09 Jul Twin Café grabs a coffee with… Fátima Ismael
On a very sunny Wednesday morning I had the pleasure of meeting Fátima Ismael, (general manager of the SOPPEXCCA coffee co-operative in Jinotega, Nicaragua) over a coffee at Steam Yard one of our favourite cafes in Sheffield city centre. Fátima is an inspirational women who has spent years supporting local coffee farmers- her tireless work has empowered female growers in Nicaragua to produce and market their own coffee and has helped them gain the rights to the land they work on.
Our interview was neatly fitted in at the tail end of Fátima’s trip to Sheffield where she had been giving talks about Fairtrade and gender issues in coffee production, (en route to the train station- she and Elena were going on to London to continue their UK tour). As my Spanish is ‘a tad rusty’ at best, I was lucky to have Elena Martin- Laguna translating Fátima’s answers for me. It turned out to be an incredibly interesting and informative conversation.
I’m very grateful to have had the chance to interview Fátima. What struck me most, in addition to her great level of knowledge in the industry, was her admirable approach to doing business. She made a point of saying that she would not try to sell SOPPEXCCA coffee to Twin Café as it went against her ethical stance. Fátima believes that the best situation for Nicaraguan coffee co-operatives is one where all co-operatives are encouraged to grow their own businesses and improve the lives of those working with them, avoiding a situation where one co-operative has a monopoly.
‘The best situation for Nicaraguan coffee co-operatives is one where all co-operatives are encouraged to grow their own businesses and improve the lives of those working with them’
Despite the impressive progress and development which Fátima and people like her have achieved with Nicaraguan coffee growers in recent years- she described a massive challenge facing local people- climate change.
Fátima told me that climate change is an issue that has been affecting coffee growers in Nicaragua for more than 15 years. Natural disasters such as hurricanes, extremes in weather conditions affecting the seasons, and crop disease were some of the most damaging factors she mentioned.
‘In Nicaragua, there are two seasons in a year, as opposed to four here in the UK, and in simple terms, there is a dry season and a wet season.’
Usually the rains are expected at the end of May, but in 2015 they did not arrive until mid- June. I learned that farmers had been forced to deal with dehydration of their plants for a much longer period than usual- leading to reduced yields, and a lot of money and effort going into providing extra water for their crops,
Next in Fatima’s lesson on climate change, was the crop disease known locally as ‘roya’ – or rust to us. This is a fungal crop disease that stains and creates holes in the leaves of the Arabica plant, and also infects the coffee cherries, turning them from bright red to a grey colour, and producing an undesirable flavour profile in the beans themselves.
I learned that many farmers have been forced to destroy the infected plants. If a coffee plant has to be removed and a fresh one replanted, the new plants will take as long as four or five years to produce the same amount of coffee again. This has understandably had terrible effects on the incomes and profits of small producers.
In addition, coffee plants need shade to grow, which is provided by large trees growing nearby. Fátima told me that these trees are managed and paid for by the coffee growers themselves. If the rust spreads to these plants, they must be destroyed and replaced– all of which the producer must pay for. With greatly reduced financial resources due to the loss in the roya affected coffee plants, this has been a painful knock- on effect for producers.
‘Roya has affected the Arabica plant for over a hundred years, but many scientists believe that an increase in global temperatures has led to an increase in incidences of the disease in Central America.’
This should act as a pressing reminder of the damaging effects of global warming- Bet you didn’t know the beans in your cup of Central American coffee went through so much to get there!
I learned that last year the roya crisis resulted in SOPPEXCCA losing $50 per 69kg sack of coffee on average, which meant a huge reduction in revenue and profits for small producers.
‘The roya crisis resulted in SOPPEXCCA losing $50 per 69kg sack of coffee on average’
Fátima described the current situation for producers in Nicaragua as an ‘economic crisis’ in the aftermath of the recent roya outbreak. Reduced income for farmers has put strains on families in coffee growing regions, and SOPPEXCCA has had to invest money which was earmarked for investment into social projects, on coffee production instead.
Despite the doom and gloom, however, we can combat these issues!
Fátima told me that the three main areas where farmers are targeting climate change are in reforestation, reducing pollution in production, and reducing water usage in production.
Her key piece of advice to international buyers was to invest in local environmental campaigns to raise awareness of the issues in the growing regions. Fátima explained that coffee grown in the Miraflor region (such as Twin Café’s) can be used a great example of coffee producers adapting to changing conditions:
As the nature reserve where our coffee is grown in Miraflor is a National Park and is protected, every effort is made to preserve the quality of the coffee produced. Although other co-operatives do not have this luxury, Fátima ensured me that raising awareness is the way to bring about more adaptive behaviour by co-operatives in the face of climate change.
Fátima was full of advice in fact! Here are some more of her suggestions..
(1) Provide credit to producers
This will give them the resources to increase production levels and invest in infrastructure.
(2) Buy more coffee!
The more sales revenue the co-operatives generate, the better the management and the organization will be in the co-operative. This means the cooperatives will be more responsive to issues damaging production, and also in a better position to combat them directly.
Fátima’s specific advice to us at Twin Café was to look into the possibility of supporting/ funding a project to set up a coffee shop in the Miraflor region, where the locally grown coffee could be sold and celebrated. SOPPEXCCA has helped to set up cafes in Jinotega and Managua where their coffee is exclusively sold, and this has helped to develop a local market for Nicaraguan coffee, which has provided another revenue stream, in an industry that has traditionally relied on international markets for its survival. – So something to think on for us!
Finally, Fátima said she hoped that we would continue to work with our chosen co-operative UCAMIRAFLOR and help them to grow as we grow ourselves– This is something we are fully committed to!
My head was exploding with coffee information come the end of our interview, and there was far too much to squeeze into a single blog post! Keep an eye out for a similar future piece, where I will share some more of Fátima’s experiences with SOPPEXCCA, focusing on the co-operative’s initiatives to improve gender equality in the industry.
Thanks for reading,