Talking coffee with Mauricio Velasquez is a bit like talking politics with Che Guevara; his passion for the organisation he represents is radical and unparalleled. Mauricio is, in many ways, a revolutionary of the coffee trade. A Colombian national, he has seen his fair share of instability and inequity. No doubt this has been one of the driving forces in his bid for change in the coffee world. After securing a university scholarship, Mauricio opted to major in international trade, nurturing a dream to revolutionise the way wealth was distributed within Colombia. A huge proponent for ‘real direct trade’, Mauricio explains to me the current issues surrounding the internal trade of coffee in Colombia. It is quite a convoluted system rife with corruption. The end result sees the same coffee pass through six or seven different buyers before it leaves the country, each of whom demand a slice of the pie. What is left for the poor, uneducated farmers is barely enough to get by. The reality is that they must take what they can get. Enter ASPROUNION.
ASPROUNION is a cooperative of farmers and coffee producers based out of the town of La Union in southern Colombia. Coffee is grown on the slopes of Mount La Jacoba in the fertile volcanic soil. Back in 2009 Mauricio pitched a radical new direct trade model to the cooperative – “What if we grow, process, export AND import the coffee ourselves?” This concept had never been tried before in Colombia and definitely ruffled some feathers, but ASPROUNION was willing to take a punt on Mauricio, who made this the subject of his final university assignment. Shortly after, Mauricio was headed for Western Australia to peddle his wares. WA was chosen as the ideal location for import due to the budding specialty market and lack of competition (the vast majority of green coffee is imported through the Eastern states). Even so, it was still a tough sell. “I will go anywhere to do what I love.” Mauricio remarks with a wry smile. He has been based in WA for several years now and has no plans to leave any time soon.
I remember when I first met Mauricio; he was fresh from Colombia and literally knocking on doors to sell La Jacoba’s coffee. The quality of the coffee alone was enough to justify a purchase, but combined with the direct trade system, it was a no-brainer. ASPROUNION uses a model that rewards farmers for producing higher quality coffee. Not only are farmers paid extra based on their grading score, they are also encouraged by the prospect of new tools and equipment should their coffee achieve a high cupping score. ASPROUNION employs several experts, including 2010 Colombian Cup Tasting Champion Eduardo Armero (Eduardo is a coffee grower himself and his father is one of the founders of ASPROUNION), to analyse and assess coffee quality across the 273 farms that make up the cooperative. The key is utilising techniques that work and discouraging ones that don’t. In just four short years, life in Union has improved dramatically for coffee growers, largely in thanks to Mauricio. La Jacoba coffee is now regarded by many Perth roasters as a staple in their blends and a high quality, versatile single origin.
So why is this model so revolutionary? Hasn’t direct trade been done before? Well yes and no. Typically with direct trade a roaster/importer will visit a farmer and purchase coffee from them directly (hence direct trade). While this is all well and good, the coffee still needs to be processed at a mill, and mills in Colombia are also the main exporters who don’t take kindly to being undercut on their profits. Most of the time in Colombia ‘direct trade’ means that coffee was bought direct from the mill, not the farmer. This quite often doesn’t benefit the farmer much, if at all. Because Mauricio runs ASPROUNION’s office in Australia, there is a lot more profit to go back to the cooperative. This profit is then invested back into the farmers and the result is a higher quality product. “Our standard product cups at around 85 points on the SCAA scale.” Mauricio tells me proudly. “Some of the micro-lots score 89-90!”
While ASPROUNION is a unique organisation within Colombia, Mauricio hopes that the concept will spread and bring about a coffee revolution. Consumers are becoming more aware about the ethical implications of their morning brew and attitudes are changing. I asked Mauricio, what can we do to help improve the lives of people in Colombia and other coffee producing countries? His response was both well-reasoned and insightful. “Don’t give. Teach.” Coffee producers are generally not well educated and as a result they tend to get a raw deal when it comes to business. “If you educate and treat people fairly then there is no need for gifts.” It’s a simple philosophy, but a potential long-term solution to an age old problem.