Community Mill Process & Impact
Connecting farmers in Colombia to the Specialty Coffee market.
Worldwide, one of the clearest self-identified issues facing producers of coffee is the low and unpredictable price they can sell raw coffee for. A lack of control as to what the market price will be once the harvest is complete is disempowering. The common market price falls below the cost of production at times. Across the last five years of coffee farming in Colombia we've seen multiple nationwide riots during seasons where this is the case.
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One growing possible solution to low and tumultuous prices is the specialty coffee market, where roasters are happy to pay fixed prices for high-quality coffee with specific flavour characteristics, season on season, regardless of what the commodity market price swings to.
In this scenario farmers can have some control over the price they are paid, as the price rises with the quality produced. There are large barriers to this solution however, as specialty grade coffee can be difficult to achieve, costly to produce, and connection to the market is often out of reach for those who would most benefit from it. El Fénix exists to remove each of these barriers, quality and connection.
We've found that in Colombia it is the cherry selection, processing, and drying stages where much coffee quality is lost. The equipment, time, and expertise is expensive, making achieving the highest possible quality of coffee quite difficult for many producers. The solution to this in many other places in the world comes in the from of community wet mills. In many countries we work these central hubs are the norm.
So applying what is a major part of the solution for achieving quality in Africa and Asia, we are building a very advanced wet mill facility and community hub for the farmers of Calarcá to process their coffee cherries.
Sorting, pulping, fermentation, washing, and drying are key steps in maintaining or developing flavours in coffee. There are many aspects to be controlled or manipulated throughout this processing that is very difficult to achieve without financial investment, time, and knowledge.
El Fénix community wet mill is a central location staffed with professionals focussing only on coffee processing for the specialty market. Our neighbours can sell their cherries here to us for fixed prices as soon as they are picked - solving both the issues of timing/cashflow and predictability/planning of income. This is possible for us to do because we already have the demand, we need to match it with the producers. This allows us to work back to find a fixed price for cherry as first payment already better than the occasional peak market rate, without the producer needing to wait without cashflow or knowledge of what their income could be.
Upon export a second payment is made to the same farmers that sold the cherries that became the raw green coffee, based on how good the coffee was, incentivising and making possible best farming practices at controlled deliberate increased costs (e.g. paying pickers by the day rather than kg) as opposed to the common 'race-to-the-bottom' (avoiding costly inputs like fertiliser or good pay for careful workers) that occurs when future sales prices are unknown.
Lots are kept seperate where possible, and continual experimentation plus feedback from buyers will help drive quality and price up. Farmers from the region are be able to learn about controlling pH, pitching yeasts, honeys, naturals, drying, and other quality controls at the mill.
Once drying is complete the people who supplied the cherry can come to learn to roast and cup their coffee alongside the neighbours and buyers from overseas, fostering an understanding of how farming practices translate into cup characteristics, while opening further doors through international connections that we can't predict. Being part of the finished milled green export price negotiation means producers can have control and transparency around what is valuable to importers and roasters. If we can find a baller buyer willing to pay more than expected, then the original owner of the cherry gets more in that second payment once the green is sold.
- First payment to producers at a fixed rate for cherry to ensure profit & predictable cash-flow during harvest
- Second payment to producers based on sale price after processing, drying, cupping, milling, packaging and sale to importer, with farmer input to ensure transparency.
The market has evolved to create an opportunity for producers; A rapidly growing number of people now desire specialty coffee from independent cafes, those cafes want coffee from skilled roasters who take pride in using quality ingredients, and these new independent roasters want the best quality green coffee possible for reasonable prices. This shift means that for some we can finally make good on the elusive promise of development through trade by de-commoditising specialty coffee, and ensuring coffee is a sustainable and logical choice for farmers to invest in. Centralised processing and a transparent value-chain can provide access to this solution.
This is important. Let's do it.