Chica Bean: The social enterprise empowering female coffee farmers in Guatemala

Kahwei Yoong
June 28, 2021
cup tasting at origin

Most of a coffee’s value is added at the roasting stage, while farmers often struggle to cover the costs of production. One Guatemalan social enterprise has found a solution.

The Chica Bean story

The coffee value chain begins with coffee farmers. It then moves on to exporters and importers, who act as middlemen in trading green beans, before ending up at roasters and end-consumers.

Generally, value is only added to coffee once it is roasted. This can be a problem, as profits from the coffee industry are not always reabsorbed back into the producing country.

Even when farmers are fairly compensated, it’s often disproportionate to the profits generated at the other end of the chain. The income may not even cover their costs.

One widely discussed solution is roasting coffee at origin. Here, profits are passed directly to the producers to better support their livelihood.

Chica Bean is a Guatemala-based social enterprise focused on roasting and exporting coffee grown by female smallholder farmers in the community.

The enterprise first began roasting at origin after a chance meeting between Alene Seiler and Chica Bean co-founder Josué Martinez.

“On average producers make just $0.05 for every cup of coffee”

During her Peace Corps service in Guatemala, Alene was stationed at a local community that depended entirely on the production of coffee. While there, she noticed that coffee farmers like Josué were struggling to cover their costs of production while consumers in the US were paying just a few dollars for a cup of coffee.

On average producers make just $0.05 for every cup of coffee while consumers will pay an average of $3.50 for that cup.

Cutting out middlemen wasn’t enough, as Josué and Alene were competing with bigger players in the coffee export industry. That’s when they decided to focus on roasting instead. 

“The coffee supply chain was created as a colonial system, taking raw things out of a country and bringing it to another country where the value and importance can be added,” says Abbigail Graupner, Chica Bean’s business development partner.

“We add that transformation [to coffee] and keep it in the same place where it’s grown, but still deliver products that are fresh, high quality, and full of opportunity.”

chica bean
The majority of a coffee’s value is added at the roasting stage

Highs, lows, and US supermarkets

Like any business, Chica Bean has endured its fair share of breakthroughs and setbacks since it started roasting its own coffee. Major hurdles have included logistics, a lack of access to markets, and a lack of roasting resources.

The main reason for this is that in Guatemala (or any other coffee producing country), most people are more familiar with handling green beans than they are with roasting. As such, roasting equipment and information are not readily available. 

This does not, however, mean that no one roasts at all. According to Abbigail, people do have an interest in roasting, but there’s no culture of sharing knowledge. Every newcomer in the industry is perceived as a competitor. 

Josué believes that it is important to change this mindset so that coffee producing countries can realise their ability not only for farming and processing, but also for roasting and logistics.

Fortunately, Chica Bean was eligible for assistance from international programmes, through which they were able to bring in a roast master and barista from the United States.

When resources and knowledge are available to the community, Abbigail sees how people react positively to them.

“It’s not that producing countries don’t have the ability, it’s that they don’t have the resources,” she says.

chica bean
In Guatemala, most people are more familiar with the handling of green beans than they are with roasting

Another significant challenge when roasting at origin is logistics. Regions like the EU, Russia, and Japan levy excise duties on processed coffee, whereas green coffee is imported duty-free. 

What’s more, roasted coffee beans tend to lose their freshness within weeks after roasting, which means entire shipments can be compromised if they don’t arrive at the consumer within a specific timeframe.

Chica Bean recognises the importance of tackling these issues and has taken measures to reduce their impact. For example, they’ve started working with UPS’s air shipping pilot programme, which has allowed them to deliver their beans directly to the US within days at a competitive price.

Abbigail says that some logistics companies are trying to connect producing countries with consumers. With good communication and conversation, positive changes are bound to be made.

She recently delivered her first harvest for the year, which she considered one of her proudest moments since joining Chica Bean. The harvest is the culmination of the work that Chica Bean has done and its impact on the community.

“Overcoming market limitations involves ‘breaking the consumer’s paradigm’ through education.”

She saw how confident Doña Raquela (the coffee producer) was in her coffee beans’ quality, and how much her teammates Evelin (head roaster) and Jessica (barista) have grown. 

Evelin used to be a nanny, and Jessica was a cleaner at the Chica Bean café. The enthusiasm and confidence these women have for their coffee beans proves to Abbigail that with the right resources, a positive impact can be made.

For Josué, all the proof he needed came when Chica Bean secured repeat orders from a supermarket in the US. This reassured him that they were “on a good path”.

Abbigail and Josué both believe that overcoming market limitations involves “breaking the consumer’s paradigm” through education. This includes showing them how producing countries can be more involved in the supply chain.

roasting at origin
Repeat orders from a supermarket in the US shows Chica Bean is “on a good path”

Advice for aspiring origin roasters

“Maintaining good communication with your partners and customers is vital”, Josué says. “People are trying to help the coffee community, and they are willing to be flexible if it is communicated to them.”

Another issue is that consumers within producing countries aren’t usually that interested in high-quality coffee, as the bulk of it is exported. However, roasters need a local source of income.

“Creating a specialty coffee with a price that your neighbours can actually pay will help create a community that demands some of the highest quality seeds stay at origin,” Josué explains. “It is our job as roasters at origin to not only share our stories with those in consuming countries, but to help support our [own] community in becoming a consuming community.”

Meanwhile, Abbigail advises roasters to focus on building a local source of revenue. “Identify a price at which you are covering your costs and making your necessary margins as a business, while remaining accessible for local people,” she says.

To be a successful origin roaster in the long run, roasters need to recognise that their competition is also abroad. To be competitive globally, origin roasters should work more collaboratively.

“Create a community of coffee professionals who aren’t afraid to ask questions, give advice, and experiment together,” Abbigail explains. “Together, the community will learn more than if they are fighting among each other for resources.”

chica bean
Long term success relies on acknowledging competition from abroad

Roasting at origin faces a number of challenges, including competition from abroad and a lack of access to resources such as information, equipment, and packaging. However, with the right support, it’s something that Chica Bean, and others, have proved is possible.

At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of sustainable coffee packaging for roasters at origin, as we know how important it is that coffee is delivered as fresh as possible. 

We work closely with roasters to design the best packaging that ensures all flavours at origin are preserved when they reach your customers. Our packaging will protect your beans while in transit, giving you absolute peace of mind.

For information on our sustainable coffee packaging, contact our team

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