Fairtrade ANZ Senior Producer Support Officer Will Valverde has taken his knowledge and qualifications to a new level to help Pacific coffee farmers reach new heights of quality.
Many people will say they were born into coffee, with generations beforehand working in coffee, but there are few who mean it quite as literally as Will Valverde.
“When my mother was pregnant with me – I’m the fifth of seven children – my family moved to another town to work in the harvest. On my birthday, she picked coffee during the day and I was born during the night,” Will says. “I grew up with a coffee plantation as my backyard. That was my playground, so coffee has always been connected to who I am.”
Will grew up in the Brunca region of Costa Rica, a region where both of his parents’ families had emigrated as smallholder coffee producers from the famous coffee region of Tarrazú. He tells BeanScene coffee played a big role in the development of Costa Rica.
“Many people saw coffee as a ‘driver’ to help their family develop too. Coffee helped to fund the studies and education of many people from my and my older sibling’s generations,” Will says. “My parents didn’t even have the chance to go to high school. We had it as the norm.”
At school, Will learned more about the role cooperatives play in supporting Costa Rica’s farmers, not just in coffee but across agriculture, and became intrigued. He joined his high school’s cooperative at the age of 12 and became President by 16. After studying business administration at university, Will felt the desire to share the knowledge and skills he acquired with the community that made learning them possible.
Will joined CoopeAgri, the local cooperative where he grew up, and worked on the social development and management side of coffee processing and exporting. He says many of the workers of CoopeAgri felt a personal attachment to the co-op.
“One of the successes of CoopeAgri is that the sons and daughters of its members, who were educated, came back and worked for the organisation,” Will says. “Two of my sisters worked in the same cooperative and it’s where I met my wife, so there’s a strong familial connection.”
It was during his time with CoopeAgri that Will became acquainted with certification system Fairtrade. The co-op was certified for its sugar cane in 1998 and its coffee joined in 2004. Will says the Spanish name of Fairtrade, Comercio Justo, immediately struck a chord with him.
“The name caught my attention, but then I started to realise the system was promoting not simply a certification, but a development model. It helps cooperatives have access to a better market, secure a better price, and access a premium to address business and community needs they may have,” he says.
In 2007, Will was invited to visit New Zealand during Fairtrade Fortnight to share how being a Fairtrade Cooperative had helped CoopeAgri make a difference in its community.
The trip saw Will and CoopeAgri establish strong relationships with the New Zealand and Australian markets. An opportunity soon arose for Will to join the Fairtrade Australia New Zealand team, where he now works with coffee producers in the Pacific Islands to improve their quality and processes.
“There’s a big distance compared to the development of cooperatives in Latin America. I’m working with the producer support team on filling those gaps,” Will says. “If I look at a baseline cupping we conducted a few years back, a lot of the coffees received a cupping score under 80. With our training sessions and follow up from our staff on the ground, over the last two years we’ve seen scores jump to 81, 82, 84, and some as far as 86.”
Much of Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand’s quality improvement work in the Pacific is funded through its partnerships with the Australian and New Zealand governments.
Since 2018, Fairtrade has collaborated with the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) to run projects in these Pacific countries. While perhaps best known for its Q Grader cup scoring qualification, CQI also operates trainings and qualifications on coffee processing in origin.
Fairtrade conducted its first official training session with CQI in PNG in June 2019. Will says it opened their eyes to see the really good opportunities for developing quality in PNG.
“We were fortunate to have Grinders Coffee Roasters and Montville from Australia, and Kōkako from New Zealand with us to understand the realities of farmers and the work we’re doing. I can see that the industry is understanding a bit more the challenges PNG farmers face and how they can contribute. It’s really encouraging,” he says.
“One of the key areas for CQI, and where we see value, is trying to speak the same language with all coffee stakeholders. By understanding what the customer wants, the farmer is empowered to get the best out of their coffees.”
Working with CQI, Will has also been able to improve his own qualifications. He travelled to Guatemala in November 2019 to take part in the gruelling Q Processing Level 2 qualification process.
“It was six days of intensive training, from 6am or 7am until 10pm or 12am some nights. The volume of information is quite high, so you need time to come back and review. And you have to follow the process they establish, staying on top of things and monitoring the different processes, fermentation, and drying they teach you,” Will says.
“Then you have 15 different tests you need to pass in order to be eligible for Level 2 Q Processing. Passing so many tests – I haven’t taken one since university – made me feel like I’d achieved something.”
Will says having this endorsement from CQI provides industry members who use Fairtrade coffee with the reassurance that he and Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand have a strong understanding of coffee quality and how to achieve it.
Taking this course has also taught Will a lot about the science behind coffee processing and why things are done the way they are, not just the how.
“Something as simple as monitoring the temperature and pH in the coffee while it’s being fermented, seeing how the chemical aspects of the process give a different profile to a cup of coffee, and how you can use certain elements to affect the flavours was quite interesting,” Will says.
“It’s a better understanding of coffee processing, and that’s something we’ve been trying to share with the farmers and processors who do ask these questions. CQI is finding the answers, which I think is impressive and amazing.”
For more information, visit www.fairtradeanz.org
This article appears in the October 2020 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.