“If we don’t have coffee… well, we just have to look for another alternative.” In just a few words, CAPUCAS agronomist Noe Portillo perfectly sums up the practical and bold leadership that’s needed in coffee today.
For decades, the coffee industry provided jobs to hundreds of thousands of farmers across Central America. However, in recent years the combined threat of climate change, volatile markets, and crop disease has dealt the sector a crippling blow. In the coffee-producing regions of Guatemala, the fungal disease known as la roya robbed an area roughly the size of New Jersey of 90,000 coffee sector jobs in just six months. For many young people like Noe, who might have expected to follow in their coffee-farming parents’ footsteps, the future suddenly became unclear.
Fortunately, our clients throughout Latin America — coffee cooperatives and businesses that source from hundreds, sometimes thousands of vulnerable coffee producing families — are finding ways to respond to such threats to farmer livelihoods by turning one of the largest agricultural crises in recent history into an opportunity to invest in the future. Coffee farmer Marcos Morales puts it bluntly: “If la roya hadn’t come, people wouldn’t have changed how they produce coffee. But the disease forced people to adapt.”
One of the most powerful adaptations our clients have devised is income diversification — investing in other products, from turmeric to honey, alongside coffee. By encouraging their producer-members to grow crops besides coffee, these businesses help farmers protect themselves from shocks to any single crop, whether from disease or market forces. Through workshops set up by Root Capital, clients like CAPUCAS who have successfully implemented these programs can lead trainings for their peers to spread best practices and strategies.
At one recent workshop, I watched Noe demonstrate to representatives of neighboring cooperatives how his business supports farmers in producing alternative crops such as tomato and passionfruit. Noe’s commitment to the success of CAPUCAS’ producer-members was abundantly clear. But the first thing that caught my attention while I watched him present wasn’t his dedication to these farmers — it was his age.
While the participants in this workshop were of all ages, Noe — and, in fact, most of the facilitators from CAPUCAS — couldn’t have been more than 30 years old. In an industry where the average age of a coffee farmer is 60, the distinction was striking.
But the more I thought about this, the more it started to make sense. By promoting farmer resilience and increasing incomes in the process, income diversification projects like those facilitated by CAPUCAS are attractive to young people. They demonstrate that opportunities in agriculture abound. Many of our clients take this a step further; not only do they show that a future in agriculture is possible, but they give young people opportunities to lead the way in creating that future for others.
These opportunities are already paying off. In Peru, many of our clients have told us that the sons and daughters of their members have discovered profitable ways to rent beehives to avocado and maize farmers in order to help them pollinate their crops. In Guatemala, we’ve seen cooperatives encourage their members — many of whom are young, indigenous women — to start side businesses selling milk, eggs, and maxan, a native plant used to make tamale wrappers. And right here in Honduras, CAPUCAS has implemented training programs for young people like Noe in everything from compost production to quality control — all of which I saw in action at this workshop.
Businesses like CAPUCAS recognize that young people want more than just a job. They want a livelihood — a way to ensure a sustainable future on the farm. And with the proper support, these businesses can help young people make that future a reality.
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