Marketing a Coffee and Aloe for Women’s Coop

P1010047Marcala There’s something incongruous about writing this on a small netbook computer at the top of the mountain again with the wind roaring outside bringing a real chill despite the summer all around the valley and hillsides, and doing so by candlelight as I await daybreak in the predawn.  Coming off the mountain yesterday, the pieces started to come together.  Once we made it back down and found ourselves in a combination store and office, I got a more formal, power point briefing on COMUCAP, which the connection pulling all of these pieces together.  The campesino retreat buildings and cabins are part of their operations as was the store and, as I would find out throughout the day, much, much more.

To keep it simple at the start COMUCAP is a women’s production coop in this area that has developed over the years to pull together coffee growers and, more recently, families growing aloe vera on these steep Honduran hillsides.  Gradually in recent years they have begin to develop a processing side that can allow them create market ready products designed to increase the livelihood of their producers.  The coffee is good stuff, and I know something about drinking coffee, and from my days working at Luzianne Coffee Company in New Orleans as a lift truck driver and shipping clerk to try to make a living while I organized against the war (Vietnam) as a 19-year old Williams College dropout.     They have won awards for their organic coffee in international contests, and if it was good enough to boost Pabst Blue Ribbon,  maybe that might mean something for them as well.

Their biggest coup to date was a contract to ship two container loads (70000 kilos/load) to Germany last year.  Marlene, the coop director, visited to see what happened to the coffee, and late in the afternoon we sat in her kitchen and drank from some of the souvenir mugs she had brought back from various “kaffee” shops.  They were a hit in Bremen, it seems.

Interspersed between constant conversations about politics and organizing in Honduras throughout the day with Suyapa and Doris and other companeros from Tegucigalpa, who had joined us, my friends at COMUCAP taught me the production side of the coffee and aloe vera business.  Several kilometers from the store, I toured the aloe and coffee plant.  Green beans were bagged to curing in the warehouse.  Other beans were brown and drying outside in the sun on the concrete pavement.  The coffee grinder, roaster, and packer were all there in a building that was both new and hardy used.  A bride waiting for a wedding.

They also walked me through the whole processing operation for aloe vera.  Who knew?  In New Orleans these small plants were regularly shredded and rubbed into our skin by mi companera anytime me or los ninos burned our white bread.  Here the plants were huge, it seemed.  The woman president of the coop showed me how to cut a “leaf” which was done using the dull side of a butcher knife as the business end for this job.  The sticky translucent flesh of the aloe vera was cut up by one of the workers, while the “juice” was saved for shampoo.  You wouldn’t believe how many aloe vera products they make?  Soap and shampoo of course, but various juices and drinks and fruit mixes are also popular in Honduras, though expensive.  I can now say I’ve not only been rubbed right by aloe vera but have eaten and drunk it both fresh off the leaf and at the end of the line.  They market mainly for the medicinal impact and the native claim that it is wonderful for upset stomachs.

Later in the afternoon we drove along rocky, rutted mountain roads to their coffee receiving plant.  The coffee beans are brought here by the growers.  They call them cherries, because not surprisingly as they are poured into the washer, the coffee beans look like small cherry tomatoes, all red and yellow and green.  This was quite an operation, and fundamentally like a shovel and hand filled coffee washing machine, which ends up in bags on the back of a COMUCAP truck headed for the processing plant that we’ve already seen.  I asked about a huge, fancy expensive machine taking most of the space.  They had stopped using it because it “took too much water,” and water, rather than coffee is gold in these mountains.  I kidded them about the fancy equipment and the big portable generator fueling this operation while they moved around on rickety, dangerous jerry rigged ladders.  They laughed, but I didn’t, since as always in this all-hands on, labor intensive and therefore expensive process, workers were one of the cheapest commodities.

(There is no dawn this morning.  The chill has enshrouded the mountains here in fog and the whipping wind will have a lot of work to clear the hillsides and mountain tops to make room for the sun today.  This flickering candle will probably last longer than this computer battery.)

It was all thrilling, and one could feel a partnership emerging throughout the day.  The mujeres had the product and plants, but no markets.  My feeble Spanish was a perfect match for their equally weak English.  ACORN International had a base in Mexico, Canada, and the United States where they wanted to find markets, and couldn’t fathom or penetrate.  For our part we have been on a mission to puzzle through ways to build sustainable organizing operations, and if we could partner with their products, this could be a piece in the puzzle.  Or maybe not.  I woke in my dark bunk at 4 AM this Sunday morning flooded by the pluses and minuses involved in making this work, if it could be made to work at all?!?

If you want fair trade, delicious organic coffee grown by a womens coop and worked by these small producers and their families, then I’m the man to call, because we are about to be the exclusive representatives and distributors for COMUCAP in the Norte!  Or, as they say, die trying….

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