"There's No 'u' in Colombia"

Moving from fixing problems we've created to reducing harm

Right now, there are demonstrations in Colombia to protest government corruption and inequality. The Colombian government has taken excessive and deadly measures to attempt to quell protests, and this has affected coffee growers in the country, with talk of some companies going back on contracts with farmers.

Please follow the hashtag #SOSColombia. Sprudge has also collected a list of accounts to follow for more information, and Glitter Cat sent an email with actionable steps you can take to support protestors in Colombia.

In a recent email I received from Veronica Grimm at Glitter Cat, she wrote, “Remember, there is no ‘u’ in Colombia.”

In the latest installment of the Boss Barista Takeover, we released a two-part episode with Sebastián Diácono, country manager for Latorre & Dutch. Sebastián’s job is to advocate for both coffee farmers and potential buyers in Colombia, making sure both parties understand the relationship they’re about to enter into. He comes from a coffee-growing family and knows the struggles farmers face intimately—and that means he also knows how to decipher the language used by coffee buyers when they’re looking to make a purchase.

In this episode, Sebastián asked two coffee farmers, Deiro García and Alejandra Hoyos, to talk about their experiences growing and selling coffee. Deiro and Alejandra shared their stories and responses in Spanish, and Sebastián translated and added his own insights. Both spoke on topics like sharing risk with buyers, and the uncertainty of whether a buyer will be interested in your entire lot—or just a small plot of your best-tasting coffee. They also addressed the power imbalance inherent to potential customers coming to visit their farms: Growers are expected to usher them in excitedly, despite the fact that they might not even purchase any coffee at the end.

One thing that Sebastián did during the episode—that I think is easy to overlook if you live in a coffee-consuming country, rather than a coffee-producing country—is that he focused nearly all his analysis on the farmers themselves, and provided solutions that had almost nothing to do with consumers.

I’ve referenced Anand Giridharadas’ book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, before on this newsletter. In the book, Giridharadas talks about how the wealthy and privileged are often the arbiters of societal change. Think of corporations donating to nonprofits or standing with civil rights groups—even though, at the same time, they’re also the perpetrators of harm and violence against the same groups they’ve publicly pledged to stand with. Ultimately, most refuse to acknowledge internal systems that cause this harm, and believe that while the solution always has to come from them, it can’t challenge the status quo.

“For example, a baron wishing to withhold benefits from workers might reframe that desire as a prediction about a future in which every human being is a solo entrepreneur,” he writes. “The only thing better than controlling money or power is to control the efforts to question the distribution of money and power. The only thing better than being a fox is being a fox asked to watch over the hens.”

I think much of the rhetoric in coffee—and agriculture in general—revolves around this premise: Those in control of power and money often get to decide what the best solutions are, and the solutions very rarely threaten those in power.

This didn’t click for me in our episode until I started transcribing. I usually feed the raw audio of every episode into an auto transcription service, and then I listen to the episode and correct errors as I go along. Naturally, an episode about Colombian coffee farmers used the word “Colombia” a lot. And every single time my transcription service heard the word “Colombia,” it transcribed it as “Columbia,” which is the name of an Ivy League school in New York City, a sportswear company, and the capital of South Carolina, a city with a population of about 130,000 people.

Colombia—the country—is the third-largest producer of coffee in the world, and has a population of over 50 million. Bogotá, the capital, has over 10 million residents in its greater urban area alone, and is one of the most populous cities in the world. How in the world, even assuming that the transcription service I use is U.S.-based, would “Columbia” be prioritized over “Colombia”?

The answer is that the narrative is always written around people in power. From ticks in a transcription service to the best way to solve problems, we often start from the top down.

And we know that there are problems in coffee buying. In this episode, both Deiro and Alejandra mentioned that it’s very possible for them to end up in situations where they sell their coffee at a loss. And yet, most of the solutions I’ve heard focus on buyers. Buyers need to pay more. Buyers need to invest in relationships.

We’ve named the problem, but we’ve yet to fix it. Because to truly fix it would mean to cede power, which a lot of people are unwilling to do—but we still want to be seen as virtuous stewards trying to do the right thing.

Some of that rhetoric has made its way into marketing: Think of the coffee shops you see with pictures of roasters and farmers arm in arm. And that’s tricked consumers into thinking they can solve problems of inequity at farms by buying coffee from folks who know the right signals to send to relay their supposed values. We want so badly to be part of the solution that we forget we might have caused the problem to begin with—and we don’t allow the solutions to be led by the people who have been harmed the most.

The only piece of advice that Sebastián offers coffee buyers is to listen to growers.

I have experience with the growers. When [roasters] ask for coffee, I go to the growers and I sit with them and I tell them, “Hey guys, we’re going to do this and this—tell me what price you’re looking for. This is the quality we’re looking for, blah blah blah…”  

And that’s how it works. That’s how it works as a trader—[you have] to make sure all the [members of the] chain are winning. And I have learned that at Latorre & Dutch here in Colombia, because we are dealing with bigger volumes, it’s good to sit with them. And maybe there’s a coffee buyer listening to this—it’s super rewarding just to sit and listen. What do the farmers want, need, or expect from this negotiation? 

About three years ago, I was at a coffee conference called Re:co (which, as a conference that talks about coffee growers—but which is led by consumers rather than producers—has its own problems to sort out), and we spent some time in breakout groups talking about the problems of the coffee supply stream. We were talking as a group about paying more for coffee, and a business owner stood up and said something along the lines of, “My margins are already so thin. If I pay more for coffee, then I won’t be able to operate my business.”

This is the definition of the farce of “change-making.” This business owner knew coffee prices were too low, but was unwilling to personally change anything about his business model to address the issue. What might a real risk entail for someone like him? A pay cut? Charging customers more and potentially losing brand loyalty? Or perhaps even shutting his doors?

That’s actual risk. That’s actual change-making. Until we’re able to take on real risk, it’s unclear if meaningful change can really happen within the power class, and solutions generated by this group only serve to feed our incessant need to appear to “do good” and appease guilt.

Instead, take Sebastián’s advice. Sit, listen, and be willing to make real change.

Photo by Flavia Carpio on Unsplash. Special thanks to Chobani for making the Boss Barista takeover possible.