The view of Honduras from 2,000 meters in the sky is stunning. In lush pine tree forests on the highest mountains, coffee producers can find the ideal conditions for growing their specialty beans.
This natural beauty comes at a price, however. The remote mountains that producers depend on for their livelihoods are also making it harder for the children of coffee-growing communities to access an education.
SEE ALSO: Can Education Keep Youths in Coffee?
These children spend their summers picking coffee but, during the academic year, attend a school founded by Educate2Envision. Credit: Katia Gomez.
Secondary Education in Rural Honduras
Honduras has attracted increasing attention from the specialty coffee community and is now Central America’s largest producer. But this disguises the challenging reality for the children of coffee producers.
Only 35% of youth in rural parts of Honduras are enrolled in secondary education, compared to nearly 70% of youth in urban areas, according to a 2012 UNICEF study. The Inter-American Dialogue also analyzes UNESCO data to conclude that the country has the third-highest illiteracy rate in Central America.
Katia Gomez, who runs direct trade initiative Adelante Coffee, tells me that many young rural people do not attend school because it is both inaccessible and expensive. While tuition at public schools is free, the nearest school may be a four-hour walk away. On top of that, the costs of uniforms and school supplies are simply too much for a coffee-producing family.
Some communities have alternative education programs. But these require an advocate who is willing to spend the time and resources to maintain a program that generates no financial return. While there is no shortage of weeklong volunteer opportunities for eager tourists, there have been few sustainable efforts to improve education in rural Honduras from international donors, Katia says.
And without a secondary education, many young people have no choice but to perform unskilled labor for less than minimum wage, unable to escape the circumstances they have been born into.
Coffee producer Marta Emilia Velasquez uses her income to send her granddaughter to school through Educate2Envision. Credit: Katia Gomez.
A Cycle of Poverty
Katia tells me that coffee producers are often locked into a cycle of debt and loans owed to middlemen, who control access to buyers. She claims that, if their coffee is not valued as specialty, producers may earn as little as US $0.85/lb for their beans – which is even less than the US $1.30/lb market price, an amount that has long been considered inadequate.
Lower-income families are unable to invest in equipment, such as solar dryers, that could increase their earnings in the long run. They might pay a neighbor to use their dryer, or else sell their coffee undried or as cherries, greatly decreasing the price they can expect to receive.
Even for those who own their own fincas, or plots of agricultural land, it is common to supplement the family’s income by picking for larger landowners during the harvest. This leaves no time for producers to dry their own coffee and seek out a good price.
Coffee beans dry on a foggy day, without the help of solar dryers or raised beds. Credit: Katia Gomez.
Education for Producers and Their Children
In 2010, years before Katia founded Adelante Coffee, she started a nonprofit called Educate2Envision. Its aim was to bring affordable secondary education to communities in rural Honduras, and Adelante Coffee now helps to fund it.
Katia soon learned that four of the nonprofit’s schools were in communities that depended entirely upon coffee for their livelihoods. “These families were doing everything in their power to dig themselves out of poverty,” she explains. “The desire for education was palpable. But on a coffee producer’s seasonal salary, education wasn’t an option. No matter how ‘special’ your coffee was, there was never enough to save for school.”
She realized that no amount of well-intentioned nonprofit work could increase the incomes of families. For a school to thrive, the parents needed to be able to afford it.
To build up her coffee expertise, Katia turned to her mentor Mayra Powell, the founder of Catracha Coffee, a Honduras-based profit-sharing coffee company that supplies green beans to specialty coffee shops in the United States.
“[Mayra] makes it her mission to share knowledge with her producers,” Gomez said, adding that her mentor regularly offers training on the latest technologies to increase yield. “Although she is ultimately the buyer, she does not take advantage of that power dynamic.”
Education and information-sharing at all levels can help to reduce poverty, especially in rural coffee-producing communities.
The landscape surrounding the Zurzular coffee-producing community in Honduras. Credit: Katia Gomez.
Coffee Jobs for Future Generations
On a recent trip to Honduras, Katia spent time with Miriam, one of five producers Adelante Coffee is working with directly to source coffee for export. Since joining Adelante, Miriam has been able to send all three of her daughters to secondary school.
By switching to direct trade relationships, many of the producers Katia works with have seen their income double. Next year, she wants to continue founding more schools, but also to create jobs for local students to assist with quality control.
Through education on farming practices and better prices, parents can earn enough to send their children to school; through education and new job opportunities, children will also see a career for themselves in coffee.
Saby Lourdes, pictured with her family, received a full scholarship from Educate2Envision to attend secondary school. Credit: Katia Gomez.
“There is an extreme disconnect between the price of a cup of coffee in San Francisco and the compensation for more than 10 hours of fieldwork hand-selecting beans,” Katia says.
There are many inequities in the coffee industry, and much needs to be changed. But for now, Katia is grateful to see her students in their school uniforms.
“The students are so happy and proud to be studying,” she continues. “They tell me that before we arrived, there was no chance for an education. Their futures have changed for the better.”
Written by Lauren Caldwell, with thanks to Katia Gomez of Adelante Coffee.
Perfect Daily Grind is not affiliated with any of the individuals or bodies mentioned in this article and cannot directly endorse them.
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