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219. CAFE success story: Seeing is believing in El Salvador

The El Pinal cooperative was established in 1980.  During the first 30 years of its existence, the organization paid for its coffee to be processed at a commercial mill.  This meant higher operating costs and less control over the quality of their coffee.  When the CAFE Livelihoods project started in early 2009, we met with El Pinal’s board of directors and asked what its hopes were for the project.  President Jorge Rojas answered without hesitation: “Our dream is to stop selling coffee cherries.  We want to process our own coffee.”  The silent, assured nodding in the room suggested that Jorge spoke for the entire cooperative.

Don Vicente.

Ruth Hernández, a member of El Pinal, is 56 years old.  “I may be the oldest person in this cooperative, and it never occurred to me that I would live to see coffee drying on these patios,” she said.  “Thanks to the project, we have seen it.”

But Ruth is far from the oldest member of the cooperative.  Don Vicente López is 68, and it wasn’t until he was 67 that he saw processed coffee in his community for the first time.  He says no one will ever have to wait that long again. “Some of us were already very old and had never known what it meant to process coffee.  Now, even the kids here know it.”

El Pinal has generated plenty of tangible benefits by milling its own coffee.  It saves roughly $10 per sack of coffee on milling fees.  It has created employment opportunities for young people in the community and begun to turn a new generation on to the business of coffee farming.  It has put coffee pulp in the hands of the cooperative for the first time in its history — pulp that is being used to create organic fertilizer for the plot that the cooperative has marked for organic certification.  These benefits increase the competitiveness of the cooperative and the quality of life among its members.  But there was something else that the members of El Pinal wanted to tell us about: the pride they took in processing their own coffee.

In El Salvador more than in other Central American countries, the milling process and other post-harvest activities have been controlled by private industry.  For a smallholder organization to assume control of functions historically performed by large private enterprises is no small feat.

“Processing coffee is something the big guys have always done,” says Jorge.  “We are small, but now we have made ourselves big.”

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This “CAFE Success Story” is part of a series of posts published following the recent close of our CAFE Livelihoods project in Mexico and Central America.  It was generated through a “Most Significant Change” session with cooperative members.

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