Sustainability: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level.
It's summer, 2016. I'm sitting in a wooden chair, 4,500 feet above sea level. A man, whom I have known for only a few days, sits to my left. In front of me, sits a man and his wife - their kids are sitting off to the side interested, yet timid.
I administer the 30 question survey our economics group has worked up, recording the answers to the best of my ability. My Spanish isn't great, but it's sufficient. The man to my left, named Arturo, explains the husband and wife's answers in greater detail when needed.
We finally get to the last question: "In your opinion, what's the biggest problem with the coffee industry in El Oro, Ecuador?"
The man answers, "The demand."
We thank the man and woman for their time, and like that, we leave.
Five months later, the man to my left and I have become the best of friends. We are constantly talking on the phone, brainstorming ways to get a coffee business going.
I read blogs about coffee companies who have helped farmers in other regions of the world. The concept of importing the product and selling it in The States seems simple, but how in the world does the supply chain work internationally?
I tell Arturo about the idea - We need to form cooperatives for the farmers - the cooperative will be its own business - the farmers will regularly meet at the cooperative headquarters - it'll be a place where we process all the coffees - and we will even export directly from there.
"Shane, the farmers don't have vehicles. The farmers live too far away from the closest processing facility in Pinas. Pinas doesn't have enough sunshine to adequately dry coffees, so the farmers need to dry them at their plantations. Who would run the facility? How would money be distributed? How would the government organizations in Ecuador react? Does the cooperative take a cut of the farmer's profits? Does the cooperative buy the coffee, then re-sell it? Would the farmers accept the idea?"
"Arturo, I don't know."
I truly had no idea. Who am I to tell an Ecuadorian how to run a cooperative - to control the means of production - to funnel sales through a middle man?
Why can't we build a business based off trust?
The trust that the farmer would produce a quality coffee - the trust that Marie and Fabricio, the owners of the processing facility in Pinas, would give Arturo the money I send to them to buy the coffee - the trust that Arturo would then go and buy the coffee from the farmer - the trust that Fabricio and Arturo would work together to process the coffee - the trust that the shipping company would safely bring the processed coffee to the ports - the trust that our Ecuadorian agent would accurately file all the export documents.
Why can't we build a business based off trust? If everyone is counting on the other, it's in our best interest to do our job to the fullest. That's business - and that's life.
It's May 1, 2019. I'm driving a Penske rental truck up to Atlanta. 4,000lbs of Ecuadorian coffee arrived late last night, marking the first time Arturo, Marie, and Fabricio completed an import without me being in Ecuador.
Every step of the way, they stayed in touch with me. Marie and Fabricio sent me a bank statement when the transferred money hit their account - Arturo took a picture at the plantations of Ramiro Pauta, a new farmer he had met at a conference - Arturo sent me a picture of all the completed, processed bags in the storage room, waiting for delivery to the ports - our Ecuadorian export agent sent me an email with all of the completed documents.
Three days later, the bags arrived.
While we still have a long ways to go to achieve our goal of sustainability, I'm proud of how far we have come. I hope, one day, that someone else will come to El Oro, Ecuador, hoping to import coffee to their country. Whether they are doing it to help the farmers and people of Ecuador or importing incredible coffee to fill a need in their respective market, I know Arturo, Marie, Fabricio, and the farmers of Ecuador can do it.
It's not about helping others by making them dependent. It's about empowerment - it's about helping others by making them self-sustainable. Our parents, teachers, and mentors have always done that for us, and that's what we plan to continue doing for other people.