Sol de la Mañana

The Sol de la Mañana is a program designed and run by the Rodriguez family that is focused on trying to make the production model for small producers in Bolivia more sustainable.

Background: why the program was established

When we first started sourcing coffee from Bolivia in 2011, annual exports were around 70,000 bags (which, to put it in perspective, is equivalent to the annual output of one large farm in Brazil). Over the last few years this production has more than halved to a devastating 22,000 bags per annum in 2018.

There are several factors contributing to this decline. One is that coffee competes with the local coca industry, and coca is easier to pick, harvests all year round and often yields higher profits for farmers. The coca plantations have a devastating impact on the land and the communities in the long term; untouched rainforest is often illegally destroyed to plant coca, and a lack of shade trees leads to huge problems with erosion. The excessive use of biocides by coca producers in an effort to bolster their crops also renders the soil infertile over time, and the land is then abandoned as nothing else can be grown there.

The absence of a centralised body to support and promote coffee production has also threatened the vitality of coffee trade in Bolivia. Unlike other coffee-producing countries, such as Guatemala or Brazil, coffee producers in Bolivia receive no support from the government or national agricultural bodies. Historically, a lot of support was given to the Bolivian coffee industry by the US (trying to encourage the growth of alternative crops to coca) however President Evo Morales, (who himself is an ex- coca grower) stopped accepting all US aid two years ago.

In Bolivia, there is very little support available for producers. Unlike Central America, there are no institutes, or organisations that support producers or provide information and education.

These factors, coupled with poor infrastructure, changing climate conditions, roya (leaf rust), and traditional, and somewhat unsophisticated farming practices have led to a significant decrease in production over the past decade.

Building hope for the future

The good news is that there is hope for the future of coffee in Bolivia, thanks to the vision, determination and hard work of Pedro, Daniela and Pedro Pablo Rodriguez of Agricafe who have established the Sol de Mañana program which is focused on trying to turn around this trend and build a sustainable future for coffee production in Bolivia.

The program came about in 2014 after 15 local producers approached Pedro Pablo and asked for help. “We realized that we had a certain responsibility in not only managing our own farms, but also helping the producers that had been delivering coffee to us for many years. As a family, we saw the responsibility to work against this trend and save Bolivian coffee culture, because if we did not take it, Bolivian coffee would have slowly disappeared. We see this as a duty we owe to Bolivia.”

After much discussion, the Rodriguez family identified that the only way they could help producers and combat the country’s falling production was by finding a way to help increase the average producer’s yield:

Currently, the average production of a single producer is 2.5 bags of green coffee per hectare. Given the average producer has 1-3 hectares of land, this means they are only producing around 10 bags of coffee to survive.

To have a sustainable production model, coffee farmers in Bolivia need to be producing 20- 30 bags of coffee per hectare. The Rodriguez family decided to set up a curriculum that would tackle this problem head on, focusing on giving producers the skills and training they need to increase the quantity and improve the quality of their output.

Currently most coffee farms are what the Rodriguez family would classify as ‘silvestre’ or ‘wild’. Pedro Pablo remembers “it was common that the only time farmers entered the farm was for the harvest season. They didn’t understand that simply left alone, their plants would produce less or die”.

The aim of the program is to educate the members of the program show them how to take a more systematic and scientific approach to coffee farming in order to help them increase their productivity.

The program is set up like a course, starting from the basics. The curriculum focuses on one aspect of farming at a time, and cover things such as how to build a nursery, how and when to use fertiliser, how to prune, has how to selectively pick. “We require that the producers meet deadlines for each topic. Those who are unable to meet the deadlines are asked to re-join the program the following year. We have been intentionally strict as we want the group to learn the right way and to succeed and see the results” explains Pedro Pablo.

At the Buena Vista mill, the Rodriguez family built a model farm and nursery. “We want to show the producers how to set up good practices right from the start. We show them how to select good seedlings and prepare and look after the soil and care for the trees.” Most producers do not prune their trees as they worry about the impact on yield. “We educate them about the importance of systematic pruning and show them how to do it.”

Agricafe also produce their own coffee, and have used the success and learnings from this to engage and educate local producers.  By using modern techniques learnt by Pedro Pablo while studying agriculture in Honduras, and with the assistance of international consultants, Agricafe brought a level of detail to coffee farming the region historically had never seen. These new techniques raised a lot of eyebrows at first, “Some producers believed we were growing coca or had magic coffee beans as they had never seen coffee grow like this”.

Building trust has been crucial to the Sol de Mañanas success. At first it was tough.“In the beginning there was a lot of confusion, they didn’t believe us or trust us. Some members had been working in coffee farms for 30 – 40 years and we had only been producing coffee ourselves for a couple of years.”  After taking the first steps to start their own nurseries and having tangible results, “they were surprised and became very thankful and open to suggestions. They started to believe it was possible.”

Pedro Pablo visits all of the members of the Sol de Mañana program every month and provides them with personalised technical assistance and agricultural advice. Even the simplest advice can go a long way. “We discovered some producers were not completely stripping their trees of coffee cherries at the end of harvest” Daniela explained. “This is very important and if you do not do it you will dramatically reduce the following years productivity.”

As the producers have become more productive, Agricafe has stressed to them that they should continue to focus on quality rather than quantity. “We have seen farms go out of business by expanding too quickly, doubling or tripling the size of their land, using all of their resources and not being able to control the farm. We are teaching the producers to look after what they have and make the most of it. Then, once they feel comfortable they can buy more land if they want”. An example of this comes from a producer that we work with Carmela who has been working in the region for 40 years. She now has 2 hectares of land and does not want anymore. Carmela realised that she can live off of the 2 hectares if she concentrates on quality procedures and maximises her yield. She is teaching her sons the techniques she has learnt so that they can buy a farm themselves and start right.

An issue that was identified via the program was that good quality fertilisers for nutrition were not readily accessible in the region. “We were teaching producers how and when to use fertilisers for nutrition but they would come back telling us that they didn’t work”. As it turned out the only locally available fertiliser was a non-certified poor quality one. “We took the decision to buy and bring it into the region ourselves and sell it to the producers and local farmers at a 50% discounted price. The fertiliser was expensive and many couldn’t afford it without the discount.” This important step required  Agricafe to spend 4 months acquiring a licence to sell nutritional fertiliser, but Pedro Pablo says the results were worth it.

Agricafe also hosts workshops with leading agronomists throughout the year. These forums allowed the producers to meet one another, share their experiences and discuss ways to tackle problems they are experiencing. Over time the producers have become more experienced and confident and actively sharing their learning with each other.

The results of the program

2017 was the first official year of production for producers of the Sol de Mañana program and Agricafe could not be happier with the results. The quality is up, and producer yield has also doubled to around 20 bags a hectare.  The program originally had 10 members (including the Mamani Family, who we have worked with for a very long time), and now the program has been extended to support a further 100 producers.

Already the impact has been profound, and way beyond the Rodriguez family’s expectations. Production was up 200% in 2020, and the ripple effect of the families work is starting to be evident, as neighbouring farms start to emulate the Sol de la Manana producers farming techniques.  The key to its success, according to Daniela is that the producers feel empowered.

“We are giving them the tools and know-how, but they are actively choosing to follow our advice and invest in their farms. Now they can see the results, they trust us 100% and helping their neighbours achieve similar results.”

This is exactly what the Rodriguez family want and need the program to do. To scale up the program, they intend to train leading famers within each of the colonies, with the idea that they will in turn share the knowledge they gain with the surrounding coffee community. And this, Pedro Pablo explains, is where the program becomes really powerful: “At first we did all the talking, but now the producers are much more proactive and engaged. They come to us with specific questions and share their results and what they have learnt with each other. This is the real success of the program, as it has given the control back to the producers.” 

The Sol de Mañana program has required a huge investment of capital, time and resources from the Rodriguez family. But they genuinely believe in Bolivian coffee and care deeply about helping the producers they work with realise their potential and improve their lives.

And we are right there with them. The coffee in Bolivia is way too special, spectacular and close to our hearts to let it disappear. We want to be able to buy from the same producers every year, for many years to come. In the short term, this means paying higher prices to make it viable for our favourite producers to stay in coffee, as the building blocks are put in place to help them increase their yields and annual production. By demonstrating this commitment, we hope they will continue to investing coffee production and maintain their focus on quality, and that, with time, a more sustainable and vibrant future is built for coffee in Bolivia.