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Monday, 22 April, 2002, 09:37 GMT 10:37 UK
Quality focus boosts coffee growers
Selection of speciality coffee beans
Choosing the best beans can be good for producers' profits
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By Andrew Enever
In Bolivia
The coffee market is in the doldrums and prices are low. However, some Bolivian coffee farmers now hope to improve their lot by growing top-quality beans. Andrew Enever reports from Bolivia.
Coffee production has been a bad business in recent times.

A massive increase in world production has hit the price of beans on the New York coffee market, where coffee fell from a 10-year average of around $1.20 per pound to an all-time low of only $0.42 per pound earlier this year.

When I went into coffee nobody knew Panama produced anything except Noriega

Price Peters, coffee producer
However, in the lush tropical Andean valleys, a short, steep descent from Bolivia's capital La Paz, experts from Colombia and Panama are persuading producers to pay greater attention to their plantations.

"We hope to improve the quality of the coffee," said Eriberto Arias, a Colombian technical adviser with the Cafe Mojsa project.

"The intention is to sell into the speciality coffee market which offers much better prices."

The market for speciality coffee has been growing in recent years providing a profitable alternative to the cut-throat commercial market for those with something special to offer.

Something special

A three year pilot for the Cafe Mojsa project has given a clear indication that coffee from the Bolivian Yungas region has the potential to please the palate, and conscience, of the world's more discerning consumers.

Coffee beans
Arabica coffee beans gain better prices

A combination of altitude, soil and a well-timed rainy season mean the high quality Arabica coffee beans grown in the Yungas are unusually large and have a greater concentration of sugars.

They are also organically produced without the use of fertilisers and every bean is handpicked.

"We are starting to produce excellent coffee," said Julian Toro, technical adviser on the pilot project in Calama.

"We have combined the excellent climate with well orientated work practices, systems of collection and marketing that has helped the farmer get a good price."

The success of the pilot project can be measured by the fact that in only three years coffee from Calama has made its way into the Japanese market.

Last year three containers were exported carrying a premium of up to $0.30 a pound over the world coffee price.

As a result Cafe Mojsa has received further backing from the UN development fund and in the next four years will be working with 1200 of the 20,000 coffee producing families in the Yungas.

Panamanian precedent

The Cafe Mojsa project is not alone in trying to revitalise the Bolivian coffee sector.

A USAid backed project, Mapa (market access and poverty reduction), is also focusing on the industry and is putting forward another small producer, Panama, as the model.

The fall in the world coffee price has affected all of us who grow coffee

Gualberto Juanca Villasante, coffee producer

Only a decade ago the small Central American country was virtually unknown in the coffee world.

"When I went into coffee nobody knew Panama produced anything except Noriega," said producer Price Peters.

The turnaround of Mr Peters' fortunes reflects a revolution in Panama that has increased profits without increasing the country's annual production of about 120,000 sacks.

After a number of years spent improving their product, Mr Peters and other producers are enjoying the relative security of fixed price, multi-year contracts with speciality coffee chains such as Starbucks.

"The success of Panama has been their realisation that they can never be key players in the volumes market but they can be key players in the quality market," said Marcos Moreno, another of the pioneering Panamanian producers who is now working for Mapa in the Yungas.

"The same potential exists in Bolivia. It is precisely their small size that means they can be very competitive in the speciality market."

Exotic appeal

Pedro Rodriguez PeOarrieta, the exporter who opened up the Japanese market for Cafe Mojsa, believes Bolivian coffee has an exotic appeal that could attract consumers looking for something different.

He also believes that in the more tangible area of flavour there is something very special to sell.

"There are coffees from other regions that possess very special characteristics in their acidity, body or aroma," he said.

"But Bolivian coffee offers an extraordinary balance, an equilibrium and harmony of all these aspects."

He is now looking to break into Canada, the world's second largest speciality coffee market, and the small producers in the Yungas are keeping their fingers crossed that current negotiations prove fruitful.

"The fall in the world coffee price has affected all of us who grow coffee," said Gualberto Juanca Villasante, a small producer from Incapampa whose family has to survive on the 50 Bolivianos (5) a week that their coffee brings in.

"We haven't been working with Cafe Mojsa for long but already we are learning to preserve the quality that already exists on the plant.

"We hope that this process will help revive the sector and increase our income."

See also:

29 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
Laos' fresh coffee hopes
02 Apr 02 | Business
Open economy hits Bolivia's industry
25 Feb 02 | Business
Starbucks offers 'ethical' coffee
14 Feb 02 | South Asia
'Have a cuppa coffee'
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