Ever look at a system (banks, food production, healthcare, etc) and think “There are so many things wrong with this that I want to change, but I’m only one person. And even if I gathered all my like-minded friends, we’re not enough to make a dent.”?
Then I hope this short interview with coffee maven Anahí Páez will change your mind. Even though coffee is the the second most traded commodity in the world and prices are set by the stock market, Anahí and her partner Manuel, both natives of Costa Rica, saw an opportunity to open an import/export business sourcing specialty coffee in Costa Rica and importing it to Europe.
What’s different about them is that they’ve eliminated most of the middle men along the way and taken the business model beyond fair trade, which until recently was considered the ‘best case scenario’ business model for ’empowering’ producers in developing nations.
The way they run their business allows for fair trade, but beyond that, it allows coffee farmers at the beginning of the food chain to understand the value of their product at market, to work to improve what they’re producing for the market, and to adjust prices accordingly. For a small scale coffee farmer in Costa Rica to have any say over what people pay for his beans is a revolutionary new way of doing business in the coffee world.
Watch the 10 minute video interview or read the transcript below to hear about how Anahí and Manuel built this business from scratch (with two adolescent sons to support), how long it took them, what the real obstacles were (like a saturated market and an economic collapse!), and what has kept them grounded throughout the process.
HEATHER: So we’re here today with Anahi Paez in her house in Costa Rica which is super cool because we’ve known each other for I think, 17 years?
ANAHI: Something like that.
H: We met when we were 14 and I was living here in Costa Rica and we used to sit nearby each other in Physics class and write notes and throw things at boys. So, we go back a long time.
I’m super excited to be interviewing you today because similar to me and actually a number of people who’ve graduated with us, we’ve ended up being entrepreneurs and running our own show. And I LOVE your story, I think your story is absolutely fantastic.
A: Thank you.
H: And I thought you’d be a perfect person to interview for everyone. So tell us a little bit about what it is that you do in your business and also, where you run your business because it’s not here, technically.
A: Yeah. It’s based here, well…it was born in Costa Rica but it’s exported to Barcelona, Spain…but for (all of) Europe. We’re working with farmers and building relationships with farmers here in Costa Rica and trying to get their coffees, or place their coffees out in Europe. It’s basically an import/export business but…a little bit different.
Speciality coffee beans drying at Cerro San Luis
H: How long have you been running this import/export business now?
A: It’s hard to say where there’s a start because we’d been dreaming about it for a long time. It’s me and my partner – my life and business partner – we’re doing this together. We were dreaming about it for a long time and there was a lot of education involved. Since 2004 basically education, and we’ve been….this is a second career for us so we still have other (commercial) activities that we’re not totally disconnected from. Umm, so learning and building it all up and then last year we materialized our first big import to Europe.
H: Wow. So from 2004 to…2012 was your first big import?
A: Yeah. We didn’t move to Spain until 2007 and then the whole (financial) crisis exploded in our faces. The whole bubble European/Spain crisis.
H: Which could have been a massive deterrent but you guys went ahead anyways.
A: Yeah. We really believe in the project and we love it and it’s a passion thing and it’s gonna work…and it’s working.
French and Italian buyers listening to the farmer at Cerro San Luis tell the story of his beans
H: It’s working! For sure! Well I witnessed it firsthand on this trip and it’s been phenomenal. It’s been really really inspiring to see what you guys do and how you’re able to connect directly to the growers.
So I think what you were saying, you know, you started your education in 2004 but didn’t actually make your first big import until 2012. I think this is a really important point to pay attention to because a lot of people who go into business think, “I’m gonna make it happen. By next year I’m gonna be making all this money.” And that’s not the case.
A: No, no it’s not. We are entrepreneurs…it runs through us and this is not the first project that we’ve tackled so you know, we know it takes time. You have to have patience and you have to believe in it.
French and Italian buyers checking out the product during the drying process
H: What would you say was the biggest struggle for you, having already built and business and knowing what you were up against to some degree, what do you think was the hardest part of building the coffee business for you?
A: It’s a completely different business from what we studied/had our formal education in so we had to learn everything from scratch and it’s a very closed circle. Coffee is a commodity. People forget that coffee is a commodity. It’s the second most traded commodity in the world. It’s a very traditional business and we’re trying to break in there with new values and a new vision. We want to do things differently and we don’t know if it’s going to work. We don’t know if this will be accepted. Some people are trying so…it was a different thing. You never know when you’re trying to innovate and try to do things differently. You don’t know if it’s going to work.
H: For sure, and also breaking into a market that’s already saturated.
A: Exactly…very traditional….it’s all set up. “There’s nothing else to do with coffee!” Actually, there is. We think there is.
Freshly rinsed beans ready for drying
H: So what is it that makes you guys different? What is it specifically that you’re trying to do differently?
A: It’s the relationships – it’s empowering the farmer to have control over his own product where it’s never been done that way. So it’s a very traditional product and the consumer doesn’t know anything about it. So that gives less power to the producer. He has no tools to get his wonderful product out there. So we’re working with producers that are also innovating in their techniques and their production, focusing on quality over quantity. So that’s what we’re trying to have people try (quality speciality coffees). It’s more sustainable.
Don Toño Barrantes of Herbazu telling us all about his beans.
H: Can you maybe draw the picture of traditional coffee, or how people would have normally gotten their coffee out to the market where nobody is aware of what the producer is like/who the producer is versus you connecting end roasters etc to the individual farmers. Like actually knowing who they are and what they do on their land.
A: There are still a lot of players in the coffee chain because there has to be somebody who prepares this product to be shipped. So obviously we’re talking about now, or what we’re trying to do: we’re trying to keep it at minimum – four hands. The producer, the exporter, the importer, and the final buyer. Those four hands, where traditionally it could go through 8 – 12 hands.
H: That many?
A: So each person that it goes through, there’s a markup. And you lose track because the coffee price was set by stock markets, completely removed from the country where the coffee comes from, in no way connected to the producer at all – producers have no say in what this product is being sold at. So, this new market, this specialty coffee market isn’t ruled by or doesn’t go by the prices set by the commodity market. And that, in itself, is different.
Don Toño talks volume of production with end buyers and Anahi
H: I saw that on the day that I was out with you guys on the farms. You had end users meeting the growers and saying, “How much do you want to charge for this?” Like really having those pricing conversations and it’s really interesting to see how that then empowers the coffee producer themselves.
A: Exactly. Before they wouldn’t even know what their coffee was sold at. But I’m bringing the person that buys their coffee at destination to the producer and saying, “He sells your coffee for this much. Just so you know.” And it’s incredible. It’s really amazing.
Importer Anahi and end buyer Antoine with grower Don Toño of Herbazu
H: What do you think has been the biggest, oh…what’s the word…the biggest payoff, but from a feelings perspective as opposed to a business perspective? What’s this done for you and your partner Manuel in building this business?
A: I think it’s the progress together with everybody. As a person, you get to see things that….we’re from the Communications/IT background and you don’t really see the impact you can have. You’re not involved with that company to see how it helps them and their service. Now we can actually see how it (the business) helps the person who is selling you this product, their progress, and even the person that’s buying this product from you, how it’s accepted in their market – their reactions to this product that’s being made so far away and by people who are so different from them. It’s just connections, the feeling of being connected to something bigger and (collective) progress. We like that.
Conversations with the growers in the drying and bagging room at Helsar coffee plantation
H: If you were to give advice to someone who is trying to create a business where that’s a big value – connection to community, really like a heart-centered or soul-centered kind of a business but they’re just starting out, what would you say is the most valuable trait that they can have as an entrepreneur? What’s the trait they need to grow within themselves the most in order that they don’t get derailed by the setbacks?
A: I think it’s be confident and really believing in it, and be patient, and persistent. And obviously surrounding yourself by people who are going to add to that and believe in the belief that you have, support what you’re doing and understand it. And communicate! You have to tell people what you’re doing and see their reactions but always being strong in what you believe is going to happen. It has to guide you. Your belief has to guide you.
Antoine Netien – co-founder of Paris’s premier coffeehouse Coutume – taking in the dusk view from a hillside plantation
H: For sure. What that makes me think of is being connected to the Why. Always asking, “Why am I doing this? I’m doing this because _________.”
A: It gets really hard at times and it’s not an immediate payoff so you have to really stick to that Why. If not, it’s not going to take your further. You’re not going to be motivated.
Beans almost ready for bagging
H: So what’s next for you guys?
A: We like to enjoy every day. Every day presents are great. What’s next? We like to feel it. And it’ll feel right and we’ll feel right and obviously at some point you have to connect the numbers to what’s going on and it has to work. So when those things don’t add up we’ll ask, “What’s next?” For now, we’re doing it and we’re enjoying every day.
H: Awesome, that’s so cool. Thank you so much for letting me interview you.