Fairtrade coffee and the art of motorcycle maintenance

The warning signs were all there. I was WhatsApping with José Diaz of Fairtrade coffee cooperative Cooagronevada about visiting some of their members in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada, when he asked me if I’d prefer to go by car or motorbike. Having trundled around the banana farms on the back of Foncho’s motorbike for the previous few days, I was feeling cocky. And noting the large price difference, I didn’t hesitate. “Better to go by bike,” I replied. “Ah yes,” responded José, “it’s faster and more extreme.”

More extreme? It doesn’t take long for me to work out what he meant. Continue reading

Sticking with Foncho 

It’s searingly hot, even when sat in the shade of the trees as, in a large football pitched size clearing in the middle of banana farms all around, a group of teenage boys and young men are being put thorough their paces . “Just look at those socks!” yells the grey haired trainer, sweat pouring off his brow. “Have you ever seen a professional footballer wearing silly little ankle socks? No! Because football is about discipline! What you do, the kids will copy. So make sure you do the right thing!”  

These lads have all signed up for a course to learn how to be football trainers for the younger kids here in the Magdalena community at Rio Frio, close to Colombia’s Caribbean coast. To get here was a punishing 17 hour bus ride from Medellín, arriving at the coastal Lagoon town of Cienaga, where I was met from the bus by the friendliest smiling face ever to come out of Colombia. Foncho!  

As I cling to the back of Foncho’s motorbike along many dusty roads over the next few days, it’s clear to me that quite a lot has changed since Albeiro Alfonso “Foncho” Cantillo, spearheaded our UK Fairtrade Fortnight campaign to Make Bananas Fair back in 2014. The sweating young men doing their footie exercises under the hot sun have signed up to train as trainers, with the aim of improving sport opportunities for the younger children in this rural area. It’s part of a bigger initiative that Coobafrío banana farmers have recently established in the community – a new school of sports and culture. Kelly Castañeda is a member of the local women’s committee playing a leadership role, and as we watch the boys, she shows me an impressively thick sheaf of papers with the constitution of the new school, the names of the farmers on its management committee, the agreement with local professional trainers and teachers, and parental permission forms and medical forms for all the young people enrolled to date. This farmer-led project means business – ensuring it is registered with local authorities so that they can access more facilities and be formally recognised as an educational service.  

There’s been a lot of change for Foncho himself too since visiting the UK. Back then, he had only just started laying the foundations for a new house on a derelict plot in Cienaga. Supported by loans for purchase of building materials from the Coop, he and his family have now moved into the new house. With its shiny tiled patio and three bedrooms it’s a far cry from how he lived back on the farm. “I never imagined I would ever own a house like this,” he tells me.  

His farm too has seen changes with the installation of a wire track to bring the bananas from the field to the little packing station, installed just in the past year, again using a loan from the Coop he has already repaid from banana sales in the past six to nine months. It’s much healthier than carrying bananas on their shoulders, and also reduces potential bruising to the fruit from farmers hauling the huge bunches around that way too. As we stand in front of his packing shed he outlines his next plans to extend the packing area to create a proper space for those working on the farm to rest, eat lunch, and a proper kitchen too. Foncho’s one hectare Finca Mercedes shares packing facilities with his neighbouring lifelong friend and ‘hermano’ Fabio whose farm Ana Maria, adjoins his own. The connections between families and friends are strong here – family members and neighbours working on each other’s farms interchangeably, and especially on harvest days, as they pack the bananas into the familiar black boxes I see when I shop at Sainsbury’s and the Fyffes branded boxes which are destined for the Coop in the UK. 

The revolving loan fund for members of Coobafrío is just one of the financial support funds the cooperative provides. We’re back at the cooperative office when two older women enter. One of them is Señora Cenith Racine, a longstanding farmer member of the cooperative, and the other is one of her neighbours. With very little fuss, one of the cooperative accountants comes in with some papers for the neighbour to sign, to acknowledge receipt of COP100,000 towards urgent medical expenses for her sick husband. As the woman leaves with her money, Cenith remains to chat. She confides that her neighbours are living in very poor conditions and simply could not afford medical attention, which is why she’d sponsored their case to the cooperative’s aptly named Solidarity Fund. I feel slightly choked up having witnessed this modest, simple act of kindness from the cooperative towards a struggling member of the community. The fund is one of the services the cooperative can afford because of premiums from Fairtrade. “It’s not a lot of money, but it can help see you through times of trouble,” says Cenith, “A broken motorbike, medical costs, sudden funeral costs, that’s the kind of thing the solidarity fund can help with. When someone comes for help, members of the Coop check it is a case of genuine need and then contribute towards the costs.” Cenith then grins as she tells me she also a member of the Vigilance Committee, “We keep a watch on everything,” she says with a finger to her eye, “and make sure it’s all in order.” It’s good to see how the members are scrutinising how the Coop itself is living up to its objectives and rules, and how money is spent. This year Coobafrío is also providing grants to support fifteen children of farmers and workers to go on to further education. “It used to be that only 1% of farmers’ children here ever had the chance to go to university. I never had the chance,” says Foncho. “But now I reckon around 60% of our children are able to carry on studying.” That includes both his own children – his daughter has just completed an accountancy qualification, whilst his son is about to start studying Agronomical Engineering. The education theme continues as we pop around the corner from the Coobafrío office to the local pre-school, where another member of the cooperative is busy supervising the delivery of materials to build some new railings to keep the children safe.  

The farmers are proud of what they’re achieving with their Fairtrade premiums, and have plans to expand their currently cramped office and storage space. But they have heard through their connections and social media networks about a recent announcement about Sainsbury’s tea removing the FAIRTRADE Mark in favour of their own scheme, which will not automatically deliver premiums to the farmers, but instead require them to submit project applications to a committee to access these funds. The banana growers, who sell the majority of their Fairtrade bananas to Sainsbury’s, tell me they’re now worried about their future sales too. I say I really don’t know if the same will happen in bananas, but at the same time I can’t help thinking how complex it would be for any committee in London to try to manage a project process for the many and varied purposes these farmers use their premiums for – including the operation of the various micro funds and all of their sub-projects, so rooted in local knowledge sources and ongoing community relationships. There must be at least a dozen different initiatives going on at any one time, on top of the core running of the cooperative itself and managing its business, and this is just one coop of many supplying bananas. Subsidiarity and self determination, along with the ability to flex in response to rapidly changing circumstances all seem key to efficiency and effectiveness here. 

There are seven Fairtrade cooperatives of small scale farmers here in the Zona Bananera of Magdalena, competing for international markets with the larger plantations in the Urabá region of Colombia. Just before my arrival, all seven have been meeting to share cost of production data as part of the current review of Fairtrade’s minimum price – the farmers here are hoping for a 10 cent per box increase on the current US$7.25 to cover increased wage rates locally. But they are also acuteky aware of the need to remain competitive too.

 Following the 2014 campaign, the farmers here were inspired by how Foncho’s involvement with the UK Fairtrade campaign helped raise their profile, and connected them in new ways both locally and internationally. Our campaign call to “Stick with Foncho”, associated one farmer as an icon for all the banana farmers and workers who deserve a fair price for their hard work. The seven coops here liked that idea too. I’m gobsmacked to find farmer after farmer wearing a white shirt with a “Foncho Bananas” logo, not even just in Foncho’s own Coop at Coobafrío, but also when we drop in on neighbouring cooperative in Guacamayal, Coobamag. I’m intrigued. “What do you really, honestly think of Foncho Bananas?” I ask, slyly adding “Wouldn’t you have liked it to be your name instead, instead of this cheeky fella’s?” Foncho grins. But not a single farmer takes up the bait. “Foncho bananas is the symbol for all the small scale family farmers here in Magdalena,” says Roger Martini, a member of Coobamag, and its treasurer. “We’re proud of it, we want our bananas and their origin from this region, and from small-scale family farms, to be better known, and that’s why we’ve now got our own brand.”  I get it. This is a country after all that has created the Café de Colombia identity and Juan Valdez coffee brand. Whether the farmers will ever see their own logo stamped onto the banana boxes, as they would love to one day, is debatable. But it’s definitely bringing them together, united in promoting their region and their way of farming.  I’m reminded of that classic “I am Spartacus” film moment – here in Magdalena, Foncho is no longer one man, but a cause and a mission. Now all the farmers, men and women, are Foncho.

On my last afternoon in the banana farms, just as the mosquitoes are starting to bite, we watch another class of young people from age 4 to late teens in Coofabrío’s school of sport and culture learning to dance a classic Colombian cumbia. They’re learning too about its cocktail of cultural roots, reflecting the small steps of African slaves wearing ankle chains, the ritual ceremonies of indigenous people, and the formality of the Spanish. (Here’s a little clip of them just getting started.)

There’s a subtle pride to the dance. And there’s an equal pride and dignity in what these farmers are achieving against such difficult odds, not just producing high quality fruit for export with all the complex logistics that involves, but being the innovators and the entrepreneurs in their community too. As the sun is setting, and Foncho and I bounce back on his motorbike along the rutted, dusty roads, past the farms and through the town, many people call greetings and wave. They all know Foncho, if not the strange gringa sitting behind him. But it doesn’t matter, because at that moment and there on the back of his bike, I am Foncho Bananas too. 

10 things I love about Medellín

Living in a big city myself, I’ve been consciously avoiding hanging out too long in other cities during my travels, preferring the wide open spaces of mountains, coastline, islands and smaller, more intimate places. But there has been one city I have been increasingly looking forward to visiting. Whenever I have asked other travellers for highlights of their trip to Colombia, there has been a constant refrain: you must go to Medellín.   Continue reading

Colombian coffee, cowboys and the cock of the rock!

Arriving in Salento, which sits in the heart of Colombia’s ‘eje cafetero’ (or coffeelands) in the late afternoon sunshine is a truly colourful joy. The hotels, cafes and bars surrounding the town’s main square are painted bright and happy shades of red, yellow, blue and green. Instead of the yellow city taxis, a line of Jeeps and Willys are ready to ferry us up the hill to La Serrana, a dairy farm and hostel with wonderful views of the green, coffee tree laden hills all around.

The next day we pile into another Willy, the guys are all loitering and vying to be the last in line so they get to stand on the back footplate in manly fashion, as we bump along gravelly roads into the lush verdant Valle del Cocora. After heavy rains, the path up the valley is a fun obstacle course of mud, logs and creaking wooden swing bridges, and the climb all the way up to the Finca Acaime is well worth it for the pleasure of watching hummingbirds flitting in and out of the trees and the bird feeders as we sip our drinks!

Back down the hill and then up another steep hillside takes us to our first views of the famous tall wax palms of the Valle del Cocora. Clouds are now swirling up the valley giving these lofty slender trees an almost ethereal appearance.

Back in Salento, the bustling little town has plenty to offer for hungry walkers – and the peanut butter chocolate brownie at the Brunch café is heaven for any chocoholic – rich, gooey, nutty, and so enormous it takes some willpower to eat it all. But I just about force it down! 

It was in Salento too that I got on a horse for about the third time in my life, under the charming guidance of Señor Delio, who was the embodiment of chivalry. My horse, a grey called Muñeco (puppet), insisted on being in the lead the whole way through the town, along a narrow ridge, down a zigzagging tiny track so steep we had to almost stand in the stirrups so as not to go over the horse’s head! Crossing the first river was also a nail biter for this amateur rider as Muñeco carefully picked his way into the belly-deep current and scrambled to the other bank – the next two shallower rivers were tame by comparison! We trotted and splashed through streams, muddy fields to a pretty waterfall. The heavens opened on the way back, but Señor Delio had us covered with huge thick plastic ponchos.

If you ever come to Colombia, an absolute must is to have a go at playing Tejo! Think ten pin bowling, except instead of pins you have a small circle of tiny gunpowder sachets resting on an old horse shoe set in a big clay frame, and instead of bowling a ball, you throw a big heavy stone and see if you can explode something! Three points for a direct hit, six if your stone ends in the middle of the circle, and nine if you achieve both! Throw in a few rounds of beer, a bottle or five of aguardiente (Colombian firewater, tastes a bit like anis), and you’ve got yourself a pretty hilarious and explosive night!

As Salento is in the heart of the coffee region, there are plenty of farms you can visit. As there weren’t any Fairtrade groups nearby, I eschewed the offer of a visit to El Ocaso, a large and very professional looking coffee plantation with multiple other certifications and tours from guides in neat branded red tour guide jackets, and instead headed to Don Elías’ small organic family farm down the road, where his son Jonh (no, that’s not a spelling mistake!) took us round in his farm clothes and mud spattered boots. Here the several varieties of coffee are interspersed with banana and plantain palms, avocado trees, pineapples, guava, yucca, naranjilla, and lots of flowers, all contributing to the organic and diverse farming methods they practise here. Taking us around his 4 hectare farm, Jonh told that in a good year they can produce up to 8 or 9 tonnes of coffee beans, but last year only yielded between 4 and 5. The family only has two routes to market: direct sales to visitors to the farm and the “Comite de los cafecultores” or farmers’ association where the prices for their parchment coffee (fermented, dried beans before the papery outer shell is removed) have recently been falling. It was a reminder of how valuable the role of a decent, democratic farmer cooperative can be, and access to a fair market with transparent pricing. Back at the house, we grind some recently roasted beans and Don Elias’ wife, Jonh’s mother brews up the strongest, best espresso I’ve had in Colombia. I don’t hesitate to purchase a bag of their delicious beans, now nestling along with the Ecuadorean chocolate in my increasingly straining-at-the-seams backpack.

I’ve been travelling from Popayan to Cali and Salento with Ben and Olivia from Washington DC, who have also quit their jobs working for a US Senator and as ICU nurse respectively to travel (check out their fab slackerbackpackers Instagram feed here). Now the three of us embark together on the road from Salento to Jardín, involving first a local bus along beautiful valleys to Pereira, then a big bus heading for Medellín which sets us down at the town of La Pintada. Here, we are informed that there are no more buses today going where we want and we need to take a ‘colectivo’ or shared taxi – in this case a mototaxi! After a bit of haggling, we squash all our big rucksacks in, and squeeze the three of us in on top, and set off along shady green roads for the hour’s ride to the town of Bolombolo – with this motorised tricycle all piled up with luggage and Ben in his Panama hat we feel like a proper world traveller cliché as we roar along with the wind whipping in our faces. At Bolombolo, we tumble out of the mototaxi to sit under a shelter and a large tree at a crossroads, waiting for our final bus to pass for another hour. Just as the sun is going down and the mosquitoes are starting to bite, one finally comes and we grab the last three seats. All in all, the journey takes us 9 hours! 

I’m almost reluctant to include Jardín in this blog, because it’s one of those true charmingly hidden gems and a slice of Colombian life you don’t want everyone to know about in case it gets become spoiled by tourism! It’s dark when we arrive, but the town square is alive with food stalls, bars, music playing and people sitting around the brightly painted wood-clad houses with beers, coffees, rum and aguardiente. There is a relaxed sense of pride in this place, reflected in the spotlessly clean streets and multicoloured paint, decorations and flowers of the houses that just makes you want to smile. People here both work hard and play hard. At 5.30 am the streets are already busy with people heading off to farms and construction site in their wellies, opening up the cafés for the morning ‘tinto’ (sweet black coffee shot) or climbing into buses to nearby towns, or washing their doorsteps. You can take tiny cage like cable cars to lift you over the river and up the hills surrounding this town nestling in the valley, and there are plenty of offers of horse rides to local waterfalls, although the most famous cascade in a cave is closed off due to recent landslides. Towards late afternoon, as the sun is going down, groups of men in crisp shirts and wide brimmed hats, and women in equally pristine outfits, gather in the painted seats around the colourful edges of the main square, watching the world go by, sharing the day’s news over afternoon tea or fresh juices, as the ‘carritos’ set up stall selling chicken, pork and a wide selection of deep fried empanadas and sweet pastries. It’s at this time that horses start appearing in the streets of the squares, prancing past in a bouncing trot, their riders practising for monthly local competitions.

Here’s a little clip of what happens if you just sit around people watching… 


For birdwatchers, Jardín contains one final big treat. Down by the river, and in the gardens of a local house, around 15-20 “gallitos del roca” come to lek every morning and afternoon These bright red and extraordinarily crested male birds announce their appearance with a grating screech, and proceed to bow, bob and flap at each other in a show of macho pride they hope will win them the attention of the rather more discreetly plumaged female (I briefly spot one lurking across the river discreetly checking out the action). They’re like a little wonder of the world in their own right. I’ve posted a little video clip for you to enjoy here! 

I’ve already stayed a day longer in Jardín than planned, and I’m truly sad to leave it. With Salento, it’s definitely one of my favourite highlights of Colombia to date. But the bright lights of Medellín are beckoning … and I’m eager to see the famous transformation of this city, once dubbed the most dangerous in the world. I’ll tell you all about it in my next blog! 

Arriving in Colombia

I arrive in Colombia late at night, crossing from Tulcan in Ecuador to Ipiales via the border post at Rumichaca which is now open 24 hours a day. There is a long slowly shuffling queue on the Ecuadorean side, but I’m kept entertained for the whole 40 minutes by Continue reading

Carpe the f***ing diem


One week to go til I set off on my big adventure…

So, the idea of taking time out from work is also meant to be a break from my über-planned life to date, in which I’ve never been out of work for a single day since I left university, and slogged away at my great and interesting jobs almost without pause since the summer of 1987.

Throw caution to the winds… throw plans out of the window, and just go with the flow…and see what happens. What turns up.

It lasted about a week.  It turns out I can’t live without a plan. I was almost cracking up with the strain of not knowing what I was about to do next. Lost and anxious. My good friend Shirley in Boston came to the rescue. “Carpe the f***ing diem”, she said.

Continue reading