When Arturo sent me this picture, I realized that the change in mindset that Arturo and I have thought so much about - the mindset that we have instilled in all of the farmers we have the opportunity to work with - has finally come to the forefront.
Now, the ball is in my court...
It's 1:15 in the afternoon - Thursday, February 6.
I receive a WhatsApp picture message from Arturo. I open it up, and it hits me.
For three and a half years, I've made it a personal mission. I don't want the farmers of Ecuador to be forced to utilize a middle man, a cooperative, to sell their products. It costs a farmer anywhere between $1.15 - $1.80 to produce, harvest, and process one pound of coffee in Ecuador, depending on the quality of fertilizers, number of employees, and processing methods.
Yet, buyers in The States and in Europe expect to pay no more than $2.00 for the raw material. Just look at the C Market and Fair Trade prices.
So, for a farmer that is growing coffee that costs $1.75 per pound - how can he sell his product to a cooperative/middle man for the 'fair trade' price of $1.70 and make any money? He can't.
Originally, when I first started Z Beans, I thought I was going to purchase the rare Ecuadorian green coffee beans, import them into The States, and sell them to coffee roasters. However, after paying the farmers an average of $2.40 per pound the first year, incurring the shipping costs, and incurring port fees, I needed to sell the green coffee at $4.50 - just to break even.
When I sent the coffees to the roasters, all went as planned. They loved it - they loved the concept of direct trade - and they loved the product. But, when it came time to discuss the cost, everything changed.
"What are you asking for per pound?"
"Well, I need to sell a pound for at least $4.50 to break even."
"$4.50 - that's crazy. I normally pay between $1.50 - $2.00 here in The States..."
Immediately, I realized that there have to be 'non-negotiables' in not only business but in life. I can buy coffee from the farmers of Ecuador at $1.50 per pound - why? Because most farmers have no other means to sell. But, at night, when I lay my head down to rest, I'm the one who has to live with that burden - when I grow old and one day look back on the things I've done, I'm the one that has to live with that burden.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Once I realized the inability to sell the green coffee beans, I knew I had to start a brand. A brand that would allow us to do right by the farmers - a brand that had a mission, a vision, a purpose, thus Z Beans was born.
I'll never forget - this past summer, Carter and I attended an event put on by the local government where the head of agriculture in Ecuador was scheduled to speak. Arturo, being the man that he is, went to those coordinating the event and asked for 5 minutes of time within the program - and, they gave it to him.
When Arturo's name was called - still to this day I get chills - he stood up and proudly walked to the podium. To me, it was as if three years of talks, deep conversations, and passion had all came to this one moment - a moment when time stood still...
"Soy, Arturo Penarreta..."
Arturo speaks for the next five minutes, addressing the head of agriculture directly. He tells him that the farmers of El Oro, Ecuador, do not need more technical assistants - associations - or middle men. Rather, the farmers themselves need greater access to education and direct buyers. Arturo proudly told the head of agriculture about Z Beans, and the project we have been working on for the last 3 years.
After his talk, Arturo stepped away from the podium and returned to his seat beside me. The audience clapped, yet I sensed a subtle hesitation. Did he denounce the governments role in the coffee industry?
Upon conclusion of the event, Arturo, Carter, and I left to return to Arturo's house. As we always have - we walked. Arturo doesn't have a car and hasn't for over 30 years. But, that has never bothered us, and it especially didn't bother me that night. As we walked past the minister's escort of vehicles, I felt a sense of pride that I had never felt before. I was proud knowing that though we may come from two completely different deck of cards - different cultures, experiences, ages, languages, everything - we are committed to doing what's right by others.
It amazed me that Arturo was willing to stand up at that podium and make such brave statements, risking his title and standing in the community. But, to Arturo, there was no questioning - he knew it was the right thing to do.
So, he did.
5 months later, I returned to Ecuador, and Arturo and I made time to visit the plantation of Milton Rivadeneira. Along with two other Ecuadorian farmers, we visited Milton's farm and spoke about the difficulties of selling their products.
Every year in Ecuador, there is a huge event called 'Taza Dorada'. At the event, coffee farmers all over Ecuador send in samples of their coffees to get 'cupped'.
Milton sent in his coffee this past year and never heard back from the committee. When he called to ask about it, they said that he didn't make the cut... Now, to put this in perspective, Arturo, a man who has been in the coffee industry for over 50 years in Ecuador, has said multiple times, "Milton's plantation is the best in all of Ecuador." Additionally, I've personally sent Milton's coffee to get cupped in The States - his washed coffee has received scores upwards of 87 points, which would put him on par with some of the truly great coffees in the world - not just Ecuador.
For him, a man who put his heart and soul into producing a great product, to not make the cut is unfathomable.
To make matters worse, the Taza Dorada winner was a product of a farm affiliated with the Ecuadorian government's coffee association. A farm with little shade and crop diversity - low altitudes levels - and a big international buyer in Europe.
So you understand the significance - the Taza Dorada is THE event for coffee farmers in Ecuador. You win the event and the international recognition you gain will open your plantation up to markets all across the world.
A day later, we visit the plantation of Juan Carlos Acevedo in Tandapi, Ecuador. Arturo had planned an event at Juan Carlos' farm that had started out as just 5 different people. But on the day of the event, we had 25.
I listened to the farmer's stories - the struggles to find a market and the inability to participate in the Taza Dorada.
At the meeting, all the farmers pledged to form their own group - a group committed to transparency, cooperation, and direct trade.
They named Arturo the president.
Three weeks later, Arturo and Milton had coordinated another meeting at Milton's plantation. This time, instead of 25 people, they had nearly 100. This time, instead of garnering attention amongst their group - they gained the attention of a whole region.
When Arturo sent me this picture, I realized that the change in mindset that Arturo and I have thought so much about - the mindset that we have instilled in all of the farmers we have the opportunity to work with - has finally came to the forefront.
Now, the ball is in my court.
It's time that I bring the buyers to Ecuador so they can meet Milton, Ramiro, Juan Carlos, Alfredo, Carlos, Diego, Roberto, Jorge, and Arturo.
It's time that the buyers purchase it directly from the source and reward those that are working hard to produce specialty coffees.
So, Milton has began planning an event. A huge event. He has tasked himself as the domestic coordinator, as the event will be held in Tandapi. He has tasked me with being the international coordinator.
The goal is to cup coffees with complete transparency, allowing buyers to meet farmers, try their coffees, and purchase them. Once they purchase them, they will be able to use the services offered by Arturo, Marie, Fabricio, and Enrique to export their coffees to The States.
While I have not found the way for Z Beans to 'monetarily benefit' from this event, I know that this is the right thing to do. It's the right thing to do because I'd want someone to do it for me.
To meaningful work and to bravery.