Emilio Lopez Diaz examines supply chain challenges at Knowledge Talks

Emilio Lopez Diaz wraps up the 14th instalment of Toby’s Estate Coffee Roasters’ Knowledge Talks in Perth on 9 July.

Emilio is an El Salvadorian coffee farmer, who also runs milling and exporting and importing operations around the world, as well as a roastery and retail operations in his home country and the United States. He travelled to Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth from 3 to 9 July to discuss the challenges experienced at each level of the supply chain.

He began his talk by discussing the role six specific countries played in his coffee journey. First was the US, where he first learned to roast coffee and the value of specialty in the early 2000s whily studying in Portland, Oregon.

“Portland is the Mecca of coffee in the US,” Emilio says. “Micro roasting became a thing and spread around the world because of this town. My time here taught me maybe my family’s struggling coffee farm had potential. I realised direct trade could be a thing, because it didn’t really exist yet.”

The talk turned to Brazil, Emilio’s “first trip to origin” outside of El Salvador.

“I understood early that I needed to visit other countries. Things done in El Salvador are only done there and I wanted to know what other countries were doing,” Emilio says. “Brazil is very industrial in its coffee production. In El Salvador, they spoke of coffee farming tied to purity, beliefs, and what their grandparents used to do. My generation was not interested in farming, and Brazil made me realise there was room to innovate.”

Emilio turned his focus to France, a country that helped him spread his business and influence.

“France was my gateway to Europe for coffee distribution through a strong partnership I have in Bordeaux,” Emilio says. “I also worked with a French barista, Charlotte Malaval [now Green Bean Buyer for Toby’s Estate], in the lead up to the 2015 World Barista Championship (WBC). She’s the reason I’m here. She connected me to Toby’s Estate and I was able to come to Australia and deliver this talk.”

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This was not Emilio’s first time or connection in Australia. He was first linked to the country when Craig Simon used his coffee in the 2010 Australian Barista Championship.

“I received a text saying someone on the other side of the world was using my coffee in one of these competitions, which was a first for me,” Emilio says. “I watched the video and got in touch with Craig. I got to know him and we’ve been good friends ever since. Australia has been a big part of my coffee career.”

Next, Emilio highlighted the role Asia – Japan in particular – played in his 2018 Cup of Excellence (COE) experience.

“I had respect for and was ready to enter the Asian market. I thought the best way to do that was through the COE,” Emilio says. “The best Japanese roasters buy winning COE coffee and I didn’t want to enter until I was sure I would win. It took 12 years for me to be ready. I entered two samples, which placed first and second.”

Finally, Emilio returned his focus to El Salvador, where his family has farmed coffee since the 1840s. After outlining the journey of coffee from Ethiopian forests to its current place in society, Emilio detailed challenges faced at origin. Chief among them, in Emilio’s opinion, is an aging working population.

“Workers are old and tired. They’ve been doing it for a long time and there is no one to replace them. There are no incentives to working in a coffee farm,” he says. “Coffee provides the lowest wages in all of agriculture.”

Emilio says the specialty industry has played a role in this, insisting labour intensive work such as weeding, pruning, and picking be done by hand.

“People are coming into farms and demanding things be done very traditionally. The highest paid worker on my farm is a tractor driver, because he can clear weeds at a much higher rate, and has experience. But this is ‘less romantic’ than clearing weeds by hand with a machete,” he says.

Climate change, pests, and low coffee prices have also impacted farming profitability. Emilio says while coffee is still picked by hand, introducing mechanisation to processes such as weeding, spraying crops, and fertilising has brought structure, precision, and efficiency to his farm, improving the consistency of his coffee.

“Since switching to mechanisation, we’ve used zero herbicides, conditions at the farm have improved, and worker’s wages have gone up,” Emilio says.

Emilio Lopez Diaz with the Toby’s Estate team.

Emilio then moved up the supply chain to milling and exporting operations. When he entered the industry in 2000, all coffee in El Salvador – and Latin America except Brazil – was washed processed.

“My first time trying something different was in 2003. I was visited by three Italian gentlemen who were third generation roasters. They said, ‘What happened to El Salvador coffee? It used to all be natural processed’. They left, and an hour later, I began processing natural coffee,” Emilio says.

He adds that natural processing takes approximately three times as much money to produce as washed, including the increased space and labour it takes, and this is not always reflected in prices. Many farmers are also being told by roasters to do these processes without the proper knowledge and education.

“Farmers will do anything to sell their coffee, and they don’t always know what they’re doing,” Emilio says. “In wine, it’s the winemaker who decides how to process the grapes, but in coffee, it’s the buyer, who usually doesn’t carry the costs if it fails.”

Next, Emilio looked at the challenges facing roasters, primarily competition. This means roasters need to find points of differentiation to succeed.

“Trying to sell coffee in an oversaturated market like Australia is tough. The specialty industry thought education was what separates us, talking about the coffee and how we do what we do. But now everyone does that,” Emilio says.

“The specialty industry thinks it knows what the consumer wants, that we know something the consumers doesn’t. But in fact, the consumers know what we don’t – they just want coffee. We get so passionate and emotional, but they just want caffeine.”

He says this is reflected in retail as well, where real estate and location is the biggest decider of business success.

“People told me places like Starbucks don’t exist in Australia, but I counted more than 10 just in Sydney. There’s almost an many in Melbourne, and you have different chains or 7/11s on every corner or in every shop,” Emilio says. “These are all your competitors that you don’t think about.”

Emilio ended with a summary of the points he hopes the audience takes away from his Knowledge Talks.

“Coffee is not something new. It’s been around for 1000 years, but it’s evolved, like everything else in human history,” Emilio says.

“Differentiation is important not just for the roasters, but the whole supply chain. We need to think about how unique and ‘legit’ we are. Coca-Cola and other soft drinks are not ‘real’, they’re a blend of chemicals. Coffee is a much more natural, complex product and that needs to be reflected in the business involved in it.”

All proceeds from the ticket sales of Knowledge Talks will be donated to the Las Nubes Daycare and Afterschool-Learning Centre. The centre supports the education of over 40 children aged between three and 12 in the coffee community of Acatenango.

On a daily basis the centre provides much needed education, nutritional meals and a safe and nurturing environment while allowing the parents to continue working or to complete their education.

For more information, visit www.tobysestate.com.au

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