"How can I convince a young person to stay in coffee production if I cannot promise him that it is a profitable activity? How can I tell a producer to produce in a sustainable way if nobody is going to recognize that? The market is the key."
By solving the market, we solve the rest
Coopepilangosta is a coffee cooperative founded 58 years ago by 23 producers in the area of Hojancha, Guanacaste, who were looking for a solution to the numerous problems of coffee production storage and transportation that they faced at that time.
Its general manager, Carlos Luis Vásquez, is quick to explain the origin of such a curious name and, amused, clarifies that it has nothing to do with lobsters or anything like that and rather, with a "pila angosta" (a rock formation in Spanish) located at the headwaters of the Nosara River and which was very popular among the locals who came during the summer to bathe. Eventually the community received the name Pila Angosta, which soon became Pilangosta.
An organization in constant growth and diversification
The growth and diversification of the cooperative is evident. From 23 original members, it has grown to 184, and from offering coffee storage, stacking, and transportation services, to having its own supply warehouse, service center, processing plant, and a finished product under the Café Diriá brand. It has also diversified into other products such as citrus and local products.
At the processing level, the Coffee NSP supported Coopepilangosta in improving its processes, particularly the management of pulp and wastewater. These two aspects contribute to the highest share of emissions and Vasquez estimates a reduction of between 20 and 30 percent as a consequence of the optimization of the processes.
On the farm, actions focused on tree planting, soil management and the rational and appropriate use of fertilizers to prevent evaporation and runoff. Vásquez explains that these types of practices translate into a better capacity of the farm to fix carbon and a reduction in the need to use fertilizers, especially nitrogen.
The more differentiation, the better
When evaluating the project, Vásquez qualifies it as very positive, with very good objectives that have helped them to reinforce the environmental differentiation as part of the value proposal of Coopepilangosta's coffee.
In an increasingly competitive and differentiated market, having as many differentiating aspects as possible is crucial. Other differentiating points were already solved, such as cup quality and the social aspect that Vargas considers can be considered as a 'country difference' due to the social security guarantees that govern all economic activities. He mentions a fourth difference that has no competition: it´s sourced from the only blue zone in the world that produces coffee.
In addition to the reduction of emissions in the processing plant and on the farm, Vásquez lists other concrete results of the project: the development of capacities, awareness among the people associated with the cooperative and the "noise" that has begun to be generated in the coffee world regarding carbon neutrality as another important aspect to be considered and valued in coffee.
What Vasquez regrets is that he has not yet been able to see the return on investment. Implementing good practices requires discipline and some are more costly than conventional ones, at least in the short term. Although in the long-term cleaning a coffee plantation with herbicides will generate detrimental effects for the plantation, the people and the surrounding ecosystems, it cannot be ignored that it is more efficient and cost effective at the moment. In view of this reality, it becomes critical to work strongly on a long-term vision and this is difficult because these effects, those deferred in time, are abstract and must be imagined, while the immediate ones are tangible and are experienced at the moment.
Without hesitation, Vasquez states that this is the support he would ask for if he could present a wish list for future projects. Communicating and marketing this value-added coffee is the biggest challenge he sees on the horizon. He is in search of buyers that value these efforts, but not only morally, but also by paying differentiated prices. Not finding them will mean the gradual abandonment of the good practices developed with the support of the Coffee NSP, or even of the coffee activity, because sustainability also requires profitability.
His sadness is evident when he admits that, because of the way things currently work, it does not even make sense for Coopepilangosta to separate the coffee that follows NAMA practices and apply a differentiated process to it from conventional coffee, because the additional cost of processing in micro-lots is not being paid by anyone.
Vásquez dreams of seeing the people associated with the cooperative become entrepreneurs who are completely dedicated to the coffee activity because it is lucrative, because it allows them to thrive rather than just subsist.
-My professional background is in foreign trade. Maybe that's why I place so much emphasis on the commercial part. And it's not that I don't think everything else is unimportant - it is! But I do think we need to rethink the order in which we do things. If you do not have a spearhead that defines all the conditions that must be met, it is difficult. How can I convince a young person to stay in coffee production if I cannot promise him that it is a profitable activity? How can I tell a producer to produce in a sustainable way if nobody is going to recognize that? The market is the key.