Coca, Coffee, and Cooperatives: Improving Farmer Livelihoods Through Coffee
In San Martín, Peru, coca used to dominate the landscape. Now, through the Coffee Alliance for Excellence (CAFE) program, farmers in former coca-growing regions are learning how to improve their livelihoods through coffee.
José Wilmer Huamán Rengifo is a coffee farmer in San Martín, Peru.
José Wilmer Huamán Rengifo grew up in San Martín, a department in northern Peru once infamous for its cultivation of coca, the plant used to make cocaine. As a young child, his community was constantly threatened by the drug trade. Farmers had few opportunities to make a living, and, seeing no other options, many were forced to grow coca.
As Wilmer got older, he watched as coca was replaced by other crops, including coffee. But farmers like his father struggled to make a living from coffee. The trees were not producing enough, and without strong farmer organizations, his father had to sell what little coffee he did have at very low prices.
At 18 years old, Wilmer believed there were no opportunities for him on the farm, so he left home to pursue a degree in automotive mechanics in the city of Jaén. However, in 2016, after the death of his father, he returned home to take care of his mother and four younger siblings. It was here, at 20 years old, that he had his first experience growing coffee.
Knowledge changes everything. You see another way and you learn better techniques.”
When Wilmer initially agreed to take over the family’s three acres of arabica coffee trees, he didn’t know what he was getting himself into. The farm was remote, and he didn’t have the technical knowledge necessary to grow coffee successfully. “I just knew I needed to support my mom. She told me that the farm had been abandoned while I was away,” he recalls.
In 2018, Wilmer heard about the Coffee Alliance for Excellence (CAFE) program, and decided to join. CAFE is a public-private partnership with TechnoServe, the U.S. Agency for International Development, impact investment firm Althelia Ecosphere, global coffee roaster JDE, and coffee exporter Perhusa.
Through the program, Wilmer received training on best practices for planting, rejuvenating, harvesting, and carrying out post-harvest activities for his coffee. The program also strengthens farmer organizations and other market actors, to help farmers access better markets and earn higher prices for their coffee.
The training changed Wilmer’s view of coffee. Before, the farm was neglected and infected with pests. After participating in the program, Wilmer has seen great improvement in the quality and quantity of his coffee. “I used to see my parents’ farm from a negative perspective, but now I’m happy to see how it has improved.” Wilmer now views the farm as a business, and is investing in technology such as solar dryers and a bike-propelled pulping system to improve his coffee.
Wilmer’s main goal has always been to achieve the highest quality coffee, so when the CAFE program organized a coffee tasting course, he didn’t hesitate to accept the opportunity to travel to Tingo Maria, a city in central Peru, to learn more. “I think everyone should learn about coffee quality,” he says with a slight smile. “Knowledge changes everything. You see another way and you learn better techniques.” To date, CAFE has conducted two tasting trainings with Lourdes Córdova, a Q grader and partner of the National Coffee Board in Peru.
I used to see my parents’ [coffee] farm from a negative perspective, but now I’m happy to see how it has improved.”
Wilmer also joined a coffee cooperative called Valles de Pólvora, where his commitment to improving his coffee skills soon paid off. In the cooperative’s fourth annual coffee contest earlier this year, Wilmer was thrilled when his coffee won first place.
Then, coffee from the Valles de Pólvora cooperative was chosen to be featured at the Specialty Coffee Expo in Boston. For Wilmer, knowing that his coffee was selected was a huge honor. At the expo, his coffee received a score of 82.5 out of 100, with coffee tasters (or “cuppers”) recording favorable notes of caramel, dried fruit, and chocolate.
The success of his coffee has allowed Wilmer to offer a better quality of his life for his mother and four younger siblings. “Oliver (13) and Boris (9) go to school in the neighborhood. My sister Eydy (19) and Luis Fernando (21) study at a city school,” he shares proudly. For Wilmer, coffee has become a huge part of his life. “Three years from now, I see myself with three more acres of high-quality coffee,” says Wilmer.
It is a future he could barely have imagined just a few years ago when his father passed away – but it is a future, he believes, of which his father would be proud.