Market Reports

Ecuador invests in coffee

It’s been less than five years since the first micro lots from Ecuador’s new farms in Pichincha scored 92 points, and attracted the attention of specialty roasters. These roasters, however have had slim pickings from South America’s smallest coffee grower. Over the past few years, the country has clocked a steady 600,000 to 650,000 60-kilogram bags of production. A walk in a Pichincha coffee farm shows why. The coffee farms here are small, and many of the Arabica trees have not yet started to produce cherries. These young trees, however, are a good sign that roasters should soon have a better selection from Ecuador. The country’s government has been investing in expanding coffee cultivated land as part of a strategy to triple the country’s production to at least 2 million 60-kilogram bags in the next five to 10 years. 
“We planted the first hectare on the farm in 2008, and in 2010 we harvested 25 quintals [46-kilogram bags]. Now we have a total of 2 hectares, both with a density of 6000 trees each, and next [crop] year [2014-15] we should be able to harvest between 50 and 60 quintals,” Magda Zavala of Finca La Perla tells GCR Magazine. The first micro lot from La Perla scored 92 points on the 100-point scale developed by the Coffee Quality Institute.
Zavala and her husband Olger Rogel are not new to coffee. The Zavala family has been growing coffee for three generations in Southern Ecuador’s Loja region. Rogel is an agronomist who has worked his whole life with coffee plants. Although coffee has been cultivated on a tiny scale for over 20 years in this region, most of the newcomers are coming in with an extensive background in coffee growing, and the technical knowledge to make the most of the land. “This is great land for coffee. It has good soil, we have between 1600 and 1800 metres altitude on the farm and we’ve had almost 200 quintals in our best harvest, which was picked in 2010,” says Arnaud Causse, one of three partners in Las Tolas Estate. Las Tolas is spread over 73 hectares of land deep into the Ecuadorian Cloud Forest, in the northern most part of the Andes Mountains. Causse is an agronomist who has worked with tropical crops, including coffee across Africa and Latin America. He says he is aiming to see 30 hectares planted with coffee to “have the forest absorb the coffee”, and in the process improve yields and quality.
From the Pichincha Volcano north of the capital Quito, to the south-central part of Ecuador near the commercial capital of Guayaquil, there seems to be a newfound sense of optimism about the future of coffee growing in Ecuador.
“Because of the dry climate here we have no crop diseases, and when the plantation is in full production we expect an average of at least 60 quintals [46-kilogram bags] per hectare,” says Francisco Aray, one of the farm managers at Hacienda Victoria. The Victoria coffee and cocoa estate, located 20 kilometres west of Guayaquil, is a private investment which was launched less than four years ago. Nevertheless, it’s already starting to yield returns.
“We have 200 hectares of Robusta coffee of which 150 are now entering in production for the first time in 2014. But the plans are to expand production to as much as 2000 hectares,” says Array, speaking to GCR Magazine during a visit organised by Ecuador’s tourist and trade board ProEcuador. At these yield levels, a 2000-hectare estate would produce a harvest of 92,000 60-kilogram bags.
The results seen at farms such as Hacienda Victoria are exactly the type of development the government hopes to see more of in the next decade.
Ecuador does seem to have all the characteristics needed to produce top quality coffees. The country benefits from multiple regions with their own micro-climates that support different kinds of coffee growing. This includes old varieties based on the original Ethiopian Arabica strains such as Typica and Bourbon. These varieties have been the main source of the Arabica industry and are recognised for their fine cup qualities. Most Arabica in Ecuador is grown at over 2000 metres above sea level, another essential factor for quality coffee.
Silvana Vallejo, Vice Minister for Agriculture, says increasing coffee production can help boost the socio-economic development of the country’s 15 million inhabitants. However, she also sees an important secondary benefit.
“The substitution of coffee imports is a very important strategy for the government because Ecuador has a deficit of 1.5 million quintals and at the moment we are importing all this coffee,” says Vallejo.
In the past five years, Ecuador’s soluble sector has seen impressive growth. Total exports of instant coffee products doubled to 1.68 million bags of green coffee equivalent in the 2012-13 crop cycle, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). That compares to just 861,000 bags in the 2008-09 cycle. The soluble industry is accredited for increasing Ecuador’s coffee imports to 1.4 million bags in 2013-14, from just 389,000 bags five years ago.
In 2012 the government launched the ‘Reactivation Project for Coffee And Cocoa’. The goal was to reactivate at least 80,000 hectares of land. The target is to plant Robusta in 30,000 hectares, according to Vallejo, in addition to renovating 50,000 to 70,000 hectares of Arabica plantations that currently have trees older than 30 years. Plans include using newer, more productive and disease-resistant varieties. “Ecuador is home to so many micro-climates, and we have so many unique characteristics in the coffee sector. From instant coffee to specialty, we want to make a product that is all fully ours,” says Manuel Echeverría, Director of ProEcuador. Although only the figures will tell of the government’s success, an abundance of new plants means Ecuador is one coffee producer to look out for.  

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