ANEI is a word in the language of the Arhuaco people, which roughly translated into English means ‘good’ or ‘positive’. It is the word which has been chosen to name an organisation which aims to rebuild and strengthen indigenous communities and culture and gain some economic resilience after decades of decline and neglect. ANEI was founded in 1995 as a coffee marketing association at the instigation of Aurora Maria Izquierdo, a Bogota trained Arhuaco agronomist who was able to see the potential value of coffee to her people. In the intervening 22 years, the organisation has developed into a cooperative of over 700 member families exporting around 60 full containers of coffee per annum.
Coffee has been grown in the Sierra for a very long time, but in the past – before they formed the cooperative – farmers sold it to street traders for whatever they could get, or to the FNC at the standard price, and consequently the quality – and the return – was often poor. In its drive to increase the value of the crop to its members, the cooperative has focussed on improving the quality of the coffee, gaining organic and fair trade certification and increasing the yield per hectare. The fair trade premium has allowed farmers to make substantial changes to the way they grow and process their coffee, enabling them to purchase better equipment and build better facilities. In the past, because farmers would wash and ferment in buckets or small boxes, pulped coffee would often be allowed to ferment in plastic bags until space was available, resulting in uneven or over-fermentation. Simply by the construction of proper fermentation tanks, farmers have been able to dramatically improve the quality of their coffee and reduce their workload at the same time, saving time and allowing for other work to be done on the farm.
At first ANEI was only able to export its coffee through the FNC (the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation), so while they were able to build up their membership and use the income from their coffee to support their culture, they were not able to control where or how their coffee was sold. By 2009 when Trade Aid first visited ANEI they had 507 members, spread throughout 16 regions and sold 32 containers of coffee annually – all through the FNC. When Trade Aid visited again in 2011 the FNC had capped their export volumes at 34 containers of FTO coffee – so the farmers had more coffee than the group was able to sell as fair trade and organic. ANEI was investigating the possibility of using other export agents and that year for the first time they shipped coffee to Trade Aid using a new agent CI Kyoto.
The move away from the FNC was a move towards greater autonomy and a better connection with their trading partners. By the time Trade Aid next visited in 2014, ANEI was selling more than 95% of their crop through other export agents of their choice with CI Kyoto being the largest – exporting 20 out of 36 containers from 500 producers that year. With the FNC all but out of the picture, the cooperative had to establish their own purchasing and processing systems; they had constructed collection centres/warehouses in the towns of Pueblo Bello and Codazzi and were planning to buy land in Valledupar near their offices for a larger, more central warehouse. Initially, ANEI had struggled to manage the logistics of collecting and storing all of their own coffee, but by 2014, having gone through a harvest that they managed entirely themselves, they felt that they were in control enough to be able to expand their membership and increase their volumes.
By 2014 ANEI had established a cupping laboratory at their office in Valledupar and had begun the process of identifying and separating the different types of coffee which they produce. At the time, their offering included standard lots (scoring up to 83) and premium lots(83-85) of blended coffee, origin specific lots of high quality, distinctive, regional coffees and triple certified (FTO and RFA) lots. This was a huge leap from just selling all their coffee to the FNC as Excelso grade – as a collective of farmers they were now able to market their coffees on their qualities, better meeting the needs of their various buyers, and adding more value to their members. For Trade Aid this meant that we would be able to choose the coffee that we believed was the best fit for the New Zealand market.
Two years later in 2016, when Trade Aid next visited, the membership of ANEI had grown to its current size with 700 farmers who collectively sold a total of 53 containers of coffee. They have further developed their cupping programme and are now able to divide their coffee into four different and distinct ‘mega profiles’ – Valledupar, Codazzi, Pueblo Bello and La Paz. Within each region they are able to offer three different levels of quality – high scoring, medium-high scoring and average quality. Trade Aid is currently buying coffee from Pueblo Bello as our standard offering. As well as the usual blended coffee, Anei have developed what are effectively sub-brands of specialty coffee, these being ‘Origenes’ or single origin coffee of distinct profile and ‘Femenino’ which is highly graded, blended coffee from the 200 female members. Trade Aid bought a small lot of this coffee this year which we have found to be a very impressive offering. To understand their coffee better, they are developing a cupping database, which when completed will include a flavour profile of the coffee for all members of ANEI.
Currently ANEI are working on filling in the final gap in their supply chain which is the processing of their coffee for export. They realise that without their own mill, they cannot absolutely guarantee the quality of their coffee to their trading partners. They have been looking for a strategically located site near Pueblo Bello to build a dry mill, which when built, will finally bring their coffee completely under their own control all the way from the tree to the shipping container. This will mean that they will be able to put even more focus on all the things which contribute to coffee quality and the social improvements that are their core objective. One of their main, ongoing goals is increasing their productivity – which they recognise as being some of the lowest in the country – they believe that since they started their farmer training programme, they have more than doubled their production to 900kg per hectare, but in the future they aim to at least double that again. To this end they now have 25 technical staff at their collection centres and out in the field, and have been attempting to build up a database of available composting materials in order to build more fertility into their soils.
ANEI are working with a long term vision; they are using all their available resources and their coffee in particular to pull their people up and out of the poverty which had been imposed upon them. They seem to be working so fast to gain their independence, while at the same time, as they say, ‘looking seven generations into the future’.