to ensure we are as prepared as possible for climate change and climate variability.” Vélez says that the Agro-climatic Platform and plant rejuvenation program have had huge benefits to all Colombian coffee growers. “The coffee industry determines their livelihood and the coffee leaf rust had the power to have long-lasting, detrimental effects on the growers,” he says. “Today there are more than 420,000 coffee growers with more resistant varieties. Due to this development, coffee growers benefited from increased production and revenues – improving their quality of life.” In addition to replacing crops, the FNC employs a team of 1500 people to provide technical support and assistance to coffee growers across the country as they adapt to the new varieties. “The Colombian model of teaching coffee growers to employ more sustainable practices is one that has spread throughout the world, leading to a more competitive and technologically advanced industry,” says Vélez. With a renewed five-year plan, reinforcing the FNC’s commitment to remaining a relevant and representative player for Colombian coffee growers, Vélez says he is looking forward to seeing what they can achieve for the industry. “The FNC is an organisation that gives back in so many different ways, improving the lives of people and business across the value-chain.” Vélez says that while there may be a new name on the office door, the FNC’s mission statement remains the same, and it is something he plans to remain committed to. “Our vision is to consolidate the Colombian coffee growing families’ social development, while guaranteeing the sustainability of the  offee growing business,” he adds. “And to position Colombian coffee as the best in the world.” GCR

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