Returning Home to Revive an Industry: A Conversation with TechnoServe’s Puerto Rico Coffee Manager

February 22, 2019

We spoke with TechnoServe’s Coffee Program Manager for Puerto Rico about his plans to revive the industry, the biggest challenges he foresees, and what it’s like to be back home.

Héctor Sáez-Núñez, TechnoServe's Puerto Rico Coffee Program Manager and Myriam Sainz, TechnoServe's Director of Strategic Initiatives, meeting with coffee farmers José and Carmen Arroyo in Puerto Rico. Only 600 of the Arroyo's 7,000 coffee trees remained following Hurricane Maria. 

When Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico in 2017, it destroyed over 80 percent of the island’s coffee trees—and along with them, the livelihoods and future plans of thousands of small farmers. TechnoServe recently launched a program with several partners to rebuild this critical sector, and will train farmers on improved agronomic techniques while helping them access better farming supplies, financing, and markets.

Heading up this ambitious effort for TechnoServe is Héctor Sáez-Núñez, an agricultural and economic development specialist who has served as a longtime academic instructor and researcher in the mainland United States. Héctor also has a personal connection to this project, having been raised in Puerto Rico with a lifelong appreciation for its coffee.

What is your background in Puerto Rican coffee?
My maternal grandfather grew coffee in his backyard, and I saw him dry-milling it, roasting it, grinding it, and brewing it fresh. I grew up drinking that coffee. I can still remember the smell while it roasted. When I moved to Costa Rica in 1999, I landed in Atenas, in the Central Valley—the heart of coffee country there. I worked with many research assistant students and co-investigators looking at all aspects of coffee production, in a project that lasted seven years. I later taught a class on coffee at the University of Vermont and joined the Specialty Coffee Association of the Americas.

But Puerto Rican coffee always had a special place in my heart. My mom, like many others in Puerto Rico, sent me care packages containing Puerto Rican coffee. It served as a symbol of home for the many years that I lived in the United States.

Héctor Sáez-Núñez brings years of agricultural and economic development experience combined with an intimate knowledge of Puerto Rico to TechnoServe's coffee program.

How did you get involved in TechnoServe’s work to help revive the island’s coffee sector?
I visited Puerto Rico after the hurricane of 2017, and the sights of devastation broke my heart. I knew I had to come back. I visited every month during the first half of 2018 and moved back in June. When I saw TechnoServe’s Coffee Program Manager job description, I knew this was my chance to make a difference here.

I knew about TechnoServe from my previous work in coffee. One important strength of TechnoServe’s approach is how it harnesses the two non-governmental mechanisms for organizing productive endeavors: communities’ cooperative energy and markets. Markets and entrepreneurship are very powerful. But, cooperation between people in rural areas, for example, the work of community-based agricultural trainers, may be the game changer in most places—certainly in Puerto Rico. 

"I’ve fallen in love with my island all over again."

What are some of the first things you hope to accomplish as Program Manager?
I am currently mapping the locations of all coffee farmers in Puerto Rico. Simultaneously, I am putting together a small team, including an agronomy advisor and agronomy trainers, that will share TechnoServe’s vast accumulated knowledge (from working in Africa, Asia, and Latin America) about how best to grow and process coffee.

What do you foresee will be the most challenging aspects of your work here?
Coffee farms here lost most of their coffee trees after Hurricane Maria, so, replanting and financing that effort are two major challenges. Increasing farmers’ incomes will be another challenge because despite high export prices for good-quality Puerto Rican coffee, farmers’ margins remain low due to high coffee production costs that include the cost of labor on farms larger than a few hectares.

How do we solve these problems? We can significantly increase the amount of coffee produced in each farm and cut the cost of farming supplies, thereby increasing farmers’ incomes. That is the path to turning the coffee industry around in Puerto Rico.

Coffee farmer Vanessa Arroyo is growing seedlings to rebuild her farm after the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

What are you hearing from the coffee farmers you’ve been speaking with?
Farmers want to learn about the coffee production techniques that TechnoServe staff have gathered from working in this industry around the world. They are hurting economically, but organizations like ours, as well as private companies and the local and federal governments, are deploying programs to support farmers. Despite a great deal of pain, optimism remains, and the farmers here embody persistence. The ingredients for a successful revival of Puerto Rico’s coffee industry are coming together.

How does it feel to be back home?
It feels great! I am grateful to the people I met in the United States and to the universe for letting me live in spectacularly beautiful places such as Burlington, Vermont; Northampton-Amherst, Massachusetts; Seattle, Washington; California’s Bay Area, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I love the mountains in Colorado and the trees and coastlines of Maine, Oregon, and Big Sur. But Puerto Rico is where I first learned to appreciate the beauty of the natural world, and I don’t fare well in cold weather. I am so glad to be back home! I look at the places I knew from my past with new eyes. I am discovering hillsides and rivers I hadn’t seen before. I’ve rekindled old friendships as if I never left at all. I’ve fallen in love with my island all over again.