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Community Coffee Helps Colombian Coffee Growers Remain Competitive

Some of the best coffees in Colombia are grown in the southern part of Norte de Santander, which includes the fertile municipalities of Toledo, Labateca and Chitagá. Their fields provide the optimum environment for superior coffee.

Consumers enjoy the rich taste of coffee from this region, and growing high-quality coffee beans provides employment for many farmers and is often a family tradition. 

However, growing coffee beans is only part of the process. Coffee must also be dried, and when the moisture content is too high, the quality suffers.

Solar Dryer Project

Community Coffee Company has sponsored many projects to help the farmers in Toledo, Labateca and Chitagá. In 2017, Community Coffee funded a project to build 95 solar dryers — however, a total of 223 solar dryers have been built in the past two years. 

Why is a solar dryer important? It heats the air with solar energy to maintain a consistent temperature. Also, as opposed to an open-air drying process, solar dryers don’t allow insects or dust to come into contact with the coffee beans.

“Traditionally coffee growers would use patio dryers, so the coffee was exposed to weather and animals walking across the beans,” says Mark Howell, general manager of Community Coffee’s Green Coffee and Tea Department. “However, the solar dryers are raised off the ground, have a canopy and include plastic and mesh, so coffee dries better. The plastic creates heat, and the entire process is cleaner.” Howell says these factors help to improve quality and taste.  

The solar dryer program included community involvement. For example, to determine who would participate, leaders of the Municipal Coffee Committee in Toledo, Labateca and Chitagá established four criteria: They looked for farmers who were listed in the nonprofit National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia, who needed a solar dryer, who had a farm size of at least 7 acres that included a portion dedicated to new or renewed coffee, and who had not been beneficiaries of previous infrastructure projects.

In addition, the coffee growers had to agree to supply their own labor and some material (such as farm bamboo), and they had to sign a letter of intent.

Toledo’s municipal government supplied the plastic material for the 69 dryers it received. As a result of Toledo providing additional resources themselves, Community Coffee’s funds could go further. The original goal of supplying 95 solar dryers was increased to 128 units. In addition to the 69 solar dryers given to Toledo, Labateca received 49 dryers, and Chitagá received 10.

This isn’t the first time that community involvement helped Community Coffee exceed its goal. In 2016, the original plan was for 60 solar dryers, and 95 total units were built.

Effects on the Community

The combination of a consistent temperature and proper ventilation allows coffee beans to be dried more efficiently and effectively, and farmers can produce higher-quality beans. “By having the improved drying process, resulting in better-quality coffee, farmers are able to improve their income with higher prices,” Howell says.  

“We’ve done 223 of these. We’re increasing the farm infrastructure, and each year we’re adding more improvements,” Howell says. “I’ve been in the coffee industry around 25 years, and this is one of the better programs that I’ve seen.”

Since coffee is a critical agricultural product in Colombia, improvements in the farming process — particularly to the coffee drying process — improve not only farm profitability but also help entire communities.