Field Report: Doing Coffee Differently

Emilio Travieso, SJ, is a DPhil student in the Oxford Department of International Development working under Dr. Laura Rival.  He does research in partnership with grassroots organizations that are building sustainable, healthy, and just food systems. Below is the first in a series of reports from the field where Emilio will explain his work and its place in the larger Jesuit mission. 


Doing Coffee Differently

Since September of last year, I have been doing fieldwork in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state and one of the world’s great coffee-producing regions.  Specifically, I am with Yomol A’tel, a social enterprise that aims to redesign the way the coffee industry works, in a way that goes well beyond “fair trade.”

Nearly all of the region’s coffee growers are indigenous Tseltal families who dedicate most of their time to subsistence farming, but set aside a part of their land for coffee, which serves as their main source of cash income.  In general, families harvest the coffee “cherries” and go only as far as extracting the beans from the fruit and then laying them out to dry before selling their raw product to intermediaries who then sell them to large companies at a hefty profit.  The real money is made outside of Chiapas along the next steps of the value chain, in which the beans are processed, toasted, and ground before they are finally turned into a beverage for consumers. 

Yomol A’tel (meaning “we work together”) is a Jesuit-sponsored social enterprise that has set out to revolutionize this system, starting with a cooperative of smallholding coffee farmers.  Rather than simply negotiate a better price for their raw material (what fair trade usually comes down to), this cooperative has its own local coffee processing plant, which carries out the entire process to make a finished product.  They also commercialize it themselves, whether in beverage form through the cooperative’s own Capeltic (“our coffee”) brand of cafés, or else in the form of ready-to-brew ground coffee, which is exported to restaurant chains and other clients in various countries.  

In other words, Yomol A’tel has achieved what is known as “vertical integration” – they control their value chain from start to finish.  This is radical not only because it is a way of helping some of Latin America’s most exploited and impoverished people make some more money, but also because Yomol A’tel has achieved a commodity circuit that circumvents the capitalist commodities market.  Thus, Yomol A’tel can set fair and stable prices based on its values, rather than the fluctuations of the New York stock exchange.  Through Yomol A’tel, some of Latin America’s most exploited and impoverished people are offering us all an alternative economic model, in which nobody needs to be exploited or impoverished.

They were able to build this up with the help of many allies, including a group of social investors who do get returns on their capital but are also committed to the social goals of the project and share the risk more equitably than typical investors would.  Universities have also played an important part, and not just in research and development services: the first Capeltic cafés have all been located on university campuses, giving the brand a niche market from which it is now expanding.

The coffee itself is of gourmet quality, and the Capeltic brand is popular at elite universities throughout urban Mexico, where its cafés compete with other high-end brands.  Yomol A’tel’s objective is not making profit, however, but rather maximizing the social benefits of its work.  This includes making sure that its coffee is grown organically, in highly biodiverse shade forests, and that young adults from farming families are given the opportunity to learn (and do) every aspect of the high-value industrial and administrative work, from which they have been traditionally excluded.  

As for the profits from coffee sales, Yomol A’tel reinvests them in community development projects and in expanding its other social enterprises.  These include a line of organic honey products (made by the same cooperative, but focusing on the role of women) and a microfinance bank that offers financial services on just terms to cooperative members.  At the same time, Yomol A’tel is embedded in the wider Jesuit mission in the Tseltal region of Chiapas, giving the rest of its activities greater economic viability.  The families who belong to the cooperative also participate in local volunteer-based networks that promote agroecology, traditional medicine, spirituality, and political and linguistic autonomy.

To be sure, Yomol A’tel is hardly a threat in the eyes of the mainstream coffee industry.  The cooperative has only a few hundred families in it, and moves only a few hundred tons of coffee a year: in terms of volume on the global scale, this is nearly insignificant.  However, by demonstrating that it is possible to “do” coffee differently, Yomol A’tel serves as a witness to the fact that we have no excuse for allowing our food systems to continue doing social and environmental harm.  The way we organize our production, distribution and consumption is a choice that we make, and the choices we make are the truest reflection of our values.  What does your coffee say about you?