It’s fairly well-known that coffee farmers aren’t millionaires. In fact, they’re generally far from it. It’s tough to farm good coffee. Coffee as a commodity is worth $100 billion worldwide—second only to oil. And yet, the average coffee farmer makes a paltry $1000 per season (which is about $3/day), and that’s without taking into consideration drought or disease or other obstacles that hinder modern coffee cultivation. It’s an industry inherently imbalanced and unfair.
Enter Vega Coffee. Centrally-located in Estelí, Nicaragua, Vega is one of the few specialty coffee roasteries in a country renowned for its coffee cultivation. While farmers may do traditional roasting for their own consumption, it comes as a shock that most Nicaraguan restaurants actually serve instant coffee. Most green coffee beans are exported to coffee-obsessed nations like the US. The green coffee beans, and their increasing value, are exported simply because it is difficult to afford or manage further processing in the more rural locations where coffee farmers work. But Vega is doing all it can to bring the pride and profits of the coffee industry back to the farmers.
Not only do Vega’s farmers cultivate and process the green coffee beans, but they also roast, package and ship their quality beans directly to the consumer. This means a more sustainable lifestyle for the farmer-roasters, who get bigger margins since roasted coffee commands a much higher price point than green beans. It also means less wasteful transportation and profit cuts to middlemen as the beans make their way towards your kitchen.
As a subscription-based coffee company, Vega delivers fresh, farmer-roasted Nicaraguan coffee directly to a subscriber’s door within 5 days of roasting—direct from the farmer’s hands to theirs. Vega is changing the game for how coffee farmers make a living, creating opportunity for more women in the industry and revamping the coffee industry to bring it into the 21st century. In a real way, Vega is all about empowering their farmers, the communities around them and their environment.
I had the opportunity to chat with Noushin Ketabi, one of the founders of Vega, to learn a little more about how Vega is making their coffee an international force for good.
Could you explain how your chain of production differs from the traditional chain that fair trade coffee would go through?
Noushin: For a bean to make it to a coffee shop, the typical chain starts with the farmer. Then, oftentimes, it goes to cooperatives, and then on to larger second-level cooperatives. From that second-level cooperative, it goes to an exporter, and from that exporter it goes to a coffee importing company, and then on to a distributor, and eventually on to a smaller roaster that wants to buy a Nicaraguan coffee. Then it gets retailed to stores or customers, and on and on. So it can go through quite a few middlemen in the supply chain from that remote village in Nicaragua to your cup.
In our supply chain, it’s quite streamlined. We actually have a roastery in Nicaragua, so right off the bat that’s different than any other specialty coffee company in the US. And we are involving farmers in the roasting process, so they have ownership of that entire production of coffee. They not only spend years cultivating that crop, but then the coffee is picked, washed, dried, selected, and then they come down the street to our roastery where it is roasted by the farmers themselves. The farmers then package it and we export it to the US (every 2 weeks for our subscription service). That’s the difference. We’re right there at origin, we’re buying directly from a farmer or a farmer organization, and we deliver direct to customers.
Tell us more about your farmer-roasters.
Noushin: Generally farmers are only paid one time a year, and that’s at harvest, which leads to some financial insecurity. They are already not making very much money, which leaves them economically pretty vulnerable, in most cases. That’s something we’re trying to work on. Coming and roasting with us every two weeks, [our farmers] get a paycheck every two weeks. That not only more income, but much more financial security. That’s one thing that we think is really important.
We’re working with speciality coffee farmers. They take incredible pride and real love in cultivating their crop, so for them [our training and partnership] is a chance to also learn all the aspects of coffee processing. I think it’s quite powerful because now not only are they experts in everything that has to do with farming, but they’re experts in how they can objectively quantify quality in coffees. They’re trained in roasting, the proper way to grind coffee, the proper way to brew the beans—from Chemex to Aeropress— and in cupping and tasting. We teach them about packaging and creating that experience for the customers. It is fully in their hands. There’s not just the economic benefit that’s there, but also the sense of pride. That’s what we’re looking to deliver is that connection and experience, both for the farmers and the customers.
The coffee industry, from farming to roasting, is heavily male-dominated. How does Vega encourage women to get involved with coffee cultivation and business?
Noushin: In the coffee growing world overall, women don’t have the same access as men do to capital, to loans, to political opportunities, so there is a disconnect there with some of that power. But on the other hand, women actually do a great deal of the work alongside men in production and in farming and they’re very much a part of cultivating coffee and ensuring that it’s high quality.
For us, that was something we really wanted to address in our own way. How can we create opportunities that help both women and men to work alongside each other, that help promote women in the coffee supply chain, and how can we identify the incredible work women are already doing in the coffee supply chain?
How we seek to do that is we source from women cooperatives whenever possible. When we seek to source coffee from a cooperative, we find out how many women are involved. We want to prioritize sourcing from cooperatives that women have participation in. And we really shine a light on those women through social media. We have a great newsletter that we share with our Vega community, and really that identification, that promotion, is something that’s very important to us. Right now, around 90 percent of our farmer-roasters are women—a big majority of our team. And that to us is something we’re very proud of. We want to continue to promote these opportunities for women. There are a lot of incredibly capable women there, at origin, highly educated, highly skilled, and there’s just been a dearth of opportunities for them.
What are the challenges that face coffee farmers as the climate continues to change?
Noushin: Climate change really exacerbated the La Roya [coffee rust plague] situation the last few years. I think what we’re seeing in Nicaragua, for example, is in the past there used to be a rainy season and a dry season and now those are getting a little muddied up. [So it may seem like the rainy season is over, and it’s getting warmer, but then it will change and become rainy again, which is bad news for the coffee plants.] Harvest is much later this year than it normally is. [When the seasons are less predictable] what winds up happening is sometimes there is mold that can develop on the plants, or the plants sometimes aren’t developing in the right way, or the sugars in the coffee cherries aren’t developing in the right way, which can really affect the coffee quality. It can also affect the amount of coffee that’s produced. And it particularly devastates farmers that don’t use chemicals. So if you’re a farmer, organic certified or not, that is committed to not using chemicals in your production, you get hit the hardest. Also, higher quality varietals are more delicate than the less-flavorful varietals. So again, if you’re focused on quality, you get hit harder by some of these impacts of climate change that we’re seeing.
Climate change is also reducing the amount of land that is suitable for coffee farming. There are fewer and fewer areas that stay cool enough for coffee to be produced. Farmers wind up having to move towards higher and higher elevations for real quality coffee.
Meanwhile, the supply chain doesn’t really account for these challenges in a way that is sustainable for farmers. They aren’t necessarily getting paid more because of that dynamic. Those are some challenges that most people really aren’t aware of unless they go out and learn about coffee and read up on that stuff. But these are things we see on the ground and things we are trying to raise more and more awareness around as well.
Vega is doing all it can to make coffee farming and production more sustainable and more fair. Vega’s farmer-roasters have greater access to healthcare, funds for education, and greater financial security. Vega is redefining the coffee industry, and changing lives in the process. Vega’s vision is to build a roasting center in every coffee growing region of the world, continuing their unique subscription system and further empowering the farmers of the beans we all hold so dear.
But before world domination, Vega is focused on shining a spotlight on the incredible coffees that are in Nicaragua as well as the incredible producers that are behind those coffees. For this reason, they feature a new coffee in their subscription service every month. Each package of coffee includes a postcard with information about the producers, the farm and the flavor notes of the actual coffee. Every bag is hand-signed by the farmers who roast it, which makes for a really special connection between the producer and the consumer. Plus, is there any greater joy than getting delicious, freshly roasted coffee delivered to your door, straight from the farmer’s hands?
Vega believes people shouldn’t have to trade off quality for sustainability. And they are showing the industry how it’s done.