From Conflict to Coffee

The Nicaraguan civil war left former combatants José Adán López and Luis Marin Garcia destitute and dependent on government assistance. Now the two men are president and vice president, respectively, of Union de Cooperativas Agropecuarios de Servicios Unidas de Mancotal (UCASUMAN), one of Nicaragua’s leading small-farmer export associations in specialty coffee, with annual sales approaching $1 million. “Without TechnoServe and its founder Ed Bullard, none of this would have been possible,” says López.

Nicaragua’s economic well-being has long been tied to coffee, with coffee workers making up more than half of the country’s rural workforce. When coffee prices plunged in 2000, more than 85,000 Nicaraguans lost their jobs.

After that crash, TechnoServe used funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Inter-American Development Bank, the European Union, Procter & Gamble and other donors to help stakeholders in the coffee industry adapt to the crisis and create new jobs and economic opportunities. TechnoServe helped farmers in regions that produced low-quality coffee to diversify into higher-value fruits and vegetables, and helped refocus the better-quality coffee regions on premium markets.

In 2001, TechnoServe helped establish UCASUMAN. Many of its 200 members were soldiers in the country’s civil war and inhabit some of the country’s best coffee-producing land. At elevations above 3,000 feet and receiving rainfall 10 months of the year, their farms have the potential to produce high-quality coffee.

TechnoServe helped them to reforest their land, maximize yields and become more entrepreneurial by creating a coffee collection center and establishing links with exporters. It helped them take advantage of the growing market niche for organic and Fair Trade coffee by introducing farmers to organic pest- and weed-control methods and helping them receive organic certification. UCASUMAN also qualified for Fair Trade certification, which brings a projected premium of $5 to $10 per bag. In 2006, TechnoServe helped UCASUMAN secure its first commercial bank loan.

Nearly half of UCASUMAN’s members have now become certified as growers of organic coffee. Thanks to organic price premiums and overall improvements in coffee quality, the group’s sales have increased tenfold in five years.

López is one of the farmers whose lives have been transformed. He was recruited as a foot soldier in the Nicaraguan civil war at the age of 14. After six years of fighting, he returned to the hills with few prospects. With a small land grant from the government and assistance from TechnoServe in the early 1990s, he planted three acres of coffee trees. Since then, López has learned a good deal about business administration, accounting and marketing. Through his hard work and dedication to both the cooperative and the community, López has risen to become president of UCASUMAN and now oversees a thriving business. This has enabled him to buy a house in town and send all of his children to school. “I plan to give my children stability, security and education, so that what I was not able to do, they can do,” he says. “That is the impact of TechnoServe.”