Guatemala ECWx Edgar Recinos
When I started at Intelligentsia in 2016, I brought with me a few deeply held beliefs based on my previous experience with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the international humanitarian agency where I led coffee programming for more than a decade.
One was the understanding that there are effectively two kinds of coffee farms: big ones and small ones. Another was the belief that the small ones are structurally disadvantaged in a global marketplace that rewards efficiency and scale, and need to act collectively to compete. And one was the conviction that the greatest potential for social impact in the coffee sector may lie with the inclusion of more small farms — and more of the people who own them — in the promise of specialty coffee.
Over the past few years, I have worked to help expand the impact of Intelligentsia Direct Trade by including more smallholder farmers in our supply chains. We created ECWx back in 2018 to serve that purpose. This release marks a milestone in that effort: the first single-origin lot we have sourced through ECWx.
If you have access to the internet and care about, well, anything, then you are probably familiar with TED, the platform that publishes talks on the best and brightest ideas on just about every area of human endeavor. You probably also know about TEDx, the indie version of the big event that meets a set of rigorous standards established by the folks at TED but is funded and organized independently.
And if you have been paying close attention to Intelligentsia over the past decade or so, then you may be familiar with the Extraordinary Coffee Workshop, our regular gathering of the sprawling Intelligentsia Direct Trade community. Nearly every year since 2009, we have invited everyone in our supply chains to a different country for a week of farm visits, processing demonstrations, expert presentations, farmer-to-farmer exchanges, coffee tastings, and endless discussion of what makes coffee extraordinary. ECW is part coffee seminar, part family reunion, and all about improving coffee quality.
And then there is ECWx, which you probably haven’t heard of.
ECWx is to ECW as TEDx is to TED — a more intimate version of the original that looks and feels like the big event, but with some important differences. For instance, ECW is open to big and small growers alike, but ECWx is open only to smallholder growers, a reflection of the belief that smallholder inclusion can help drive social impact in communities where coffee is grown. And ECWx turns the logic of ECW eligibility inside-out: while ECW is only for people who are part of the Intelligentsia Direct Trade community, while ECWx is only for people who are not, because we want ECWx to help growers on the margins of the specialty coffee marketplace overcome barriers to entry. In its third year, ECWx is beginning to make some progress.
ECWx Guatemala 2020
Earlier this year we worked with friends at CRS and funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to convene representatives from nearly one dozen smallholder farmer organizations in the country’s western highlands for our third ECWx event as part of a CRS/USAID project called Communities Leading Development.
The organizations that participated in ECWx Guatemala represented thousands of families in communities that have prioritized coffee in local development plans across the region. The project provides investment capital and training to those communities to help them implement those plans, which include a focus on expanding access to specialty coffee markets. Which is where Intelligentsia and ECWx come in.
Over a four-day period, we took ECWx Guatemala participants to visit the farms and mills of two long-standing Intelligentsia Direct Trade partners to see what award-winning coffee operations focused on quality look like. We facilitated farmer-to-farmer exchanges with two of our other long-standing Direct Trade partners. We invited local experts to share their views on smallholder market opportunities, and added some ideas of our own. We shared our perspectives on coffee quality. And we tasted coffee together. Lots of coffee. The objective was to accelerate the pace of quality improvement efforts already underway among participating farmer organizations, and to catalyze their entry into the specialty coffee marketplace.
All the farmer organizations that participated in ECWx Guatemala were impressive, but even in an event crowded with experienced community leaders, the three women who came from La Democracia, Huehuetenango, in representation of Cooperativa Esquipulas stood out.
Over many years of working with cooperatives, I have come to appreciate how important effective leadership is to the fortunes of the farmer enterprises they run and the farmers they serve. When I lived and worked in Central America, it was not uncommon for me to make a short drive from one cooperative to the next in the same region and visit with growers whose farms were nearly identical — same elevations, same varieties, same shade trees, same distance from the mill — but whose fortunes diverged sharply. Often, leadership made the difference. Coopesqui struck us from the moment we met them as one of those cooperatives that takes care of its business and takes care of its members. In fact, their reputation preceded them — we had that impression before we ever met.
When we asked CRS for help in gathering info on participating organizations months in advance of the event, Coopesqui’s leaders didn’t just answer all the questions in our detailed survey, they sent reams of relevant additional data and reports. During the event, they were curious, motivated, and both knowledgeable and passionate about coffee quality. And when we invited participants to offer us coffee for purchase, they were the first to send us samples, including a sample for a single-farm lot from one of its members, Edgar Recinos.
ECWx Guatemala Edgar Recinos
At Finca El Arenal, a small farm set high in a small village near La Democracia, Edgar has been growing coffee for nearly 20 years. He became a member of Coopesqui in 2009, and signed up in 2011 for the coop’s specialty coffee program, designed to help growers improve quality and access buyers willing to pay premiums.
The years of work he has put in shine through in this lot, a blend of the three varieties Edgar grows at El Arenal: Bourbon, Caturra, and a local Typica selection called San Ramón. When our Quality Control team first tasted it in our lab back in early March, they gave it high scores for a molasses-like sweetness and flavors of cola, dark fruit, and milk chocolate. Fortunately for us, the sample got out of Huehuetenango just before the movement of people and coffee there was severely restricted by the Coronavirus outbreak. Between the pandemic and some of the inefficiencies common in new trading relationships combined to delay the delivery of this lot just about every step of the way. By the time it arrived in Chicago last month, we feared the long journey would have taken its toll on the coffee, but were delighted to find it even sweeter than we remembered, with its notes of black cherry, red grape, cola, milk chocolate, and citrus all intact.
This is a small lot that won’t generate any substantial impact this year beyond perhaps Edgar and his family. But that was never the idea. We weren’t aiming for massive impact out of the gate. This was designed as a pilot that allows for Intelligentsia and Coopesqui to evaluate one another and consider the prospects for a longer-term commercial partnership. We know that building a lasting relationship is a patient process. That impact is only achieved over time as we grow the volume of our purchases. And that the best relationships are rooted in a mutual commitment to quality and partners that generate real value for one another.
If the quality of this lot and the quality of Coopesqui’s leadership are any indication, odds are good that Coopesqui will return to our menu next year even when ECWx Guatemala 2020 is a distant memory. And then we can start to think about measuring the impact of the event.
— Michael Sheridan
Director of Sourcing and Shared Value