Letter to young people in coffee: "Challenge the statistics"

Letter to young people in coffee: "Challenge the statistics"

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Lith Montés has been with Rikolto for 4 years as national coordinator of coffee projects in Peru. During that time, she has followed the trajectory of young sons and daughters of coffee farmers, who have gone from being support workers on the farms to being part of the technical teams in the coffee farmer organisations and associations. She often reminds us "I work so that young people have opportunities that I fortunately had".

Today, on World Youth Skills Day, she shares the following letter, with the story of a young woman who taught her that "it is worth fighting for a dream and building hope".

When I first met Onaida Mijahuanca, she was working in the collection area of the farmer organisation Aprocassi. We used to meet at the end of the consultation sessions. "Let's have a cup of coffee," the managers would say, and we knew we could count on her company.

Onaida's daily work consisted of organising the export batches, preparing and organising the documentation for shipping to the processing plant. In the middle of the day, she would attend to the producers who came to deliver their samples, sometimes until very late.

She would ask me: how do you see our work, how do other cooperatives do it, what systems do they use, what internal policies do they have? When I met her, I came from a cooperative management background, and I understood that I needed her constant improvement perspective to identify opportunities that other members of the cooperative might not see.

"She asked so many questions that I was afraid of not (adequately) answering all of them. But the feedback encouraged me to keep learning."

After finishing her work, and even during break times, Onaida would move from the collection area to the quality control area to support the main cupper, who taught her everything he knew. Soon after that, the head cupper left the organisation and he recommended that Onaida take over his role.

On another visit, she allowed me to get to know her better. Working, studying and taking care of her 6-year-old daughter was part of her daily routine. She had worked in the area of production and certification as an extension worker before joining the cooperative's collection area. Furthermore, her family were farmers, so she had a strong commitment to improving the livelihoods of the farmers.

"Now I understand the way you teach," I told her, "You know coffee from the ground to the cup."

The following year, I saw her training new cupping colleagues and giving specialised courses. I was very impressed by her progress, and it was satisfying to see how her new skills, far from distancing her, drew her closer to the producer's work.

One day while a producer was waiting for his cupping results, Onaida told him the results of the evaluation of his batch of coffee. She set up a table for the cupping and asked him to taste her coffee.

Onaida had found in that batch one of the best speciality coffee profiles of the season, in high demand with customers, but lacking inconsistency. She wanted to help him to make an amazing coffee, so she started asking him questions. In that dialogue, you could see that Onaida detected the keys to success and began to coach him accordingly.

During the years that I was able to follow her career, news reached us that Onaida was invited as a judge for the quality control competition and to share the stage with other renowned tasters in the area.

In Rikolto, we usually invited her to participate in our annual meetings with partners, workshops, making contributions from her area of expertise, and valuable suggestions from a management point of view. She helped us to put our feet on the ground with real-life cases, proving that in a professional organisation every perspective is unique and valuable to integrate.

She helped us to put our feet on the ground with real-life cases, proving that in a professional organisation every perspective is unique and valuable to integrate.

The pandemic put a pause, but no end to the path that Onaida had just embarked on. The distancing measures in Peru and areas such as San Ignacio pushed young people like her to take refuge on the farms, to prioritise the care of their families, sometimes interrupting their studies, and to help gather supplies as the workforce dwindled.

Onaida no longer works in the cooperative where I met her, but as the saying goes: "Everyone returns to the place in which they came from". At Rikolto, we decide to support actions to promote young talent (internships, participation in competitions, entrepreneurship), and we aspire for them to take on leadership positions in the producers' organisation, but it is difficult to bind them forever to one organisation or another.

It doesn't take a crisis like COVID-19 to realise that their path will continue after their time in the organisations. What we can do is provide them with the tools so that their talent can continue to contribute to an increasingly renewed and solid value chain - more necessary than ever after the crisis.

I can't say that this idea makes me sad. Stories like Onaida's defy the statistics that say that the countryside is not profitable for young people. We want more young people to have opportunities and experiences like her, and to be part of that journey by cultivating a passion for coffee from the soil to the cup, even in the face of adversity. At Rikolto this encourages us to listen to that still small voice inside that says;

A dream is worth fighting for and hope is worth building.

In 17 countries globally, at least 21% of the 23,300 members of the farmers' organisations we work with are under 35 years age. Also, in 2020, through our interventions, we managed to accompany 517 young people on their trajectories as entrepreneurs to build together food systems where everyone can develop their potential and live their dreams!

Lith Montes
Lith Montes
Coordinadora del Programa Cacao y Café Sostenibles | Perú

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